How to Improve Your Kid's Attention Span

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By Leslie Harris O'Hanlon

My 5-year-old son, Walker, pays attention only when he wants to. I'm showing him how to make the letter "A" for what seems like the millionth time. I say, "Start at the top, go down, and make a line across." As I'm talking, he's looking at everything except at what he's doing. He fidgets and plays with his pencil. I keep pulling his attention back to what we're doing and my constant refrain is "Pay attention!" but I'm losing my patience. He listens when I read his favorite books, and he listens to his swim teacher when she tells him to extend his arms to improve a stroke, but this is an exercise in frustration.

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Child development experts say that, on average, a 4- or 5-year-old child should be able to stay focused on a task for two to five minutes times the year of their age. So, young kids should be able to focus between 4 and 20 minutes, possibly more, depending on the task. But this rule of thumb, just like any guideline for raising children, depends on the situation. "Attention span has to be contextualized," says Neal Rojas, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of California, San Francisco. "Are we talking about the first thing in the morning, the middle of day, before naptime, before bedtime? I tell [parents] that they will see a variation throughout the day. Attention span is elastic."

1. Give Attention to Get Attention
How much attention a child gives a task also depends on whether he is enjoying himself. Many children struggle when asked to do something they don't want to do. "The first time you introduce an activity that is more important to you than to your child, you are testing your creativity and flexibility as a parent and teacher," Dr. Rojas explains. This is where the struggle lies for many parents, because kids entering school have to do more structured, repetitive, and academic tasks, such as writing their names or sounding out letters. Walker and I certainly bump heads on this a lot. Some afternoons, I may want him to work on learning sight words but he'll want to crash his Matchbox cars together on the family room floor. Still, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. "Playing with cars is intrinsically motivating for kids," says Margret Nickels, Ph.D., a clinical psychologists and the director of the Center for Children & Families at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. "There are 5-year-olds who can play with Legos for 30 minutes but who can't sit still to write their names."

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So a little creativity can go a long way in turning something dull into something fun. Instead of insisting that my son write the letter "A" with a pencil in his workbook, I can ask him to write it with chalk, shape it with Play-Doh, or even trace it with paint on a big easel, says Mary Doty, a kindergarten teacher at Waimea Country School on the Big Island of Hawaii. "Workbooks can be overwhelming for children, so make [your] own ABC book," Doty suggests. "Cut pictures out of newspapers or magazines [of things] that start with 'A' or look through magazines to see how many 'As' can be found. Use blocks to make the letter 'A.' All of this helps with fine motor skills -- and it's more interesting.' Even playing I Spy and Red Light Green Light, board games, and memory games can strengthen attention muscles. And parents should take time to notice small and interesting details in their surroundings, which shows a child how to pay attention. During a walk, parents can stop and point out the colors of flowers they see or talk about the shape and feel of the rocks they pick up.

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To get a child's attention, parents must also give attention. "It's easy for a parent to get stuck in a rut. Our attention is often scattered," Dr. Rojas says. "But if our attention is scattered, and we can't bring ourselves back to the moment, we can't expect a child to be able to do so." Being in close physical proximity while giving clear and concise instructions helps children focus better on what is being said. "The best way to get them to pay attention is to be physically close to the child. Don't shout requests from the kitchen to the living room," Dr. Nickels says. "Go into the living room, stand in front of your child, make eye contact, be at eye level or touch their shoulder, and say 'I need you to do this now.' " Dr. Rojas says, "If I stop and look at my child and say, 'Hey, Alex, look at me. What do you need to be doing right now?' He'll say, 'Reading'. Then, I'll say, 'Show me you know what you need to do.' "

2. How to Decrease the Distractions
Parents should also be aware if something is getting in the way of a child paying attention. Is she hungry or tired? To combat hunger or fatigue, give your child a snack before she starts homework or any structured task. Make sure the snack is a healthy one, rather than one loaded with sugar and fat. According to the Mayo Clinic, some smart choices include whole-grain pretzels, raw veggies dipped in fat-free dressing or hummus, yogurt, and peanut butter spread on a banana or apple. A good night's sleep is important as well, so make sure your child is getting enough rest. And many kids need a little break when they come home from school. "Everyone needs downtime. It helps us to come back and focus. If kids don't have downtime and they're overscheduled, they may plead for downtime through their behavior," Dr. Rojas says. "They may go against the routine or demands we're making, [which tells] us they need some wiggle room for their minds to wander and relax."

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If siblings distract each other, have them work in separate rooms. Betsy Hiatt, a mother of six in Olympia, Washington, knows the importance of kids paying attention. Four of her youngest children are two sets of twins, ages 6 and 8. Her 6-year-old twins have difficulty paying attention in school and at home, but one of her 8-year-olds, who used to have a short attention span, is getting better as he matures. Her strategy is to set up regimented but separate routines. While one child is practicing the piano in the living room, another child is working on homework in a room next to the kitchen, yet another is eating a snack in the kitchen, and another is reading in a nook in the kitchen. Although this strategy may seem a bit like musical chairs, it's working for Hiatt because she is able to give each child individual attention. "I have tried having everyone all in the same room, and it can work, but that tends to get chaotic and counterproductive," Hiatt says. "I figure the kids have been in a classroom setting all day and they all kind of want one-on-one [time] with mom."

