Ten Ways to Address Short Attention Spans

countdown-clockTonight, 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.

          1. 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.
          2. 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.
          3. 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.
          4. 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.
          5. 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.
          6. 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.
          7. 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.
          8. 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!
          9. 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.
          10. 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.
          11. 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?

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60 Responses to Ten Ways to Address Short Attention Spans

  1. Adelien says:

    My second son is 10 years old. Most of the time I need to sit next to him to let him stay on task. When I am not next to him, he will do it inappropriately. I don’t do anything, just sit. Is it an attention deficit or short attention span do you think? I try to be stricter with him and it works, but I do really need him to have self awareness. Please help.

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  2. bethanyd says:

    I struggled with the same issue with both my children. It wasn’t attention deficit or short attention, it was “I would rather be doing just about anything else” syndrome. There’s a reason there is always a teacher in the classroom 🙂 But, you may also find that he just likes to have you there. You might try telling him you are going to be gone for a specific amount of time and maybe even give him a timer. Let him know what you expect him to have done when you return. If that’s successful, over time lengthen the time you leave.

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  4. I’m just starting intentional educational activities with my two year old, so all of this list is perfect for me write now. I’ll check out that song. We usually jam out to toddler radio on Pandora in between books and do a lot of gross motor activity in between reading and fine motor skill activities. Pinned this post to refer to later. Thanks for all the info!

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  5. Leila says:

    Aside from teaching I think these are great tips for parents to use in general for any aged child! I try to keep a lot of these in mind when dealing with my children, but will definitely keep this on hand to remember – especially when it comes to homework time after school!

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  6. Jill says:

    Some great tips there. When I was teaching little kids, I tried to keep them physically active while teaching them, if their bodies were moving their minds seemed to focus more. The lessons were exhausting but so much fun. And I also agree about changing activity often – and trying to change activity before they get bored of one. Always leave them wanting more!!

    Like

  7. Jeryl M. says:

    My children are a little older. They are good at keeping themselves busy when we are going some place were they are likely to be bored they each bring a bag full of stuff to keep themselves quietly entertained.

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  8. sila says:

    I’m a student myself so this is something I need to work on. I always can’t find myself paying attention to lectures. I would listen for 5 minutes then I think of random things. Also, my head/eyes kinda get “heavy” or “lazy”… I seriously can’t describe how it is and that (at least that is what I think) makes me not listen well in lectures compared to my peers?

    I hope you can offer me some tips…

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    • bethanyd says:

      Maybe you’re like me – a visual learner. Give me a book, a map, or directions to build the Empire State Building, and I can do anything. However, if you put me in a lecture, try to tell me how to get to your house, or give me a verbal list of things to do, and I’m unlikely to remember much. When I was in school, I used to take furious notes to stay focused. I also know people who record lectures and listen to them again later for better retention. Sitting near the front of the class might help, too. Good luck!

      Like

  9. Alli says:

    Great info! I’m the education director at our church and I’m going to share these tips with our preschool department.

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  10. Cherri says:

    I love the tips that you have shared with us. My children are grown but I now find that I need to find ways to entertain and engage my grandchildren which can at time be challenging; they are 7, 5, 2, and 1. It isn’t that they have attention deficit or short attention spans it is more that they are very young and still learning. Thank you for sharing these tips with us.

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  11. I don’t home school, but these tip will help with homework time and other activities over the years! I agree that it is important to check n see what is at their eye level 🙂

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  12. Great tips!! My kids are ages 5 & 4 years old. And you are exactly right!! I try to keep them busy and focused. I find if I don’t there energy turns into fight with each other.

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  13. Michelle says:

    Great tips! I’m thinking about how I can apply some of these tips as Awana starts tonight at our church. Thanks!

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  14. I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I started homeschooling my 2yo today. Nothing intense at all! We are just working on listening skills and recognizing the letter A. That’s it. Super short. We spent maybe 20 minutes play/working today.

    But, I am the type that wants to do more more more. I need to keep in mind age expectations like you said!

    Like

    • bethanyd says:

      Not crazy, just a Mom who enjoys spending time with her child and seeing him/her grow. Yes, the challenge at this age is not to push too hard. There are SO many activities you can do that your child will enjoy and won’t seem like “school.” Read LOTS of books and have fun!!

