A discussion on attention spans by child developmental age

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An attention span refers to the time a person can focus on a particular activity before losing focus or losing interest. There are great many ways to test attention span, for example, online tests for attention span such as these:

Attention Span Test

What is your attention span?

But how do we test for attention span in children? It is remarkably important that we are able to address children’s attention spans because it has such a great impact on their education, their relationships, their day-to-day activities, and eventually their careers.

If you have concerns about your child’s attention span it could be an indicator that there are some underlying issues such as a learning disorder, a mental health disorder, or something else. Let’s take a look at what an attention span is all about, how it might be measured, some factors that play into attention span, how you might determine the attention span of your child and what this means to them. This is one more thing that you can add to your parenting wheelhouse to help you address your child’s needs better and to make sure that they are prepared for and able to have the best education that they can have.

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What is an attention span?

An attention span refers to the amount of time it generally takes a person to lose interest in the task that they are doing. Their focus and attention on the task at some point will be diverted away to another source. Attention spans in children are variable but tend to follow a certain pattern. One of the biggest challenges with regards to a child’s attention span is that when they are younger, parents are very creative in finding ways to keep them engaged in their activities. Everything is fun and interesting and new, which can affect the parents’ abilities to see an accurate reading on their children’s attention capabilities.

However, when the child starts school, the activities can feel repetitive, challenging, and sometimes un-interesting to children, such as practicing writing their name, or learning how to stand in line or following instructions for the next activity. If a child is having a shorter attention span than normal, this will certainly affect the way they are able to pay attention to their teachers or caregivers when the activities are less interesting to them.

What “creates” our attention span?

There are many factors that affect your child’s attention span, or yours for that matter. Understanding how an attention span can be affected will help you to eliminate particular distractions or find ways to encourage a longer period of focus.

Attention span also involves several aspects:

  • focused attention
  • sustained attention
  • attention shifting
  • divided attention

It is important to note that a child’s attention span is affected by and intertwined with all other aspects of cognitive ability. How your child thinks and interprets sensory information is an important component to understanding your child’s attention span and what may be done to improve it.

What factors can affect an attention span?

Many factors can affect your child’s attention span from how they are feeling that day, to outside influences that are drawing their attention away from the activities, to simple things such as needing to use the potty or wanting a snack. It’s important to analyze their attention spans when they are calm, having a reasonably positive day, and have few major distractions around them. It’s also important to take your child’s attention span into the context of their overall, every day interactions and how long they are able to pay attention to a variety of situations.

Some of the factors that affect attention span are:

  • Age
  • Familiarity
  • Personal interest
  • Biological factors such as being tired or hungry
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mood disorders
  • Mental health issues
  • Cognitive ability

Here’s a really great scholarly article on attention spans and how they work, as well as a relevant study on children ages 6-10: Which Factors Influence Attentional Functions? Attention Assessed by KiTAP in 105 6-to-10-Year-Old Children

What is considered normal attention span for children?

Child development experts generally conclude that a healthy and normal attention span for a child can be generalized into the following rule:

2 Minutes per year of age

Some experts believe it to be closer to 2 to 3 minutes per year of age while some experts go as far as saying five minutes, although many refute this larger claim.

Therefore, according to age, your child’s attention spans would look relatively close to this:

By age 4, attention span increases to about 8 to 12 minutes.

By age 5, your child’s attention span would likely be 10 to 14 minutes.

By age 6, 12 to 18 minutes

by age 7, 14 to 21 minutes

by age 8, 16 to 24 minutes

by age 9, 18-27 minutes

by age 10, 20 to 30 minutes

by age 11, 22 to 33 minutes

by age 12, 24 to 36 minutes

by age 13, 26 to 39 minutes

by age 14, 28 to 42 minutes

by age 15, 30 to 45 minutes

by age 16, 32 to 48 minutes

by age 17, 34 to 51 minutes

by age 18, 36 to 54 minutes

This list makes reasonable sense based on the idea of 2 to 3 minutes per year of age until you get closer to the age of teenagers and adults. Because of the influx of the media age, many adults are experiencing much shorter attention spans, some articles indicating as low as 8 to 12 seconds!

Because attention spans are falling and people are so distracted by the multiple and myriad of distractions both online and off, people are actually getting better at multitasking. While we still give weight to a child’s attention span as a measure of cognitive and learning development, it is a bit harder to analyze with regards to teenagers and adults. So, before your child begins using a lot of online resources, it is a bit easier to measure their natural attention span.

Because there has been so much in the news in the past few years about the falling attention spans of adults, it’s even more important to understand ways that we might increase attention span and thereby increase our ability to complete tasks and to learn and retain material. After all, you cannot learn that which you are not paying attention to!

Let’s discuss some ways that attention span can be improved upon, some tasks and tests that you can take or administer, and ways to get your child focused to get things accomplished.

Can you improve your child’s attention span?

There are some ways that you can help to improve your child’s attention span, within reason of course, based on their age and ability.

Here are some things that you can do to help improve their focus and to encourage your child’s focus and ability to complete tasks.

1.  Include breaks

A child can often focus better when they are able to take short breaks to relieve the stress of trying to pay attention. Give them an opportunity to have a break that includes some kind of physical activity or play that can help to release tension.

Encourage your child to take a walk or play with an exercise ball, any activity that they particularly enjoy and that gets their blood moving. If you include about 15 minutes of active play before a challenging mental activity, it can help your child to be more engaged with the activity and pay attention a little longer.

