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   Ask Jeanna - Children's Attention Span

What do people mean by "attention span," and what's a normal attention span?
.A:  For adults, "attention span" might be defined as the length of time a person can concentrate on a subject, idea, or activity.  For young children, "attention span" doesn't have to do with concentrating on a subject or idea.  That's too abstract for little ones. 

For young children, "attention span" might be defined as the length of time that a child remains interested in (and stays with) a particular activity.

Children's attention span varies depending on the child, his or her age, the time of day, and the particular activity.  Here are some examples of reasonable, age-appropriate attention spans -
  • A baby might shake a rattle for five seconds, crawl somewhere for twenty seconds, and breastfeed for ten minutes.

  • A toddler might play with a toy car for one minute, enjoy being pushed in a swing for three minutes, sit and eat dinner with you for four minutes.

  • A three-year-old might play with large legos for three minutes, play with large legos - with you - for five minutes, and listen to you read bedtime picture books for ten or more minutes.

  • And a five-year-old might play a simple board game with you for fifteen minutes, draw a picture and tell you all about it for ten minutes, independently look at picture books for ten minutes, and listen to you read bedtime books for twenty minutes (and still want more).

Q:  Why is it important for children to have an attention span?

A:  Imagine a child who can't ever sit still, can't even stand still.  Imagine grocery shopping with your child.  Impossible.  Imagine mealtimes.  Impossible.  Imagine learning to read.  Impossible.

O.K. I'm exaggerating.  Imagine a child who rarely sits still for more than a minute or two.  Still impossible.  You're in the grocery store and your child won't sit in the cart or stay near you in the same aisle.  And your child won't tolerate waiting in line to pay.  It's a recipe for frustration to say the least.

Imagine a somewhat older child who won't sit still long enough - in kindergarten - to listen to the group story-time or participate in the class "show and tell."  Not a happy prospect.

A child who doesn't have an age-appropriate attention span generally receives lots of negative attention - and misses out on compliments, hundreds of potentially interesting experiences, and lots of learning.

Q:  What's reasonable to expect?

A:  No one expects a baby to have an attention span.  We delight in a baby's interest in most anything, however fleeting.  "The baby looked at me!  The baby smiled!  The baby succeeded in turning over!  The baby reached for a toy and grasped it!"

As the baby grows older, an attention span will naturally develop - and an attention span can (and needs to) also be encouraged.  How?  I'll give you some suggestions to help increase a child's attention span with books and other objects (see the next few Q&A's).

Q:  My son is a toddler who is always on the go.  I would like to read to him like I did with my daughter when she was that age, but he won't sit still.  Should I just wait until he gets older?

A:  Many people will tell you to wait because he's a boy.  And many people will tell you to wait until he's older because he'll be able to sit still for more time when he's older.

I have a different view.  You're on the right track to want to read to your son.  Here are several suggestions for how to make this work -

  • First, pick a simple book (possibly a sturdy boardbook) with simple pictures and a few words or a sentence per page.  If your son likes playing with a toy car, a ball, or a pet dog; perhaps choose a book with pictures of one or more of these things.

  • Next, pick a time when your child already sits still for two or three minutes.  Perhaps while he has a bottle?  Perhaps while he eats a snack or lunch?  Perhaps while he's playing with small blocks?

  • When he is already sitting down and "busy," you can sit very near him and show him a few pages of the book.  He can eat or drink and look and listen.  He can eat or drink and also point at a picture and say a few words.  Or he can play with blocks and enjoy a few moments of you reading to him.

You'll succeed if you remember that a successful reading time with a very young child does not mean that you read him a book from start to finish.  At this point in time, a successful reading time means that you and he share a few moments to look at some of the pictures in a book.  A successful reading time means that you say some of the words about the pictures, and your son points at a picture and/or says "car!"

A successful reading time means you smile at your son and say positive things like "I like this book.  It has a picture of a car!"  or "I like how we look at the book!  Thanks for reading with me!"

