Picture a seven-year-old sitting in a classroom of 25 kids. There’s a baseball game going on outside the window, her friend is whispering something to her, and someone’s chair is making a scraping noise. Filtering out all these stimuli and focusing on what her teacher is saying is called selective attention. Focusing or refocusing after you’ve been distracted is a complex ability that develops as kids grow, says Stratton.
How long the average grade-two student should be able to pay attention is hard to pin down, she says. Experts say anywhere from one to five minutes per year of age. That means up 40 minutes for an eight-year-old — pretty challenging for most kids.
“Some of this is really a matter of maturity,” says Stratton. There can be a year’s difference in age between the January and December babies. Kids who start out in grade one having trouble paying attention often show marked improvement as the year progresses and they adapt to expectations. By grade three, they’ve had two years of routine. This is when we start to identify the kids with more serious attention difficulties,” says Stratton.
The ability to focus depends on other factors as well, including temperament and learning style. For example, an active child who learns best through hands-on activities may have difficulty concentrating on what the teacher is saying when lots of sitting still and listening are required.
Lisa McGuire’s son Owen is eight and home-schooled. He finds multiplication problems easier and more engaging if he’s got some toy cars or blocks to work with. She says right now he’s able to sustain focus for about 15 minutes “so we build in lots of breaks when he’s working.”
Research shows that attention can be improved with practice. How can parents help kids increase their attention span?
Here are some suggestions
Play games Matching games, bingo and puzzles build visual learning and short-term memory skills. Having kids repeat back tongue twisters or punch numbers into a toy phone or calculator builds concentration and listening skills.
Break tasks into manageable bits If your child is working on a project, rather than tackling the whole thing, begin with the title page. Once that’s done, move on to the next component.
Set goals If a child knows that there will be a family bike ride once the bedrooms are tidy, he’s likely to be more motivated to stay on task. What about rewards? Stratton says they can be helpful in increasing attention span, as long as they are given for making a good effort rather than getting finished quickly.
Use a timer The advantage here is that kids can see it, so there’s some visual reinforcement. “Start small with five minutes, and gradually work up to 10 minutes or so on one task,” says Stratton. McGuire says she quite often puts on a favourite CD and and says, “Let’s see how many of these toys we can put away in three songs.”
Be a good model When your attention wanders, say, “I’m going to take a few deep breaths, and then finish writing this email.”
Acknowledge boredom Louise Campbell is mom to three kids eight and under. “I’ve always expected my kids to be able to sit, wait and occupy themselves in certain situations, like when they come with me to the hairdresser,” say Campbell. “I think this has contributed to their ability to pay attention because they’ve learned that not everything in life is fun and exciting.” At the same time, says Campbell, you can’t push it. An hour is too long to expect an eight-year-old to remain focused.
When attention is a problem
According to Stratton, kids who have attention problems aren’t only those who are bouncing out of their seats or easily distracted and bored.
“One of the things that’s often missed is an attention problem without hyperactivity,” says Stratton. “These kids are quiet, but they’re not doing any work or not doing the assignment.” What happens is that the child misses the teacher’s instruction, looks around and sees that everyone else is writing so they write something too, but it doesn’t match the assignment. “These kids seem compliant, but when you ask them what they’re supposed to be doing, they’re not able to remember,” says Stratton.
It’s important to talk to your child’s teacher if you suspect a problem so that testing can be arranged. “I’ve seen lots of kids gradually improve their attention span with good support,” says Stratton.