      Bethany

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  15. Great tips! I had a short attention span when I was little and I think if the adults around me recognized it, I could have prevented a lot of stress. I think keeping busy and on schedule is key… ~ Renee

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  16. This was really good reminder of the ways we can cater to our little learners. Getting down to eye level especially caught my eye. I’ve learned with my kids that drawing, Legos or Lincoln Logs can expand an attention span greatly and actually improve retention on whatever we’re learning about. Thanks!

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  17. Ali Gilbert says:

    I love this!! Very true and the tips are all soooooo helpful. As a Sunday School teacher myself, I can benefit from all these tips and I am passing this on to the head of our Sunday School program. Thanks for sharing!!

    Like

  18. Linsey says:

    Great post. I wish I had read this when my son was younger.would have been a great help.

    Linsey xx

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  19. I especially love 4 and 9–it pays to consider what is going on at the child’s level. Praise *still* has a huge impact on me and I can remember being extra good, remembering manners, and working harder to learn just because I had been praised for it and I wanted to keep being that “good kid.” Maybe another good tip would be to use yourself as an example, like expressing how much you enjoy a certain topic or a story. I blog about flexibility and pole fitness so my kids see that I enjoy running, stretching, and cardio and mimic it 😀

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  20. Michelle H says:

    This post is perfect as I think about getting ready to start home preschool with my 3-yr-old. Especially the tip to involve the things they love in their learning. I did that all the time with my older son!

    Like

  21. Having taught children from 18mths – 4 years in both church and preschool classes, I have to say that your information is spot on! Children need to MOVE and if we can remember that and incorporate movement into our lessons, everyone will be so much happier.
    I wish that our school systems would take into account different learning styles. We would have a much lower rate of drop outs, and I think, a lot less tension in classrooms.

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  22. Michelle says:

    Wow! Great tips! Great blog…I’m a follower!

    Like

  23. Trista says:

    Great tips! I know I have a short attention span!

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  24. Yes, keep distractions to a minimum! In our household, if it’s time to eat, we all sit down and eat. We turn off the TV and keep our mobile phones 🙂

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  25. Megan says:

    I am all for keeping distractions to a minimum. Great Article!!

    Like

  26. Jacky says:

    So glad I came across your blog… I’m a first year teacher who needs all the help she can get!

    Like

  27. Great tips! I don’t have children of my own yet, but my husband and I hope to soon…and I know I’ll need all the advice I can get 🙂 Thank you!

    Like

  28. Crisi says:

    Having worked with kindergartners in children’s ministry myself, you hit the points exactly. When I had first started in ministry this would had helped tremendously. I will be sharing this with pur children’s pastor. Thank you so much.

    Like

  29. Good tips. I would add that many adults (and mainstream schools) expect children to be quiet and sit still when it’s just not a reasonable expectation considering their developmental stage. Sometimes we need to readjust our own expectations too.

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    • bethanyd says:

      Amen. My son had difficulty sitting when he was little. At 3-years-old, he was asked to leave children’s church twice because he wouldn’t sit for the story! LOL. I spent about 4 Sundays sitting with him – just him and me. He learned to write his letters during that time. Pretty cool. After that, there was a different teacher and he never had another problem. Now he has trouble doing anything but sitting!!! As my husband says, “he burned himself out by age 8.”

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      • I agree as well! I have a 3 year old that struggles to sit still, and I’m currently very frustrated with how his new preschool teacher is handling it. I’m going to take an afternoon off work and spend time in his class. He’s really bright– knows letters, numbers, colors, shapes, etc., he is just really active, which I think is healthy and normal for a 3 year old boy. Anyway, venting…

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      • bethanyd says:

        Kudos to you for taking the time to be with your son at school. Here’s hoping his teacher can have a little more patience with him :). Early on, I read some books on ADHD and it gave me some great ideas for how to help my son. Also, there’s alot of kids these days that are struggling due to gluten allergies or Asperger’s. It’s always good to rule out any physical issues. My husband struggled with the same problem – actually got kicked out of kindergarten. His mother would have him run around the block every afternoon when he got home from school, just to get the energy out. You might consider soccer, karate, or even just a trip to the playground after school. Give him time each day to be active. Another quick thought… soccer didn’t work well for my active 3-year old, too much standing and not enough running. He needed something where he was constantly active.