When you're not reading to him, you may want to put the book somewhere where your son has a few toys.  He may pick it up and turn the pages for a few moments and look at a few pictures on his own. 

Keep reading to him at opportune times (when he's already sitting down) and keep several simple books that you've been showing him within his reach throughout the day so it's another option in addition to toys.

Another thing to try - always carry a small book or two with you when you and your son leave the house.  A visit to the playground (or doctor) can include a few moments to sit on your lap and look at a book.  And time in a stroller (or a car seat) can also include "look-at-a-book-time."

Q:   I work with several very young children who don't sit still for very long and who all want to touch, grab, or hold the book which makes it hard to read to them.  Any ideas?

A:  Yes!  First, it's wonderful that you want to read to them, and it sounds like they're doing what very young children do - which makes it hard to read to them.

What I'm about to suggest will work whether you are a nanny, a family child care provider, a teacher in a child care center, or a parent of several young children.

Here are some things to try -
  • Pick a time when they are most likely to be able to sit still.  This might include a snack time when they're sitting and feeding themselves.  This might include a quiet time after they've been to the playground or actively run in the backyard.

  • Give each child something to hold, something to do with his or her hands.  At snack time, picking up pieces of food (or using a spoon) will keep hands busy.  At other times, give each child a stuffed animal or small toy to hold.

  • Show children several pages in a picture book.  (Hold the book so that all the children can see the pictures even if that means that the book faces away from you and you're looking at it - and reading it - upside down.)

  • Quickly compliment your children - "I like how you're holding your special toy" (or "I like how you're eating your food with your spoon").

  • Read a page and show a picture.  Another compliment - "I like how we're all sitting!  I like how we read a book!"

In the beginning, each story-time may only last one or two minutes.  But it will be a positive experience and a successful experience for your children and you.  Over the course of several days and weeks, find several times each day to do this - and your children will learn how to sit still, hold their toys, and enjoy their "book time."

Q:   What do I do if one of the children wanders off?

A:   You have a choice.  You can first encourage the child with a gentle reminder - "Come sit down.  We're still reading!" and see if that works.

Or you can give that child a little extra help to sit still by saying, "Here, come sit on my lap.  I see something (and point to the picture in the book)!  Look at this!"

Or you can let the child play with something quiet nearby while you continue to read to the other children.  This gives the other children the chance to enjoy a somewhat longer story-time and to hear another compliment for them -  "I like how you're sitting and looking at the book!  I see a big (elephant or whatever is in the picture)!"  Meanwhile, the child who is playing nearby gets to listen to what you're saying and to "eavesdrop" as you talk about or read the book.

Q:  Are there other ways to help my child have a good attention span?

A:  Yes, every day gives you hundreds of chances to show interest in what your child is doing and to subtly extend the activity by talking about it, participating in the activity, and extending the activity.

Here's what I mean.  Let's say your child picks up a pebble and then drops it.  His attention span on this activity lasted "five" seconds.  You can make this activity last a few seconds more if you say, "I saw you pick up a pebble and then put it back."

Want to extend your child's attention span beyond this?  Just pick up a pebble, show your child the pebble in your hand, tell your child that you have a pebble in your hand, and then put it in your other hand.  If your child watches you do this and listens to your words, his attention span on this activity is a lot longer - the original "five" or so seconds plus probably another "fifteen" seconds - four times as long, with your help. 

Want to extend your child's attention span beyond this?  Let's say you have an empty paper cup.  You and your child can take turns putting one or two pebbles in the cup, take turns holding the cup, and talk about how the cup is getting heavy with so many pebbles (or how the pebbles make a noise when your child turns the cup upside down).

In other words, your child's attention span expands when you see what your child is doing, talk about it in a very simple but positive way, and participate in the activity in a way that your child can understand (but hadn't thought to do).

Your involvement in your child's life (and the people you choose to help take care of your child) makes a huge difference on so many levels.  Caring, thoughtful, observant adults can make hundreds of daily experiences more interesting, more educational, and gratifying.

So give it a try!

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