Improving attention for kids: Shaping attention in virtual school

The following program utilizes a response cost strategy conducted between the parent and the child in an unobtrusive manner.  This program has been used effectively by regular classroom teachers with students who have high rates of off-task behavior. This program can be used by parents at home for homeschooling or homework after school.  The program can also be used for improving behaviors that require attentiveness and compliance, such as following rules and directions, respectful behaviors with siblings, or used for progressively correcting any bad habit.

Setting Clear Expectations

Instruct the child on clear and specific desired behaviors, such as:

  • Body squared in the seat, facing the teacher with eyes on the teacher if receiving instruction
  • Listening without talking
  • Raising hand without blurting out
  • Eyes on classwork
  • Specific task/chore behaviors (i.e., pick up dirty clothes and put them in the laundry bin)
  • Social behaviors- (sharing, respectful words, calm voice, keeping hands to self, etc.)
  • Anger management (expressing feelings appropriately, practicing calming strategies)
  • Self-Care (resisting skin picking, face touching, hair pulling, tics)

Tracking and Correction Technique

Use an index card that has a number of strips or tabs cut on the bottom half of the card. When the parent notices off-task behavior he/she simply reaches for the index card, rips a strip off, and throws it away. The parent makes no other verbal or nonverbal correction or reprimand. In schoolwork situations, the child is seated in proximity to the index card so that the parent’s action is easily noticed. The child becomes sensitized to the action of the parent and therefore receives immediate redirection for off-task behavior.

Setting Up for Success and Sustained Motivation

The goal is for the child to have at least one strip left on the index card by the end of the dayso start with a number that is attainable. One strip earns a reward from parents at the end of the day or activity. Parents can test out the system the first day to see how many strips remain with no consequences.  It’s important to start out with the right number per section of time to increase chances of success and create “buy-in” and motivation of the child for the program.

Benefits of the Response Cost Program

  1. Immediate consequences and redirection (loss of a strip) for off-task and non-compliant behavior, but also:
  2. The sustained motivation for the child to get back on track because success is achieved by keeping at least one strip, and:
  3. Eliminates ineffective lecturing or threatening: forced compliance attempts will likely escalate problems, but even if the behavior is temporarily corrected while the adult is present, it will likely result in defiant behavior when an adult is not present.

Calculating Progressive Improvement in Small Increments

Improvement in on-task behavior is achieved by calculating the number of strips lost on average for the week, then adjusting the total to start the day downward toward that average at the beginning of the next week. Look at the following example:

  • The child loses an average of seven strips per day for a week
  • Parent lowers the starting number to seven or eight
  • The goal for success is more challenging but attainable based on previous performance

As the child improves, it is best to decrease the starting number of strips in small increments (from 10 to 7 or 8) instead of large amounts (from 10 to 5).

Immediate Rewards and Consequences

It is imperative that parents find concrete and meaningful ways of reinforcing the child when at least one strip is left at the end of the day. Reinforcement (rewards) should be varied at times to maintain the child’s interest in the program. Likewise, the loss of privileges (TV, video games, outside play, friends visiting) must occur immediately after if there is not at least one strip remaining. It’s ok to give bonuses for excellence.  Any recognition of effort reinforces the effort! Failure to provide an aversive consequence or a delay in the consequence reduces the effectiveness of the program and may jeopardize its success. Effective consequences, whether positive or negative, must be immediate.

GETTING STARTED– Setting Up the Program with Positive Antecedent Conditions:

  • Set a positive tone about the program
  • Show confidence in the child’s ability to be successful
  • Ask the child to help brainstorm reward ideas and come up with a workable plan
  • Clearly define the purpose of the strips- reminder to get back on track- most important issue is an effort to improve and having one left
  • Let the child know you’re going to work on resisting any lecturing or raising your voice
  • Practice it with your child and reward the practice before the program starts


Flexibility- The program allows for flexibility suited to your situation, requiring parent commitment to the best conditions for success.  It may require breaking down strips based on periods of the day. Whatever unwanted behavior comes up, think of the “positive opposite” behavior, and incorporate reinforcing that behavior. For example, if the child argues or doesn’t accept the loss of privileges, clearly define accepting behaviors, and find a way to reinforce acceptance of responsibility.

Teaching Through Failure- Short term failure may be part of the learning, and you may have to ride out temper tantrums for not earning rewards.  There are three crucial things you can teach children when they fail without having to lecture, threaten, or coerce:

  1. You are not going to react harshly or provide negative attention for failing
  2. Failure will cost them privileges they want, and
  3. There’s another opportunity to earn what they want next time based on their effort and choices, which are under their control

Parents as Role Models- This program focuses on the behavior change of the child, but it is important for parents to be open to their own changes and recognize mistakes if they use raised voices or lectures.  A parent saying, “I’m sorry for raising my voice- I’m not supposed to do that,” can be a powerful message to kids that it’s ok to admit mistakes and try to repair them.

Paul Bakke, MS

Licensed Counselor-Supervisor

David Barnhart