Have you ever wondered if a child has ADHD because of their lack of attention and focus? Maybe you wonder if it’s just laziness. Or is it overstimulation? Is technology at fault?
You’re not the only one who has asked these questions. Parents and educators are more concerned than ever about children’s attention spans.
Education.com says, “Diagnoses of ADHD are rising at shocking rates. Eleven percent of U.S. children [are] diagnosed with it at least once in their lifetime, a 53 percent increase since 2003, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Many doctors are concerned that healthy children are being misdiagnosed, but there’s no doubt that attention problems are on the rise.”
Some children truly have attention deficiency disorders. Others are perfectly healthy but have learned to fragment their focus to cope with the overstimulation they get in the modern world.
How, as a parent or teacher, can you counteract these factors and expand your child’s (or student’s) attention span?
Let’s say you give your child a task. It might be a math lesson, eating lunch, or cleaning the playroom. This project will take them around 30 minutes. Within that time, how often do you direct them to return and finish what they’re supposed to be doing?
If you’ve ever had young children, the answer is probably: “A lot!” Although this may try your patience, this is consistent with their age. Having realistic expectations about a child’s natural ability to focus is an incredible help when we want to understand attention spans and how to expand them.
For instance, Brain Balance says that a four-year-old’s average attention span is 8 to 12 minutes, an eight-year-old’s is 16 to 24, and a fourteen-year-old’s is 28 to 42.
This puts things in perspective. Just because your five-year-old can’t clean up the toys without getting distracted every 10 minutes does not mean he has attention problems per se. He could simply be acting consistently with his age group’s average attention span!
Another factor that affects focus ability is the time of day. Parents.com quotes Neal Rojas, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the University of California, San Francisco. “Attention span has to be contextualized,” says Rojas. “Are we talking about the first thing in the morning, the middle of the day, before naptime, before bedtime? I tell [parents] that they will see a variation throughout the day. Attention span is elastic.”
Having a realistic expectation of the reasonable attention span length according to age and time of day, gives you a springboard for figuring out your child’s specific trouble spots. Addressing attention span issues and giving children the gift of a focused, undistracted environment are both good goals, but we must see them in context.
Attention Deficiency: What It Is and What Can Contribute to It
This is not to say that your child does not have a true disorder such as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). If you suspect your child has ADHD, do some research. Pay attention to symptoms, and if you feel it necessary, get advice from a professional.
And what if your child does turn out to have ADHD? All is not lost! There are effective ways to expand these children’s attention spans too—often the same methods used for children without ADHD. The strategies are similar, but in the case of a child with ADHD, you may need to give that child or student more of your time and attention than normal.
Before jumping to conclusions though, remember that some health professionals are worried that children are being misdiagnosed with ADHD. However, whether kids have ADHD or not, many struggle with a common enemy—overstimulation.
It seems like parents and teachers are constantly fighting a battle against technology and overstimulation in children. Today’s world offers constant distraction, especially for teens. Technology, social media, television, and games are just some of the things that are dividing our children’s focus throughout the day. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMH) says, “Bombarded with excessive stimulation and distraction, they are expected to focus on subjects that may not hold their interest the same way other stimulating, instantly gratifying subjects do.”
The on-the-spot pleasure and fulfillment that technology offers is dangerous. The NAMH goes on to point out that perfectly normal children can start acting like they have attention deficiencies when experiencing technological overload.
We’re in a war for our children’s attention, and it only gets harder as they get older. How can we combat broken focus in our children and win their attention as early as possible?
6 Ways to Expand Your Child’s Attention Span
1. Take breaks during tasks and check in with your child to see how they are doing. Children are likely to disengage if the time blocked out for an activity is too long. Edutopia suggests a great strategy to implement in classroom settings: “Using timers, have the student who is struggling with attention show his/her work after a short period of time. This breaks up the task and allows the child to keep working without feeling completely overwhelmed.” Breaking up a task into doable, bite-sized pieces gives both you and your child the chance to stay engaged.
2. Include physical activity, not just throughout the day, but in the middle of whatever you’re doing at the moment. If your child is helping you in the kitchen, don’t confine him to one space; have him move around, grabbing ingredients for you. During read-aloud time, allow for quiet play and movement. Children listen even better when they are playing, wandering around the living room, or looking out the window. If a student is having a hard time paying attention, a break that includes jumping jacks, stretching, or a breath of fresh air can do wonders for his focus.
3. Have you ever noticed how an easily-distracted child will reach for any object sitting nearby and start fiddling with it? Take this tendency and run with it! Purchase some fidget toys that only come out when it’s time to do some hard listening or focusing.
4. Speaking of listening, audio input can be another awesome strategy for expanding a child’s attention span. If you want your child to learn to sit quietly for longer amounts of time, start adding read-aloud time into your day. Begin to listen to audiobooks in the afternoon, when you’re eating lunch, or during car rides. Turn on instrumental music and have a quiet time every afternoon. Kids of all ages (and adults, too) can benefit from a little listening time scheduled into the day.
5. Monitoring screen time is a huge challenge in today’s world, but it is necessary. Especially if you notice a child or teen who has a short attention span and an instant-gratification mentality, cutting down on screen time is critical to expanding attention spans. You may even wish to make certain spaces in your home tech-free zones, such as bedrooms and the dining room table. Consider making mealtimes and bedtime screen-free times as well.
6. And finally, begin to teach your child mindfulness. You can do this best by being an example. Give attention to get attention. Getting off your phone when you’re around your child can be a good place to start. If your child sees that your focus isn’t being broken every few minutes by the ping of a notification, then he will begin to understand what it means to give something your full attention.
Teaching your child or student to focus takes a lot of time and effort. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re getting nowhere, especially when it comes to those special kids who can’t seem to get their heads out of the clouds or stop letting their minds run riot with all the ideas they want to explore.
Today’s world is fraught with distraction, information overload, and distracted, exhausted kids. Helping them to take a step back and learn the value of a long attention span is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
Keep going, and someday you will both reap the benefits.