“You’re not paying attention!” A common phrase heard from exasperated parents and educators everywhere. Kid’s attention spans seem to be getting shorter and the inability to focus can have long-term consequences. However, there are many things you can do as a parent to set your child up for success.
Understanding Attention Spans
What is a normal attention Span? The commonly accepted formula is 3-5 min per year of life. This means that a 3 year old should be able to focus on one activity for 9-15 minutes. A child entering kindergarten is expected to be able to focus for AT LEAST 15 minutes, up to 25.
I’m not entirely convinced that the people who came up with this formula have ever taught a bunch of day care or pre-school age kids. Some psychologists have suggested that kids attention spans are about their age plus 3-5 minutes, which seems to be more in line with my experienced, at least for younger children.
It gets even harder when a growing number of children are considered to have some form of hyperactivity. Approximately 80% of boys and 50% of girls are considered Hyperactive. They may have a hard time sitting still, fidget, show signs of impulsiveness or are always in a hurry. It is these children who are typically labeled as “Disruptive” in the classroom and can have long-lasting effects on your child’s self-esteem.
There are also the growing number of children who are diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and the approximately 50% of children with learning challenges.
What Parents can Do:
Attitude and Acceptance – If your child IS hyperactive trying to change their personality will leads to fights, frustration and leave your child feeling like they are “broken” Remembering that everyone is different and there are strategies you can put in place that will help calm life down is key. Be wary of labels and do not allow them to be used by anyone in your child’s life.
Create Routine and Structure – All children need dependable routine. When life, emotions and thoughts are chaotic having routine to fall back on is crucial. There are many activities you can make routine in your life. Developing a routine bedtime, routine family dinners, even bringing creativity into your life can become a routine. When you are creating family routines consistency (from all members of the family) is key. Develop one routine at a time and give your family time to adjust. The earlier you start the easier it will be.
Home Environment – Keeping the home organized and clutter-free is important for children with short attention spans, it brings order to the chaos. Children may also be extremely sensitive to noise so having the TV or radio on in the background usually doesn’t help, and you can not control the messages your children are hearing. The news can be especially distressing. I have written a post with lots of tips for designing an oasis for your child in the post Creative Kids Bedrooms.
Health – Hyperactivity tends to get worse when children are fatigued or tired. Developing proper bedtime routines are very important. Allowing kids to get over-tired makes symptoms worse. Teach your kids relaxations strategies they can use to calm themselves down such as simple stretching and breathing exercises, or activities they can do when they feel they need a break.
Processed foods, sugar, artificial colorants are all things that children can have adverse reactions to and might aggravate hyperactivity. Sending kids to school after a healthy filling breakfast will allow their attention spans to be stronger, longer.
Regular exercise is important for children with short attention spans. It releases some of the nervous energy that tends to build up and gives them practice at making their attention span last longer. If your child is a Kinesthetic learner then it becomes even more important as engaging in physical activity actually helps them learn better see post on exercise homework dilemma.
Be Firm – Hyperactive kids need a firm hand. Parents often excuse their kids behavior because they do not know how to deal with it. Be clear in your expectations of your child and yourself. Expecting a hyperactive child to sit quietly through a dinner at a fancy restaurant with hands folded on their lap is not a realistic expectation. Expecting your child to listen and be respectful and not engage in aggressive behaviors such as kicking, biting, pushing, yelling is realistic. Time-outs do work (If you are consistent) and send a very clear message. I am a fan of how “Supernanny” structures her time outs, it is worth watching an episode to see it in action.
Create a Support Network – “No Parent is an Island” There are lots of places parents can turn to for help with raising kids with short attention spans. Keep open lines of communication with your child’s school, their pediatrician and ask for referrals to specialists if necessary. You can share ideas and inspiration with other parents through support groups (either on-line or in person)
Take Care of Yourself – Spending lots of time with a hyperactive child can be mentally and physically exhausting, especially if you are the primary care-giver. Taking a break and recharging is essential to being able to help your child. Get a spouses help, hire a babysitter or work out a babysitting exchange with other parents so you have time to get our of the house or focus on yourself. This IS NOT being greedy, you can only give so much before you burn out.
Growing Attention Span – Through games, activity and play it is possible to slowly grow your child’s attention span. This should be started as early as possible, even before your child starts school.
This will happen naturally the more activities you do with your child, besides building attention span you are building life skills and memories. Almost all the activities on this site are things you can do with your child that will get them use to focusing on a specific activity – and they are fun!
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Even regular attentions spans for children are fairly short, plan lots of small activities or chunk larger activities into smaller steps.
Activities will not always go how you would like them to, your child may not be in the mood for something particular or the activity will fall flat, don’t worry, let it go and move on (always have a back up plan) if your child becomes fidgety and restless, stop the activity and come back to it later or move on to something new.
Choose activities that engage different learning styles and multiple intelligences. Getting your child use to learning and completing activities in different ways is a great life skill. Teachers and even you as a parent,may use different learning styles then your child’s dominant one, so exposing your child to different styles early will set them up for success.
Celebrate successes! Verbal praise and acknowledgments go a long ways to building your child’s self-esteem. When they have been concentrating hard or engaged longer then usual make sure you give praise and encouragement. Success breeds success!
Do you have hyperactivity in your household? What strategies do you use? Please share!