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Attention skills

Our attention is attracted – and held – by things that interest us, whether that is a particular food we want to eat, books we want to read, or toys we want to play with. The length of a child’s attention span depends on how interesting they find an activity. Children who have reduced attention and listening skills for their age are more likely to have difficulty coping in academic and social situations, such as at preschool or school. Their parents may find that they are constantly repeating themselves at home.

Poor concentration can be caused by, or can contribute to, language difficulties. Kids who have reduced language skills often have difficulty concentrating, especially during language based tasks, because they are not always able to follow what is being said. Conversely, children who are unable to focus for longer periods of time have reduced opportunities for learning, which can impact on the development of their language skills.

As adults, there are things we make ourselves pay attention to. We stick with tasks because we know we need to or because other people ask us to, such as reading the same story over and over to our child or finishing a boring report for work. Only gradually do children learn this self-discipline.

What does this mean about children’s attention spans? It means parents need to be realistic about attention span and plan activities accordingly. It also means that we need to help children develop their attention spans: by playing with them, by attracting their attention to things we see or hear, by introducing them to new projects and sports, by helping them with challenging activities – and most of all, by turning off televisions, computers and electronic games.

How long should my child be able to concentrate for?

Attention span in children is variable depending on age. A child’s normal attention span is 3-5 minutes for every year of age. In other words, a 2 year old should be able to concentrate for at least 6 minutes and a 5 year old should be able to focus for at least 15 minutes.

Typical Attention Span by Age
Age Activity How can we help?
2-7 months A baby may watch someone, copy expressions, and trade sounds for as long as 2-3 minutes at 2 months. By 7 months, this typically continues for at least 5 minutes. Take turns leading and following. Be warm, interested, and interesting to look at. Let babies rest when they turn away.
18 months Alone, a toddler may spend 30 seconds on a single activity or a minute or two on several activities before seeking the caregiver’s attention. Keep adult expectations realistic.
2 years Alone, a 2 year old may spend 30-60 seconds on a single activity; with an adult’s active encouragement, 2-3 minutes. By playing with toddlers or talking about their activities, adults can increase children’s attention spans. Point out characteristics of whatever they are playing with: “Do you see the black dot on it?” “Will it fit in the cup?” “Can you push it over here?”
2½ years Alone, the toddler may spend about 2 minutes on a single activity. The usual preference: for almost constant attention from an adult.
3 years A preschooler working alone may spend 3-8 minutes on an interesting activity and may finish it if it’s easy. Look for ways to keep preschoolers interested in the activities they start. Encourage and follow their interests. Avoid distracting them or taking over the activities.
3½ years Working alone, a preschooler can stay busy for 15 minutes if there are a variety of interesting choices.
4 years By 4, a child engrossed in an activity may ignore distractions such as the call to dinner. Alone, they may spend 7-8 minutes on a single activity, or as much as 15 minutes if the activity is new and especially interesting. With a small group, a 4 year old may spend 5-10 minutes playing without interruption. 4 years old understand it is harder to pay attention to uninteresting tasks, or when distracted by noise or their own thoughts. They are more likely to stay interested when they’re comfortable with the task or project and feel successful. They may need help to meet their standards. Adults can also keep children interested in projects with impromptu games and humour.
4½ years Working alone, preschoolers may spend 2-3 minutes on a task chosen by an adult such as getting dressed or picking up toys.
5 years By 5, most children can ignore minor distractions. Alone, they will focus on a single interesting activity for 10 or 15 minutes and on an assigned task for 4-6 minutes if it’s easy and interesting. A small group of children can work or play together without interruption for 10-25 minutes. Recognize that personal interest remains the most important motivation for 5-year-olds. It will double the length of their attention span.
6 years Working alone on a single activity, a 6 year old may stay interested for as much as 30 minutes. Continue to build on children’s interests and stay alert to difficult tasks, so that you can help.

Adapted from resources by Helen F. Neville


Consult your paediatrician if: 

  • You feel your child’s attention skills are noticeably reduced    compared with those described above OR
  • Your child is particularly active, flitting from one activity to another very quickly. This may be especially noticeable in new environments if your child tends to look at, move to, touch everything around them but not really stop and interact with any one thing for very long.

Strategies to help improve your child’s attention

  • Reduce distractions in your child’s environment, e.g. by turning off the TV.
  • Encourage your child to focus on one activity at a time. Let them choose their activity but then limit the opportunity to switch to something else quickly by not having lots of other things out at the same time. Make sure your child packs away the game they have finished with before moving on to the next activity.
  • Provide the opportunity for your child to experiment with lots of fun, hands-on, creative activities such as drawing with pencils/crayons/in shaving foam, painting, papier mache, and other craft activities.
  • Get your child’s attention in interesting ways, e.g. call their name with a more sing-song intonation.
  • When giving your child an instruction, it helps to get down to their level, make sure they’re giving you eye contact, then give the instruction slowly and purposefully. If there are several parts to the instruction, pause before saying the next part. You may sometimes ask your child to say back to you what they have to do to ensure that they have understood. Alternatively, you could ask them questions such as “So what do you need to do first? And then?”
  • Give your child praise for appropriate behaviour – children will stay on task longer if feel comfortable and successful in what they are doing.
  • Ensure your child eats a balanced diet, especially at breakfast.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise – research suggests that physical activity may increase a child’s cognitive control – or ability to pay attention – and also results in better performance on academic achievement tests.
  • Limit the amount of TV and video games your child accesses (this includes using iPads etc). It is suggested that frequent changes of camera and focus may actually program a short attention span. TV advertisers capture a viewer’s attention by capitalising on the brain’s instinctive responses to danger through the use of sudden noises, close-ups, pans, zooms and bright colours, and this may be reducing your child’s natural ability to remain actively focused on events in the real world. TV and video games also take children away from activities that are more active, multi-sensory, and intellectually, socially and emotionally nourishing.
  • For adult-led activities or those that are less motivating for your child, using visuals such as a sand timer to show how long they need to concentrate for can be helpful.
  • Model self-help strategies during everyday play situations by using phrases such as “Now where do I begin?” or “Try it again” as a prompt for self control and perseverance.
  • Although it’s usually best to limit background noise and distractions, some children can actually focus better or for longer with some quiet music on in the background. Experiment with different genres of music e.g. classical, fast paced rock music, The Wiggles etc.
  • Audiobooks can be a fun way to motivate your child to listen for longer periods of time.

Erin

Erin Wilkins is the founder of SmallTalk Speech & Language Therapy. Erin is a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist and a member of Speech Pathology Australia. Since gaining her Master of Speech and Language Pathology Erin has gained extensive experience working with children in a variety of settings within Sydney, rural NSW, and in the UK. She is passionate about empowering parents with the skills to support their child in becoming successful communicators.

 

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