This is a guest blog post from Kim Lewis, M.Ed., CCC-SLP (Aka. Activity Tailor). Kim is sharing all about her top tips for increasing preschool attention spans.
Time after time, I have families come to see with a toddler/preschooler with concerns about a language delay, but additional concerns about attention. Some of these families have a significant history of attention deficit disorder so it makes sense that they’d be alert to early signs, but most often the issue is simply developmental.
It seems unfair that during a time of severe sleep deprivation for parents/caregivers, little ones have such a limited ability to stick with an activity. Keep reading for some tips and ideas for increasing preschool attention spans that you can share with parents and caregivers.
Age appropriate expectations for attention spans
A quick rule of thumb is that a child should be able to independently sustain attention to a task for 2-4 minutes per year of age. That’s not very long! Of course many factors will play into this. Tired or hungry kids won’t attend as long. Challenging activities or ones of less interest will decrease attention as well.
|2 years old||4-8 minutes|
|3 years old||6-12 minutes|
|4 years old||8-16 minutes|
7 tips for supporting preschool attention spans
Keeping appropriate expectations in mind, there are ways for us to support children so they develop more focus and persistence. Here are 7 tips you can share with parents/caregivers, or use yourself in your sessions, to support preschoolers attentions spans.
- Decrease screen time: Most children are drawn to screens and they can provide a welcome respite for frazzled families. While some screen time is fine, prolonged use can have an adverse impact on attention spans. Screen time includes TV programs, educational apps and ebooks (if they include lots of sounds and other effects).
- Minimize distractions: Like us, preschoolers will have an easier time sticking with a task when there isn’t another, probably better, shiny activity nearby. In the therapy room, this might look like covering tempting shelves with a sheet or curtain. At home, it might be starting a toy rotation system.
Check out this blog post for more information about toy rotation for therapists and parents/caregivers.
- Set them up for success: A well-rested, fed preschooler will have a better chance of optimal learning and sustaining attention, but that’s easier said then done! Encouraging parents/caregivers to stick with their familiar routines can help support attention skills. Similarly, encourage parents/caregivers to give themselves grace during periods of picky eating and disrupted sleep. This is where communication with families is key, as we are not always privy to this information!
- Stay nearby: Sustaining attention on your own is much more difficult. An attentive adult can help adjust an activity when it’s too difficult or to make it more engaging. When children have regular practice at sticking with an activity, they’ll eventually learn how to do it on their own.
- Choose close-ended toys: Puzzles, lacing toys, and shape sorters are just some activities that have a built-in end point. When we provide these kinds of motivating opportunities, children are more likely to stick with them through to completion. Just be sure to choose ones that are manageable for the child’s ability and age! Selecting a too-difficult puzzle will result in quick abandonment, not perseverance.
- Movement breaks: Those little bodies were made for action! Activities that involve some movement, or taking a break to move around for a bit, can go a long way towards keeping a young one on task. For example, rather than sitting and matching colored objects at a table, hand them an object and ask them to touch it to other things in the room that have the same color.
- Read aloud: Setting aside time to read each and every day is one of the best activities you can do to build language, but it’s also a great way to build a child’s attention span! For an antsy little one, try an interactive book, like a lift-the-flap, scratch-and-sniff, or one that invites movement. Check out this webinar for more ideas for engaging young children with books.
If you’re concerned about a child’s attention span
Language delays can often look like attention issues especially if a child doesn’t seem to follow directions or respond to questions. If you have a child that you question has true attention deficits, observe and track behavior for a few weeks before making a referral, but don’t hesitate to make a referral if needed! A child who needs support in this area can quickly resort to disruptive behavior at home and in classrooms. Providing resources to parents and caregivers early (which doesn’t need to include medication) can go a long way towards successful management.