Break up activities that require your child’s full attention to smaller sections with breaks between. You may find that you are able to extend these smaller sections a little bit more and more as you incorporate physical activity between sessions.

2.  Make an activity fun

In today’s digital age there is a term called “gameify,” which refers to turning mundane tasks into a game. Any parent can tell you that when their toddler is learning to dress themselves or learning to pick up their room, that creating a game out of these activities helps them to be more engaged and to be more likely to repeat those tasks. Something that is fun for your child will be more interesting to them and therefore they will pay more attention simply because they want to participate.

Creative reward system that allows you to praise your child for paying good attention and completing a task. A sticker board is a common method of applying a reward system. It also helps to prepare children for school because most classrooms will have a reward system that encourages children to have good behavior.

It helps to more thoroughly define what paying attention looks like for your child. Take time to teach them what good attention looks like.

  • Making eye contact
  • Sitting up
  • Actively thinking about the activity at hand
  • Applying behaviors to the activity

Get creative in how you present activities to your child so that they find the activities more enjoyable and are able to stay focused on what you are doing with them for a longer period of time. Make sure to point out when they are displaying good “paying attention” skills. As with any other behavior you are trying to incorporate with your child, a little encouragement goes a long way. If you see your child beginning to lose focus have a word or action that reminds them to pull their focus back to the task at hand. It may be as simple as just saying the word “focus.”

3.  Remove distractions

If you are able to remove visual or auditory distractions from the area in which a child is working, it is so much easier to retain their attention. Have a special area where they do their lessons or their work. Try to do more complex tasks with your child at an area that is free of their toys or media items such as tablets or televisions. Perhaps try to work with them at the kitchen table or in a special area designated like a teaching zone. This will also help to prepare your child for school work and finding a place where they can work and not be distracted by the things around them.

When your child loses focus, ask them what is pulling their attention away from the activity at hand. Have a conversation with them about this. It helps to teach them to become aware of when they are paying attention and when they are getting distracted. Part of what you want to do is teach them when to be aware of these things so that they are able to self-correct. If your child is able to notice when they are losing attention and pull their attention back to the activity at hand, then offer them some praise for the maturity it takes to do that.

4.  Demonstrate good attention skills

It is so easy as parents for us to be so distracted that we don’t listen very well to our children or we are managing multiple tasks at a time. It is important for us to take the time when we are asking our children to focus and demonstrate that we too are able to focus and put our full attention on the present activity. Sometimes this means we have to forgo taking a phone call, or put our phone down, or turn the television off, or sit with your child and exercise patience and focus. Remember to display the behaviors that you want to see in your child.

5.  Limit Media and TV time

Media and television time train our brains to be more easily distracted. There are television ads and computer ads and games and lights and bells and whistles. All of these things are designed to wave around in your face and get your attention for a few brief moments or a bit of entertainment and then it moves on to another thing. All of these racing sensory inputs can train your brain to be more distractible, to try to multitask, or to stop thinking altogether.

If you want your child to have a better attention span it is best for you to limit their media time and possibly have less media time right before you have to get them to pay full attention to something. If you can encourage them to work a puzzle or do something more cognitive that they may enjoy, then this may help to prepare their minds for a bit of concentration. If they must have media time, try to make it an interactive activity so that they have to think and figure things out and participate physically and something that’s happening.

6.  Decrease stressors

Just like it is with adults, it’s very hard to pay attention to something if you’re under stress or something’s bothering you or on your mind. It may help to ask your child if something is distracting them or bothering them that they may need to talk about. Perhaps there’s something they are worried about. This could be a good opportunity for you to understand what is going on in their little head. Maybe something was said to them that day by a friend that’s bothering them. Or maybe they can’t find a toy that they’ve been looking for. Whatever is on their mind, give them a chance to talk about it and once they get it off their chest they may be able to focus a little bit more.

Assessment resources:

Measure Your Attention Span with Concentration Tests
Assessment of Attention in Preschoolers

Children do have variable attention spans and it’s not the end of the world if they seem to be a bit easily distracted. Some children are just more physically active and just prefer not to sit down and do a highly focused activity. Sometimes the activities are too difficult for them and that makes them frustrated so they avoid it by trying to do something else. If you can identify what the root causes are for their distractibility you can often remove some of those issues and improve their attention span considerably.

If your child has a markedly difficult time paying attention for any length of time or if they can’t stay in their seat and blurt out constantly when you’re trying to give them instruction, it is possible that they could have a learning disability of some type or possibly they have ADHD. There are multiple biological reasons why some children have problems with their attention. If you feel your child may have an issue, don’t hesitate to call their pediatrician and make an appointment to discuss it with their doctor. There are some fairly easy questionnaires and examinations to help not only diagnose any potential issues with your child but also to put your mind at ease.

This article is brought to you by the blogging contributors at Babienet Parenting Community, a community of caring parents just like you! We welcome you to share your journey with us. 

Resources:

What is your attention span?

Standardized Test for Attention Span? | JAMA Pediatrics

For more reading:

What’s New in Child Development Research? | Babienet Blog
10 Child Development Websites for Parents | Babienet Blog
Important Physical Development Milestones in Early Childhood | Babienet Blog

Christina M. Ward,

Babienet blog contributor

Mother and grandmother

What are Normal Attention Spans for Children? helps parents understand what is normal for a child’s attention span and tips for how they can help to improve their child’s attention span.