Children today are not how I remember children being when I was a kid. They are not the stuff sitcoms and Disney movies are made of either. They do real school work in kindergarten. They play competitive sports and learn to play musical instruments by age 5. I am often in awe at how capable children are, but I also wonder if we are expecting too much of them too early. How long should we expect young children to sit still and stay focused on one thing?
One’s attention span literally means the length of time for which a person is able to concentrate mentally on a particular activity. If you have children you might notice that their ability to pay attention to things they are interested in is much better than focusing on homework or chores. At least that is how it works in my house. Reading a school book for 20 minutes is “just too much,” but playing a video game for 30 minutes goes by in a flash with no complaints. According to Speech Therapy Centers, the average 4-year-old can listen to a story or engage in an activity for 10–15 minutes. After 15 minutes, even 5-year-olds will get fidgety and begin to lose interest. The key is to keep the activities hands-on and engaging and to watch the child for cues of boredom. By kindergarten most children are able to ignore minor distractions and focus on a single activity for 10–15 minutes.
Talbot Elementary School’s Susan Quinones, a 13-year veteran kindergarten teacher, explained that while her students are expected to sit and focus for a 90-minute reading block, she feels that is way too long for their age. She said she and her team of colleagues break that time period up with station activities, brain breaks and GoNoodle videos, which focus on combining physical activity with learning. Quinones stressed that the more movement her students get, the better they seem to absorb the information being presented to them.
If your little one is still struggling to stay focused, try some of the following methods to help improve his or her attention span.
- Physical activity is No. 1. This is one of the reasons Morning Mile programs at local schools have been such a success. Movement of the body motivates the brain and reduces the wiggles.
- Removing distractions, either visual or auditory can improve focus.
- Chunking is a great tool used to keep students on task. This simply means not trying to get an entire assignment done in one sitting period, but dividing it into smaller manageable tasks.
- Taking brain breaks or attention breaks, similar to the ones Quinones mentioned above. Sometimes just a few minutes to stretch, walk around or get some fresh air will make it easier to concentrate when returning to the task at hand. I have also seen my children’s teachers use the “shake the sillies out” method.
- Playing memory games
- Reducing or eliminating screen time; this seems obvious, but how many children do their homework with televisions in the background or cellphones in their pockets? The distraction potential is too great.
- Chewing gum while focusing on a project at home or doing homework can also help with focus and attention.