By Megan McQueen
Young kids have notoriously short attention spans. As my 12-year-old prepares to babysit our toddler neighbor, we talk about the power of distracting him from an unpreferred activity. But sometimes, we don’t want our children to be distracted. Many of us wonder how we can help our kids lengthen their focus time to concentrate longer on activities. Is the length of one’s attention span “set,” or can we change it? I researched to find out if I could help my kids (and myself!) stay focused longer.
Our attention span grows as we age. Young children focus on a task for just a few moments, while high schoolers can attend for almost an hour. Reminding myself to match my expectations to my kids’ abilities saves us all from frustration. Jamie M. Howard, Ph.D. writes, “Concentration is like a muscle that requires regular exercise to strengthen. Some kids are born “stronger” in this area than others, but all kids can learn strategies and engage in practices that help improve their ability to focus and sustain their attention.”
Meeting kids where they are is our job as family members. If they are frustrated with a task that seems too challenging, we can empathize, saying, “This is hard. I’ll help you get through it.”
Preferred vs. Non-preferred Tasks
We can all attend to tasks we want to do longer than those we don’t. I can only de-clutter my junk drawer for so long before I reach for my phone for a distraction. It is reasonable to expect our kids to play with Legos for an extended time but become preoccupied when it’s time to clean up.
We can build the “muscles” of concentration. When kids want to stop playing a game, we can gently encourage them to take one more turn before stopping. We can ask our kids to solve one more math problem before taking a break. We can spotlight what works well with our kids. “I noticed you showed perseverance when building with your blocks. That skill will also help you build your stamina when riding your bike.”
It may be constructive to do a little detective work, as Melinda Wenner Moyer writes. Find out if there are barriers to the task at hand that you can remove to make the job easier. If noises are distracting, your child might try some calming instrumental music or noise-canceling headphones, for example.
Ways to Help
Building our concentration muscles can happen during play (“I Spy” helps us stay in the moment), struggles (attempting a kick-flip on a skateboard needs intense concentration), and mindfulness activities.
We can model and teach our kids to focus on one task at a time. Multi-tasking can be complex for our brains to build periods of concentration. Breaking big tasks into smaller ones can help. Apps, social media, and websites can be challenging to resist. When kids focus on something important, like studying, using an app to block distractions or limiting access to devices might be helpful.
Timers can also help us build focus. We can set timers to concentrate on one task for a short time. Timers give our brains an end-point, and we know we will move on when the timer rings. We often have a brief, timed, tidy time in our house, where we frantically put as many things where they belong in a few short minutes. I’m always impressed at how much we can accomplish in a fast, focused, collaborative effort.
You may also want to check your child’s sleep routines and activity levels. Dr. Kirk Daffner writes for Harvard Health that moving our bodies can help promote brain connections. Ensuring that your child is sleeping enough for their age can also affect their attention span. Resetting to an earlier bedtime may bring positive changes.
When to Reach Out for Help
Maybe you have tried to support your kid’s focus ability or have heard from teachers that this is a challenge at school. If your child exhibits signs of impulsivity and or inattention, it might be time to ask some experts to support your child. Helpful methods range from minor accommodations to medication depending on your child’s age and needs.
Some families worry that a diagnosis of attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (ADD/ADHD) means that doctors will recommend medication, but most doctors will work in partnership with families to find the strategies and approaches that work best and are comfortable for your family and your child. There are plenty of options to pursue; medicine is only one. The Child Mind Institute’s articles about ADHD (En Español) can be a helpful resource to answer questions along your journey.
Researching and writing this article helped me highlight my areas of distraction. I will try to sleep earlier, shut off distracting devices, and practice more mindfulness. What will you do?
Resources for kids
Listen by Gabi Snyder, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin
Mindful Kids by Whitney Stewart and Mina Braun (En Español)
The Mindful Teen by Dzung X. Vo
Books for adults
Focus by Thich Nhat Hanh, illustrated by Jason Deantonis
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish