It’s hard enough to keep a child’s attention when they want to pay attention. It can be nearly impossible to keep a child’s attention when they’re completely uninterested in what you want them to focus on, or they find the task too challenging. Nowhere is this more evident than the classroom. Young students will fidget, play with their pencils and look at everything except the task at hand.
Some child development experts suggest that the average child should be able to concentrate on one task for 2-5 minutes multiplied by their age. So an average 6-year old should be able to focus on a given task for up to 30 minutes. Of course, whether a 6-year old is able to focus 30 minutes or 12 minutes will vary by child – and of course by task. Attention span is also elastic and will tend to wane as the school day progresses.
If you’re the parent of a child, or teacher of a child, who regularly loses focus during class, or when faced with a challenging task, the following are some tips and strategies that can help increase attention span and improve overall task performance.
Give kids a reason to pay attention – be creative.
For the most part, all summer long your child (or student) has been able to pay attention to what he or she wanted with limited input from parent or teacher. They may have had to complete a few daily chores, attend church on Sunday, or do a little studying, but for the most part they controlled what they would focus on and pay attention to.
Now little Tommy is back in school and can’t sit still long enough to write his name, when just the day before he spent 2 hours laser focused on playing with his Lego toys. What happened? Well, for starters playing with Legos is intrinsically motivating, where writing on a piece of paper with a pen is not.
We suggest taking traditionally mundane and boring tasks like writing a name on a piece of paper, or writing letters in a workbook, and getting a little creative. Consider having your child write his name using Legos, or maybe even Play-Doh. Instead of having your students write letters in workbooks, have them create their own ABC book using pictures of letters they find and cut from newspapers or magazines. A little creativity (and flexibility) will go a long way to getting and keeping a child’s attention.
Make it physical.
It’s just a fact, kids get the wiggles. You keep a kid stuck in a hard seat for more than an hour and they’re likely to explode – not to mention lose their ability to pay attention. Kids – especially those who struggle with attention – need to have regular breaks for active play.
Incorporating indoor or outdoor play times, jumping jacks, or providing a quick stretching session will do wonders for a child’s ability to concentrate on a task and pay attention to what’s being taught. 10 to 15 minute “active play” sessions before a challenging task or learning session will help any child to stay engaged and pay attention.
Practice attentive behavior.
You’d think that paying attention is an intrinsic character of all human beings, but it isn’t. Paying attention is something that is learned. It can also be taught. Parents and teachers should take time to teach children what it means to pay attention and what it looks like.
Throughout the day teachers should take breaks to practice attentive behavior. Use an electronic timer, stopwatch or hourglass and have your child or students practice focusing on an object, discussion or other activity exclusively for just a few minutes.
Then have the students ask themselves if they were able to pay full attention during the time. Having attention breaks where students focus on paying attention is a great exercise that will help improve their ability to focus and attention span.
Adjust the task.
If you’ve tried just about everything, and you’re finding that your child or students still can’t stay focused on the task at hand, you may want to break the task down into smaller parts – ones that can be completed independent of each other in less time.
For example, if the task is to put together a visual report about the state of Texas that includes economy, geography, culture and history components, you may want to have the child focus on one component at time.
Only when one component is finished are instructions given for completing the next component. Once all component parts have been completed, instructions are then given as to how the individual parts are to be combined to create the visual report.
It’s also important to recognize that attention span for children develops at different rates for different children. It may be necessary to adjust a task only for certain students who have a short attention span. You may also consider providing students who have attention deficit disorder set intervals to complete work.
For example, a student with a short attention span may be given 5 minutes to complete however much work he can. After his 5 minutes are up, he is given a 5 minute break before focusing for another 5 minutes on completing the task. Breaking up a task provides children struggling to pay attention the opportunity to decompress and then re-engage with the task feeling refreshed and renewed.
Education experts agree that creating the right environment fosters learning. This holds true for both the classroom and the home. However, it’s important to strike a balance between what contributes to the learning experience versus what distracts a child from being able to focus long enough to learn.
Children are very adept at finding enjoyment and entertainment with the littlest, most unassuming, objects. A paperclip can quickly be turned into a bouncy toy. A piece of paper can be rolled into a spying glass. A plastic bag can become a balloon. At both home and at school it’s important to remove clutter and other visually enticing items from a child’s direct workspace. This gives a child less cause not to focus on the task at hand.
Designing learning friendly environments can turn dull, boring classrooms into student-friendly havens of learning. From seating arrangements to enhanced lighting, to creating discrete learning zones with different themes and purposes, a learning friendly classroom can greatly enhance the learning experience for students. However, if taken to the extreme, what started out as a learning friendly environment can become one big distraction. Make sure, if and when you decide to create a learning friendly classroom environment, you don’t over do it.
These days, students spend a fair amount of their time after school at home working on projects, studying for tests, and otherwise completing homework. Having a distraction free environment and routine is key to allowing your child to have a productive at-home learning experience.
We recommend having the TV altogether turned off during study time. This is especially important if you have more than one child completing homework. It’s difficult for one child who does have homework to focus when their sibling is in the next room enjoying a popular kid’s show. Remove all distractions from your child’s study environment and routine.
Turn it into a game.
There isn’t much that keeps a child’s attention better than a good game. The same child that can only focus for a minute or two on math, will have no problem staying fully engaged for 15 minutes with a game they enjoy. When possible, and appropriate, turn a task into a game.
Games are most effective when played with other children. In a classroom setting, sometimes it’s most effective to create small groups of students who play a game together, rather than with the entire class.
For example, students can work in small groups to complete math assignments. Each group competes against the other groups in the class. Each student in the group is assigned a math problem. While each student is primary responsible for completing their assigned problem, the other students in their group can assist with the problem. The group that finishes their math assignment first wins a prize.
Break the tasks down.
Complex tasks can become overwhelming really quickly for children, especially for those who struggle with attention span. Breaking a task down into smaller chunks can be an effective method for helping your child or your students pay attention long enough to learn and make academic progress.
Students who struggle with attention often complete tasks faster when they’re broken down into many parts than if they were to try and complete the entire task all at once.