Attention!: What it is, How it Develops, and How to Make it Better in Children

Attention is what gives us the ability to focus on one thing in spite of all the other things that can distract you. It’s what allows us to walk down a street without bumping into lamp posts, to write a blog post even though the television is blaring in the other room. For children, paying attention is really critical to learning and to succeeding both academically and socially in school. If a child is not paying attention to the teacher, she may find it difficult to learn the steps to being able to read, for example.

How does attention develop? Newborns have a very early form of attention called “stimulus orienting”. If the infant hears a noise, she will look or turn her head towards it. This kind of attention is pretty involuntary. It is controlled by a region of the brain called the parietal region.

As infants get older, they begin to be able to voluntarily focus on things for greater periods of time. This is called sustained attention. Development and continued improvement of sustained attention continues throughout childhood.

The most voluntary part of attention is called executive functioning. These processes allow children to focus on tasks, to choose to do something not as fun even when they don’t really want to, to plan, and to control impulses. These attentional processes are controlled mainly by the prefrontal cortex in the brain.  They take a long time to develop fully, still changing as children move into their late teens.

So looking at these different levels of development, you could think of attention as like a muscle. It starts out small and not really in a child’s control. Over time, it gets “stronger” and a child can control her own attention better. Like a muscle, a child can also strengthen his attention by “exercising” it, practicing focusing on tasks, for example.

So how can you help children to build their abilities to pay attention? Here are some suggestions:

  • Read books. Reading is good for so many things, including attention. When children are infants and toddlers, you can read to them, pointing out interesting things in pictures. This helps them to build their abilities to focus voluntarily on the pages. As children grow older, they can start to read to you and build their abilities to pay attention for longer and longer periods of time. You want to start with small amounts of time for infants and toddlers and lengthen the time as children get older. One rule of thumb for preschoolers is that they should be able to concentrate on one task for two to five minutes per year of age. So an average 4-year-old can concentrate for somewhere between 8 and 20 minutes. But there is a wide variation there and children develop at different rates. Also, the amount of time that a preschooler can pay attention will depend on how difficult the task is. So don’t worry if your child is 4-years-old and is focusing for only 5 minutes. You can help them exercise that attention muscle.


  • Keep activities interesting. If you want your child to focus on a task, it helps if it is interesting. Even infants get tired of looking at the same thing over and over. They will “habituate” and look away. This doesn’t mean that you have to have clowns and fireworks to keep your child’s interest. But, especially if what you want them to do is hard, like cleaning their room, mixing things up can make it easier for them to keep going. So for room cleaning, they could have “races” to put all the blocks away and see how fast they can do it. Then see if they can they put the Legos away faster. And, remember, when your child does a good job at focusing on something difficult, you want to reinforce them!


  • Minimize distractions. When you want your child to focus or practice focusing on a task, you need to make sure that there are not lots of other things going on around them that will compete for their attention. Again, the harder or more complicated the thing that you want them to pay attention to, the fewer distractions they will be able to ignore. Think about attention as a pitcher full of water, everything around the pitcher can drain a little bit of the water and the easiest, loudest, or most colorful thing will drain the most. So if you are trying to teach your daughter to write her name, and the television is on in the background, that is likely to drain more of her attention than the harder task of writing.


  • Play games. Lots of children’s games are good for helping to build attention. One good example is the Memory game. Children have to focus on the cards to figure out where the pairs are. Or try something like Red Light/Green Light. A leader turns his back on other children and says “Green light!” The children can keep moving towards the leader until he turns around and says “Red light!” Anyone who does not stop when the leader says “red light” is out of the game. The child who gets to the leader first becomes the new leader. This helps with attention because the children who are moving have to watch to see when the leader is going to turn around.


  • Explain what paying attention looks like. We sometimes assume children know what we mean when we ask them to pay attention. But they may not be sure HOW to pay attention. One way to explain how to pay attention is: “Paying attention takes five things (display 5 fingers): your eyes are on me, your mouth is quiet, your body is calm, your ears are listening and your nose is breathing. So when I say, ‘show me your five (holding five fingers up)’…” this means I’m asking you to pay attention with your eyes, your ears, and a calm body and calm voice. Let’s practice!” To practice, you can have your child focus on you while you tell him something and then ask him to repeat back what you said.

Attention is something that we all need in order to get through our everyday activities. So do some attention exercises with your child!  They could help you out as well!


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Image: © Couperfield |



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