How to Improve Your Child's Attention Span
Child development experts say that, on average, a 4- or 5-year-old child should be able to focus on a task for two to five minutes times the year of their age. 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."
If you're trying to strengthen your child's focus and concentration, check out these tips for improving their attention span.
Give Attention to Get Attention
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."
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The best way to get your child to pay attention is to be physically near them when you're giving directions. Don't shout requests from the kitchen to the living room, says Margret Nickels, Ph.D., a clinical psychologists and the director of the Center for Children & Families at the Erikson Institute in Chicago.
Giving your child clear, concise instructions also helps. Stand in front of them, make eye contact, be at eye level or touch their shoulder, and say, "I need you to do this now." If the request is ignored, you might ask your child, "What do you need to be doing right now?" When your child responds correctly, say, "Show me that you know what you need to do."
Break Down The Task
If your child thinks a task is too hard, they may zone out and stop paying attention. To help them tackle the project at hand, deliver the instructions in small steps, which works better than giving long-winded explanations, guilt-tripping, or yelling. For example, instead of telling your child to clean their room, it might be better to say, "First, pick up all your blocks, and then I'll come back and tell you what you need to do next." Sometimes even illustrating a routine on paper and posting it on the wall can serve as a good visual reminder, says Dr. Rojas.
Spice Up Mundane Tasks
Because many children struggle to focus on tasks they don't want to do—such as the structured, repetitive ones kids encounter when they enter school—you can help make a dull activity more fun by using a little creativity. For example, try asking your child to form the letter S using rocks, toy cars, or wooden blocks rather than writing with a pencil on paper. Kids can also practice drawing letters with chalk, shaping letters out of Play-Doh, or even tracing a letter's form with paint on a big easel to make the experience more engaging.
Exercise can help kids pay attention, and elementary-school children who take breaks from classwork to be active during the day can concentrate better on their assignments. Encourage your kid to use outdoor toys like balls and jump ropes. Play outdoor sports that they like, and set aside time each day for family activities, such as going on a walk, playing in the park, or taking a bike ride.
Your child's attention span can be trained to become stronger. Suggest activities that require concentration, such as completing a puzzle or even assisting with preparing dinner. You can also help by taking time to point out some of the small and interesting details in your surroundings, which models awareness for your child. For example, during a walk, you can stop to notice a bird's nest hidden in a tree or an animal track in the dirt, or talk about the shape and feel of the rocks you see at the playground. As your child's concentration increases with practice, their ability to be focused will increase as well.
Eliminate Hunger and Fatigue
Parents should also be aware if something is getting in the way of a child paying attention. Are they hungry or tired? To combat hunger or fatigue, give them a snack before they start homework or any structured task. Make sure the snack is a healthy one, rather than one loaded with sugar and fat. Smart choices include whole-grain pretzels, raw veggies dipped in fat-free dressing or hummus, yogurt, and peanut butter spread on a banana or apple. A good night's sleep is important as well, so make sure your child is getting enough rest. And many kids need a little break when they come home from school. "Everyone needs downtime. It helps us to come back and focus. If kids don't have downtime and they're over-scheduled, they may plead for downtime through their behavior," Dr. Rojas says.
Praise Your Child's Efforts
"A lot of times in our culture, we praise the outcome. We say 'Great job, look what you can do.' We don't focus on how wonderful it is that the child put effort into something," Dr. Nickels says. Instead of saying, "You didn't write your name quite right," you should say something like, 'You try so hard to hold your pen and stay within the line. That's wonderful."
Know When to Get Help
Sometimes, a child may have attention problems that are difficult to solve with simple strategies, and parents may need help from a teacher, pediatrician, or even a psychologist. Some red flags include a 4- or 5-year-old having consistent trouble engaging with anything for more than two or three minutes, needing constant guidance to do an activity that should be manageable, jumping from one activity to another, and being unable to control impulses.
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It's important, though, that parents be careful about assuming their child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a syndrome usually diagnosed in early childhood that's characterized by impulsivity, overactivity, inattentiveness, or a combination of all three. ADHD may not always be the root cause; there may be other influencing factors. "As adults, when we're worried about something, it's hard for us to pay attention. A lot of children we see who come in for evaluation have underlying anxieties about not being perfect or not being able to do something," Dr. Nickels says. If a child is diagnosed with ADHD, parents should work with a mental health professional to develop a plan that will help increase a child's attention span.
Sources: Mary Doty, a kindergarten teacher at Waimea Country School, on the Big Island of Hawaii; Neal Rojas, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, in San Francisco