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Finding Focus: Ways to Increase Attention Span

Posted by on in Cognitive Development
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The development of the ability for delayed gratification can be done from an early age. Increasing one's attention span will eventually affect many aspects of life from saving money to controlling a temper or facing temptation to do the wrong thing. It is important to start at the beginning.

The fact is the younger the age, the shorter the attention span. Infants have needs that should be met immediately. They need to know that their needs will be taken care of and this is exactly where they should be at developmentally. Toddlers have enough ability to wait with distraction or accept help to accomplish the thing for which they're waiting. Preschoolers can be stretched to increase their ability to wait with some help.

If you're curious where your child's attention span is at, try this little test... Place a raisin or M&M under a cup making sure your child sees what you're doing. Then explain that they can pick up the cup and eat it AFTER you ring the bell. (You can do this with lunch food or anything you approve of but keep it small so they don't fill up too quickly.) For the first ringing of the bell, ring right away. On the second attempt, ring the bell after a few seconds' delay. With each subsequent ringing, lengthen the time by a little longer each turn to try to stretch them. Some children will be able to wait and some won't. If they cannot wait for the bell, still watch the clock and ring the bell anyway as they will have to wait for it on the next round. Don't get upset. This is just an area to work on. Sidenote: don't play this when they're really hungry but when they still want a little food, like at snack time.

Ways to Stretch Attention Span:

  • Newborns can be held and shown pictures. Talking about the picture, its images and colors, starts the habit of being in someone's arms, listening to a voice which will evolve into reading together. This can be done before naptime or bedtime. Remember to relax and have moments of waiting (like turning to the next page).
  • If an older child has not learned this yet, use reading to stretch them. Hold them in your lap or snuggle next to you. Let the child turn the page. Point out one item per page. If they get wiggly, say: "Wait, what's on the next page?" Try to stretch them but not to the point of anger. Let them down to move around. Still name one thing on the next page and talk about the story a little bit more then or later, especially if they start to show interest again.
  • Once a child can sit, watch, and be interested then actually read the whole book. 
  • Work on balance. Count with them while they balance. Challenge the child to go a little longer each time. Play this as long as they're still happy. (Bonus: strengthening balance will help prevent falls in the future.)
  • Play a matching game. Start with two pairs then move to three pairs of items to match. Then ask, "Do you think you can do four? Let's see." Continue to play and add more as they get older and improve in stretching their attention.

There are two goals: 1. Stretch the attention span. 2. Stop while they still want more. This is a dance between not wearing them out and pushing them a little further on. A really important factor in all of this is the adult's attitude. Children pick up on non-verbal communication really well.  Parents can verbalize strategies for succeeding at the task or game. However, if they hear impatience, it will unsettle them and take away the fun. 

There is a whole spectrum of activity levels in different personalities. Don't expect anything in particular for your child's behavior. The adult's job is to stretch the active ones in attention span and to stretch the sedentary ones to move more. Remember that if they don't have success quickly, they will most likely lose interest. The important thing is to have fun while you're doing these activities!