My 5-year-old son, Walker, pays attention only when he wants to. I'm showing him how to make the letter "A" for what seems like the millionth time. I say, "Start at the top, go down, and make a line across." As I'm talking, he's looking at everything except at what he's doing. He fidgets and plays with his pencil. I keep pulling his attention back to what we're doing and my constant refrain is "Pay attention!" but I'm losing my patience. He listens when I read his favorite books, and he listens to his swim teacher when she tells him to extend his arms to improve a stroke, but this is an exercise in frustration.
Child development experts say that, on average, a 4- or 5-year-old child should be able to stay focused on a task for two to five minutes times the year of their age. So, young kids should be able to focus between 4 and 20 minutes, possibly more, depending on the task. But this rule of thumb, just like any guideline for raising children, depends on the situation. "Attention span has to be contextualized," says Neal Rojas, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of California, San Francisco. "Are we talking about the first thing in the morning, the middle of day, before naptime, before bedtime? I tell [parents] that they will see a variation throughout the day. Attention span is elastic."
Give Attention to Get Attention
How much attention a child gives a task also depends on whether he is enjoying himself. Many children struggle when asked to do something they don't want to do. "The first time you introduce an activity that is more important to you than to your child, you are testing your creativity and flexibility as a parent and teacher," Dr. Rojas explains. This is where the struggle lies for many parents, because kids entering school have to do more structured, repetitive, and academic tasks, such as writing their names or sounding out letters. Walker and I certainly bump heads on this a lot. Some afternoons, I may want him to work on learning sight words but he'll want to crash his Matchbox cars together on the family room floor. Still, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. "Playing with cars is intrinsically motivating for kids," says Margret Nickels, Ph.D., a clinical psychologists and the director of the Center for Children & Families at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. "There are 5-year-olds who can play with Legos for 30 minutes but who can't sit still to write their names."
So a little creativity can go a long way in turning something dull into something fun. Instead of insisting that my son write the letter "A" with a pencil in his workbook, I can ask him to write it with chalk, shape it with Play-Doh, or even trace it with paint on a big easel, says Mary Doty, a kindergarten teacher at Waimea Country School on the Big Island of Hawaii. "Workbooks can be overwhelming for children, so make [your] own ABC book," Doty suggests. "Cut pictures out of newspapers or magazines [of things] that start with 'A' or look through magazines to see how many 'As' can be found. Use blocks to make the letter 'A.' All of this helps with fine motor skills -- and it's more interesting.' Even playing I Spy and Red Light Green Light, board games, and memory games can strengthen attention muscles. And parents should take time to notice small and interesting details in their surroundings, which shows a child how to pay attention. During a walk, parents can stop and point out the colors of flowers they see or talk about the shape and feel of the rocks they pick up.
To get a child's attention, parents must also give attention. "It's easy for a parent to get stuck in a rut. Our attention is often scattered," Dr. Rojas says. "But if our attention is scattered, and we can't bring ourselves back to the moment, we can't expect a child to be able to do so." Being in close physical proximity while giving clear and concise instructions helps children focus better on what is being said. "The best way to get them to pay attention is to be physically close to the child. Don't shout requests from the kitchen to the living room," Dr. Nickels says. "Go into the living room, stand in front of your child, make eye contact, be at eye level or touch their shoulder, and say 'I need you to do this now.' " Dr. Rojas says, "If I stop and look at my child and say, 'Hey, Alex, look at me. What do you need to be doing right now?' He'll say, 'Reading'. Then, I'll say, 'Show me you know what you need to do.' "