Tonight, I taught the three-year old class at church for the first time in a few years. I’d forgotten how much energy three-year-olds have or how short their attention span is! Experts disagree greatly on the length of the normal attention span. Some experts say that the normal attention span for a child is three to five minutes for every year of age. Others say add one minute to the child’s age. The type of activity and the child will also have an effect. Children at play or socially engaged will keep focus longer than those in formal instruction. So, that means in a 90 minute class, a three-year old could potentially change activities 30 times! Even a high school student may need to change activities four to six times in that 90 minutes.
Whether you are a teacher or a parent (or both!), you have struggled at some point with getting children to pay attention. Many educators feel children’s attention span is shorter today than it was a generation ago. Here are ten suggestions for helping children focus.
- Be prepared. When teaching, have a lesson plan and a backup plan for those times when activities finish quickly or go over “like a lead balloon.” Have the supplies and equipment you need ready to go.
- Stay focused. It’s easy to be thinking about what you need to do next once an activity is underway. If you are focused, it will be easier for the children you are teaching to stay focused.
- Give clear and age-appropriate expectations. Children can get distracted if they aren’t sure what they are supposed to do or don’t understand what to do.
- Keep distractions to a minimum. Get down at the level of your children and look around the room. What are your eyes drawn to that could be a distraction? Put away toys and manipulatives and, if you don’t already, consider having designated areas for formal instruction.
- Take care of children’s physical needs. Children’s attention span may decrease if they are hungry, cold, hot, or in an environment that is not conducive to learning. In our homeschool co-op, some of our classes are in rooms with sofas. They add an extra challenge for teachers, but are workable when students understand that this level of comfort is a privilege.
- Move between active activities and more sedentary activities. After reading a story, play a game or have the children act out the story. If several sitting activities are required, move from chairs to floor or even to different areas on the floor.
- Keep their hands busy. When you listen to a long lecture, do you find yourself doodling on a notepad? Many of us need to do something with our hands to stay focused when listening. A few Legos, a small ball of play-dough, or a coloring page can help. You may need to try different things to find what helps your child focus without becoming a distraction itself.
- Keep them moving. Whenever possible, have children stand or do motions when learning. If they need to be seated, do some quick exercise before starting – jumping jacks or running in place can help. Tonight, we played a few rounds of freeze dance. Need a fun song for preschoolers? Download “The Wiggle Song” on Little Angels: Real Worship for Pre-SchoolersCD from Amazon!
- Praise children for paying attention. Children (like all of us!) respond to praise and are more likely to continue behaving well when their good behavior is acknowledged.
- Understand that some children struggle with self-control. Do not put children down and do not compare them to other children. If you are not the parent, talk with the parents. There may be circumstances that are affecting the child’s behavior: tension at home, illness, loss, or other stresses. Set reasonable goals and make it clear that you are a team and will work toward these goals together.
- I know I said ten, but I thought of one more!! Consider it a bonus. 🙂 Use what they love. What will your child do for extended periods of time? Play with Legos or blocks? Play-dough? Play ball? Video games? How can you incorporate those activities into what you are teaching? I have taught difficult physical science concepts to grade school students through the use of K’Nex. Are you studying the Civil War? Have your video game addicted child write or draw out their own Civil War video game. You may be surprised how much time he or she invests!
There are SO many other ways to help children increase their attention span. What do you do with your children or in your classroom?