Do you always find yourself needing to shout at your child in order for them to pay attention? Or do you always repeat the same instruction because they are not paying attention to you? Before we discuss how to improve the attention span in children, let’s have a better understanding of what attention is and how it works.
Attention is the ability to regulate one’s attentional resources, it is a critical skill to access learning in a group environment, which is also an important piece in self-regulation (DiCarlo et al., 2016). This can be influenced by motivation, self-esteem, sensory integration, practice, language difficulties, and any existing diagnosis. Attention has two primary aspects: it can be focused and it is selective (Boersma & Das, 2008). It allows us to screen out the irrelevant stimulation and focus on the important information in a particular moment.
According to Understood.org, there are four steps to paying attention, namely being alert, selecting what to pay attention to, avoiding distractions and shifting focus. Children have to be aware, alert and ready in order to take in information. It will be hard for them to do so if they are sleep deprived, hungry or anxious. Children who are not able to be alert can be seen having their heads down on their desk from time to time.
With the vast amount of information circulating around children especially in today's media-centric world, children are unable to focus on all available information at the same time, therefore there is a need to choose what to pay attention to. For example, children need to learn to concentrate selectively to their teacher or parent over other matters.
Paying attention also involves ignoring other distractions or stimulations around us. For example, when children are playing basketball, they are ignoring the dog that is barking nearby. That is when our brain keeps the distractions out in order to focus.
There are other instances where distractions are impossible or difficult to bypass, for example, a sudden loud noise in the hallway which catches everyone’s attention. Children need to be trained to be able to shift their focus back to the task they are doing and keep it there.
An expert in child development believed that a child by the age of 4 or 5 should be able to sustain their attention on a particular task for 4 to 20 minutes or longer depending on the task. Neal Rojas, M.D., a developmental behavioural paediatrician at the University of California stated that attention span has to be contextualised as it could be elastic subject to time — morning, midday, before naptime, before bedtime.
What then can parents do to enhance children's attention span?
Give attention to get attention. Children tend to focus longer on a task when they are engaged and enjoying themselves. A lot of children struggle when they are asked to do something they do not want to do. Thus, it is important on how you introduce an activity for the first time to your children. Mary Doty, a kindergarten teacher at Waimea Country School from Hawaii, suggested that instead of insisting a child to write the letter "A" with a pencil in his workbook, you can ask him to write it with a chalk, shape it with Play-Doh, or even trace it with paint on a big easel.
She also suggested that parents should spend some time noticing little and interesting details in their surroundings, and show children how to pay attention. For example, parents can stop and point out the different colours of flowers they see or talk about their shapes and feel of the rocks they pick up during a walk.
Dr. Rojas suggested being in close physical proximity while giving clear and concise instructions allows children to focus better on what is being said. For example, try to stand in front of the child and make eye contact with him, try to be at the same eye level, or touch his shoulder, instead of shouting your request from somewhere. This is one of the many ways of giving attention to your children to help them focus on a particular task better.
Decrease distractions. Some children might have difficulties ignoring distraction or shifting their attention from it. Thus, parents should be aware if something is getting in the way of their attention. For example, if your children is hungry or fatigue, parents are advised to provide healthy snacks such as walnuts, bananas and peanut butter (Brain Balance, 2014) for children before they start any structured task. Studies have shown that eating foods high in protein, controlling sugar intake and avoiding artificial additives can go a long way towards managing the inability to focus naturally (Brain Balance, 2014).
In addition, good quality sleep is crucial as well. Studies have found that attention is negatively affected by poor sleep (McCarthy & Waters, 1997; Hansen & Vendenberg, 2001). Therefore, make sure children are getting quality sleep and rest. If they are overscheduled and do not have enough downtime, it will be difficult for them to concentrate.
Children should also be allowed to tune out and stop paying attention when the task at hand is beyond their capacity. In response to this, Margret Nickels, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the director of the Center for Children & Families at the Erikson Institute in Chicago suggested that breaking instructions into small steps and giving short reminders is more positive and works better than long-winded explanations. For example, instead of asking your child to clean the room, it might be better to say, “First, please pick up all of your stuffed toys, then I’ll let you know what you need to do next.”.
Elementary school children who took breaks from their classwork to participate in activities like sports during the day could benefit by being able to concentrate better on schoolwork. A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine reinforces the point by asserting that children who possess an active lifestyle shows greater attention span, faster cognitive processing speed and better performance in standardized academic tests as compared to children who are less active (Adams, 2013).
Therefore, parents should encourage their children to be physically active. Not only can physical activities boost their ability to concentrate better, they are important and effective in tackling obesity and helps in promoting a healthy lifestyle.
Adams, J. U. (2013). Physical activity may help kids do better in school, studies say. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/physical-activity-may-help-kids-do-better-in-school-studies-say/2013/10/21/e7f86306-2b87-11e3-97a3-ff2758228523_story.html?utm_term=.d833a172d4e3
Boersma, H., & Das, J. (2008). Attention, attention rating and cognitive assessment: A review and a study. Developmental Disabilities Bulletin. 36(1&2), 1–17. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ828947.pdf
Brain Balance. (2014). Nutrition for ADHD: Kid-Friendly Foods That Enhance Focus. Retrieved from https://blog.brainbalancecenters.com/2014/06/nutrition-adhd-kid-friendly-foods-enhance-focus
DiCarlo, C. F., Baumgartner, J. J., Ota, C., & Geary, K. (2016). Child Sustained Attention in Preschool-Age Children. Journal of Research in Childhood Education. 30(2), 143–152. Retrieved from http://.doi.org/10.1080/02568543.2016.1143416
Education, I. P. (2010). The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. Retrieved from http://catchinfo.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Activity-breaks-CDC-association-between-PA-PE-and-Acad-Performance-pape_executive_summary.pdf
Hansen, D., Vandenberg, B. (2001). Cognitive effects of sleep apnea and narcolepsy in school age children. Sleep Hypnosis. 3(2), 73-80. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281549242_Cognitive_effects_of_sleep_apnea_and_narcolepsy_in_school_age_children
McCarthy, M. E., Waters, W. F. (1997). Decreased Attentional Responsivity During Sleep Deprivation: Orienting Response Latency, Amplitude, and Habituation, Sleep. 20(2), 115–123. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/20.2.115
O’Hanlon, L. H. (2013). How to Improve Attention Spans. Parents. Retrieved from https://www.parents.com/kids/development/intellectual/how-to-improve-attention-spans/
Rosen, P., Dorta, N. (n.d.). How Kids Pay Attention. Understood. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-disabilities/distractibility-inattention/how-kids-pay-attention-and-why-some-kids-struggle-with-it