Hiatt has her older twins help the younger two stay focused. She doesn't allow any of her children to watch TV or play on the computer until all of them are finished with their homework; this motivates them to help each other keep their minds on the tasks because they all want free time with the TV and computer games. "You have to keep directing them, but you also have to let kids figure things out on their own," she says. "So parents should not give up talking to their kids about the importance of paying attention. Even if though they don't seem like they are listening, they are."

Children can tune out and stop paying attention when they think a task is too hard for them. They may need instructions broken into small steps, Dr. Nickels says. For example, instead of telling a child to clean his room, it might be better to say, "First, please pick up all of your Legos and then I'll come back and tell you what you need to do next." Sometimes even illustrating a routine on paper and posting it on the wall can serve as one good visual reminder instead of constant missed verbal reminders, Dr. Rojas says. Keep in mind that that giving short reminders is more positive and works better than long-winded explanations, yelling, or guilt tripping. And remember to praise the children's efforts. "A lot of times in our culture, we praise the outcome. We say 'Great job, look what you can do.' We ? don't focus on how wonderful it is that the child put effort into something," Dr. Nickels says. "Instead of saying 'You didn't write your name quite right, or the letter 'H' goes like this, we should say 'You try so hard to hold your pen and stay within the line. That's wonderful.' "

Research has also shown that exercise can help kids pay attention. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research review from 2010 revealed that elementary school children who took breaks from classwork to be active during the day could concentrate better on schoolwork. Other studies have reported that parents who make exercise a priority in their family life will have more physically active kids; parents should help their children find a sport they like, provide outdoors toys such as balls and jump ropes, and set aside time each day for activities such as going on a walk or riding a bike together.

3. Is an Attention Problem the Same as ADHD?
Another way to encourage children to be more active is by limiting TV time, which can sap a young child's attention span. A 2011 study published in Pediatrics found that SpongeBob SquarePants and other fast-paced cartoons shortened the attention spans of 4-year-olds. "Overstimulation and exposure to television, computers, and video games can really hurt attention spans," Doty says. "I can't tell you how many times I have had to stand on my head to get some of my students' attention because they had been babysat by the television." The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours per day of total high-quality screen time, including TV, videos, computers, phones, and video games. (And kids under age 2 should not be exposed to any screen time and other entertainment media.)

Instead of turning on the TV or handing over the smartphone to your children, have them focus on other activities that will help increase attention spans. Children can read, work on a puzzle, help make dinner, build forts out of blocks and chairs, and help with household chores. Just turning the TV off and having a conversation with a young child can build attention; when parents focus on their child and listen, they model how to pay attention. Recently, my husband said he would make a point of having conversations with Walker, a quiet middle child who can get lost in the shuffle because he's sandwiched between a talkative 8-year-old brother and a charming 2-year-old brother.

But sometimes, a child may have attention problems that are difficult to solve with simple strategies, and parents may need help from a teacher, pediatrician, or even a psychologist. Some red flags include a 4- or 5-year-old having consistent trouble engaging with anything for more than two or three minutes, needing constant guidance to do an activity that should be manageable, jumping from one activity to another, and being unable to control impulses. For example, a preschooler may be unable to stay seated and attentive during reading time because he sees the classroom aide setting up snacks. Instead of staying in the circle, he may get up because he wants to eat a snack. "If he wants what he wants when he wants it all the time, that could be a sign of an immature or not fully functioning attention span at 4 or 5," Dr. Rojas says.

It's important, though, that parents be careful about assuming their child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a syndrome usually diagnosed in early childhood that is characterized by impulsivity, overactivity, inattentiveness, or a combination of all three. ADHD may not always be the root cause; there may be other influencing factors. "As adults, when we're worried about something, it's hard for us to pay attention. A lot of children we see who come in for evaluation have underlying anxieties about not being perfect or not being able to do something," Dr. Nickels says. If a child is diagnosed with ADHD, parents should work with a mental health professional to develop a plan that will help increase a child's attention span.

Mental health issues, such as depression, anger, and anxiety, can make it difficult for children to focus, and young children need help learning how to cope with these feelings. Parents should talk with their children about how they are feeling and help them put their feelings into words. For example, a parent could say, "You may be worried about Dad going away on a business trip." Once a conversation is started, the next step is to help the child do something that will make her feel better, such as drawing a picture to present as a gift for her dad's return.

Now, with my own son, I have implemented some suggested strategies. We've made letters using rocks, toy cars, and wooden blocks, and our schedule is more set after school: He plays a little, eats a snack, and then tackles academic work. He does his homework in a separate room with his dad, which allows my husband to give him undivided attention. After being in school for several months, Walker is able to focus better and longer, and his kindergarten teacher has noticed and praised him for it. It's still not always easy for him to pay attention, but it is easier to pull his attention back to a task when it starts to wander. He still doesn't love writing, but he has learned to write the alphabet, a few words, and even some short sentences. Time works wonders.

This article first appeared on Parents.com.