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  30. Missy says:

    I am someone who is not really used to being around small children. It would be hard for me to figure out how to keep their attention. My boyfriend has a son, so since we got together I’ve learned a lot & been around children more. I like the tip on getting down to their level & looking around to see what might distract them. I wouldn’t have thought of that, but it is a good point. Now when I have my own or babysit others I will have more knowledge on how to handle it. Thanks for your tips 🙂

    Like

  31. I taught 3s and 4s for three years at my Church growing up, and all of these ways to address short attention spans are great! I always tried to keep the kids moving and not giving them time to get distracted. But you also have to be flexible because things will always pop up that you weren’t expecting – you must be able to roll with it!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  32. Carly says:

    I love this, I teach 4th grade and believe it or not……I use most of these techniques with the older kids!

    Like

  33. Candi says:

    I work in 2nd grade and I know about those short attention spans. They just wander off some times. Some are better than others. It has been interesting to see their personalities.

    Like

  34. Lisa says:

    I think that we as adults struggle with our attention span. These are great tips for groups of any age. Thanks for the post!

    Like

  35. These are some great tips. It just goes to show how hard it is to be a teacher. You don’t just talk at the kids, you have to understand them and teach TO them. Teaching really is an art!

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  36. I love these tips because I have an active 3 year old boy, as I mentioned above. Just glancing around your site it looks like a great resource for me. I’m not an official teacher, but as a mom I am my children’s first teacher. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

    Like

  37. Danielle says:

    Great tips! As a special ed. (learning support) teacher, I work with many short attention spans! Great advice!

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  38. Great advice! I think the biggest thing is really just being aware of the situation and what may happen, and preemptively trying to solve those problems. Any advice for adults with short attention spans? 😉

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    • bethanyd says:

      LOL. Yes! Adults can struggle as well. Taking notes helps me when I’m feeling distracted. I’ve tried bringing my tablet when I have to listen to a lecture, but I find it more distracting than a help – so much to play with on there! Basic paper and pen works best for me.

      Like

  39. Jen says:

    Great tips! I will use this as a resource next time I babysit my niece & nephew. 🙂

    Like

  40. I am so thankful to have started therapies with my 2 1/2 year old who has sensory processing disorder and is a sensory seeker. He is way crazier than most kids his age so I cannot benefit from the advice but watching other children I can say this is great advice!

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  41. Tim says:

    First, bless you for working a group of three-year-olds. You are special. I do not work with children, but do have relatives with kids. I like the way kids of all age groups relate to each other. I have a niece and nephew very close in age (both 3 or younger). They have their own commutation system. It’s funny watching them together. Keep it up!

    Like

  42. Elle says:

    I substituted for a while and these are great tips! Children’s minds are always in discovery mode and so one thought triggers another. Unlike adults they don’t really follow a set plan, whatever comes to mind, gets their attention.
    The fact that you take the individual child into consideration is great.
    Elle

    Like

  43. Karen says:

    I can relate to your post. I have worked in the childcare field too. It is sometimes hard to keep the attention span going. I have found to have a scheduled activities for the day. (the plan!) . Every 30 minutes, do something different; stories- then ask questions for the kids to answer, different play stations set up; science center, painting, quiet center to read books, dress up, snack, physical activity, make a project, outside play, kinds of things!

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  44. Angela says:

    I don’t have kids and I don’t teach, but I will definitely use these tips when with my niece and nephew!

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  45. Thanks for the great ideas! I homeschool my kids (6,4, and 1). Since they are all young, we struggle quite a bit with age-appropriate attention spans. 🙂

    Like

  46. Alison says:

    With my 11 year old it’s important that I’m specific. Rather than give him broad or general instructions he needs to have very specific steps to follow to complete a task. For example “take the garbage out” doesn’t work if I want him to take the garbage from every room and put bags back in the can. I have to specify that — once I figured out the way his brain processes things and this is what works for him our communication with each other has gotten much better.

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  47. Chris Carter says:

    I have worked with kids my entire life as a therapist and a teacher- and these are fantastic tips!! Great job!!

    Like

  48. As a mom to a 2-year-old and an 8th grade teacher, I can use these tips in both my roles! Eighth graders are still adolescents that need to be fed and move around as well! Great tips.

    Like

  49. Kelly says:

    I will use these tips for sure!
    Thx!!

    Like

  50. Sara says:

    You hit the nail right on the head with these! I’ve noticed that distraction is one of the biggest culprits for not just my younger girls (2 & 4) but also for my oldest (12). My 12 year old has always had a difficult time focusing and although it has gotten better throughout the years she still struggles at times. Removing distractions works wonders!

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