Trying to Focus: Kids and Attention

Children have short attention spans.

I know this seems super obvious, but it’s something my husband and I are currently working on with our almost 5-year-old. If he’s interested in a topic, he’ll be engaged for hours, like when he’s learning about animals or conducting science experiments. But give that kid a simple instruction and he’ll forget it or become distracted in seconds flat. Yeah, it sounds like every kid at this age, but it made me want to revisit what I currently know (and research more) about attention and how to best help my son improve it.

Attention is a complex process of focusing on specific information while blocking out unrelated details in the environment, like being able to hold a conversation with a friend at a busy diner. You must be able to ignore all the extraneous visual and auditory distractions around you to take in what is being said and in turn, appropriately respond. When we get distracted, we miss key information, misunderstand our friend, and completely say something that makes no sense to the topic. For kids, this can happen more times than not.

Growth and Development

Babies first begin to focus their limited attention on toys and activities they find attractive. This voluntary interest lasts a few seconds or minutes but increases over the years as they learn to control their attention and body movement. Around the age of 5, kids learn when and how to pay attention as well as analyze information. This age is also when they begin to determine if something is boring or interesting, tuning out information that bears no meaning or purpose to them (even if it’s necessary to know).

Here’s a quick reference of a child’s attention from ages 3 to 5:

Developing attention takes a lot of time as it requires the maturation of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for intended concentration to tasks (on top of its other functions previously cited in our other posts). Since this part of the brain is under construction, the other region in charge of attending to sudden and exciting stimuli (the parietal cortex) takes precedence. This explains why kids gravitate to new, shiny, and noisy objects and have limited attention spans.

Variables and Probability

Attention is the first line in self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility (collectively known as executive functions) and requires a significant amount of energy. So, if your child can’t pay attention to what they’re reading or if they have difficulties listening in class, you can’t expect them to retain, process, and store information correctly. In turn, you also can’t expect them to take in data if it comes barreling at them all at once or if they’re unsure what information is important.

There could be underlying reasons for this:

  • Arousal level (too tired or too wired)
  • Interoception signals (like hunger, pain, or feeling sick)
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Postural control issues (difficulties remaining seated)
  • Sensory difficulties (easily distracted from the stimuli in the environment)
  • Trouble understanding the task, causing them to lose interest

Presented information may not be top priority to your child because they’re trying to not fall out of their chair, agitated by a classmate’s pen clicking, didn’t get enough sleep, or are way too excited for their upcoming spring break plans. This means that your child’s mental fuel is being used elsewhere, leaving little for learning or completing requested tasks.

Improving Attention

One study found that children’s attention skills at 4 years of age is strongly correlated to whether they will graduate from college by the age of 25. Additionally, other research indicates that reading and math outcomes correlate with attention scores. So, how can we help our kids get their attention in order? Try these out:

  • Good Night, Sleep Tight. Research has shown that getting enough sleep is important in maintaining optimal levels of attention. In addition, sleep and attention have a bidirectional relationship: sleep helps regulate attention, but attentional demands play a role in sleep.
  • Practice Mindfulness. Mindful practices, like meditation or breathing techniques, are a form of selective attention as it tunes out distractions to focus on the here and now. They also help improve other forms of attention as mindfulness can address arousal level and self-regulation.
  • Avoid Multitasking. Although we may be decent at multitasking, our kids are not there yet.
  • Repeat it to Memory. When you give your child instructions, have them repeat it back to ensure that they understood what you said. It doesn’t have to be perfect as long as they get the gist. Make sure your instructions are simple, clear, and concise. Showing them also will help.
  • Eyes on Me. The easiest way to know if you have your child’s attention is with eye contact. If your child has difficulty with maintaining eye contact with you (as it can be intimidating), have them look at your nose or forehead. If you have trouble getting your kid’s attention, you can gently place their hands to frame your face as you talk to them, like blinders.
  • Set the Environment for Success. Too much clutter can lead to too many distractions. That may mean reducing the amount of visual and auditory stimuli when your child needs to focus. Turning off the tablet, pausing a show, or lowering the music volume when you are talking to your child are big, common things to try. This may also mean limiting the number of accessible toys to lower distraction.
  • Release that Energy. If your kid’s arousal level and attention is starting to wane, movement is a good regulator. If the environment doesn’t let them do that, fidgets may help.
  • From Point A to B. Improve your child’s attention using activities that have a defined start and end point. Think puzzles, dot-to-dots, or mazes.
  • Hyperfocus. Have your child complete tasks that require focused attention to one task, like popping bubbles, coloring pictures inside the lines, or sorting colors/shapes.
  • Visual Cues. Timers and visual schedules enable a child to see/understand what is happening next and when a task is expected to end. This predictability allows them to organize and prepare for the upcoming activities. In turn, this helps them attend more effectively.

Parents: Also remember to keep this age-appropriate. Doing these exercises with a 2 or 3-year-old will NOT give them any more advantage or get them ahead of their peers because their brain is literally not ready yet. If you have younger children, practice your patience until they are cognitively ready to handle expanded periods of attention.


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One year ago: Do You Trust Me? Building Trust with Your Kid
Two years ago: Bare Feet Were Made For Walking


Sources:
How Psychologists Define Attention (verywellmind.com)
Attention and Concentration – Kid Sense Child Development
The Development of Attention in Children – You are Mom
How the Brain Works: The Facts Visually Explained. (2020). New York, NY: DK Publishing.
Neville, H.F. (2007). Is This a Phase?: Child Development & Parent Strategies, Birth to 6 Years. Seattle, WA: Parenting Press.

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