When a child has a short attention span, it affects many areas of learning. Children are often easily distracted and inattentive, so as teachers we find ourselves having to repeat instructions and redirect our student’s attention to the task at hand. At times, pursuing those tangents our kids lead us on can actually be both fun and educational. For those times when you really need to get something specific accomplished, those “rabbit trails” can be a source of frustration.
My dog, Daisy, has demonstrated to me in a very visual way just how many twists and turns a rabbit trail can take. With her nose to the ground, she tracks the path the neighborhood cottontail has taken through our backyard. Every little bit Daisy suddenly changes direction in seemingly random moves, sniffing away, moving rapidly but ultimately going nowhere. This paints a mental picture of how it has been on those days when I’m trying to teach my distractible kids. I exert a lot of energy, but getting pulled off course in so many directions leaves me feeling like I’m getting nowhere just like Daisy as she dashes around my back yard following the rabbit’s scent but never catching up to it.
I’d like to share with you some practical ways to stretch your child’s attention span using materials and daily activities that are already part of your routine. Remember, children with attention challenges like novelty, interaction, and brevity. It is counter-productive to plan a lengthy activity to work on attention span development. Instead, try activities like these:
1. Do the unexpected. When a child’s mind starts to wander, pull their attention back by introducing something unanticipated. Try changing up a familiar story to catch your child off guard. For example, when telling the story of the three bears discovering Goldilocks in Baby Bear’s bed, instead of having her run off, have Goldilocks say, “I’m going to turn you all into bear rugs!” When your startled child reacts and tells you that’s not how the story goes, have him tell you the proper version. Now you’ve got your child’s attention, he is engaging in on-task behavior, and developing his language skills and attention to details.
2. Take “one more turn”. When a child tires of playing a game or reading a book have her remain with the activity for one more turn or one more page than she would choose. In this way, you are gradually stretching her attention span with a little bit of a challenge but not to the point of absolute frustration.
3. Use humor. Humor is memorable, and can help a child maintain interest when he begins to feel restless. Break up those longer sessions by sharing a good joke or telling an amusing anecdote related to the lesson. Just make sure the joke is not at anyone’s expense, or the attention span may last longer but shift to the subject of the joke instead of your teaching topic.
4. Tap in to your child’s imagination. Many of our children who struggle to pay attention have an amazing capacity for creative endeavors. My highly inattentive son could recall minute details about inventions he wanted to create or stories he planned to write. Ask your child to picture what you are talking about. The more details they can envision, the better they will be able to recall the information later. Giving a child the task of imagining what something looks, sounds, smells, feels, or tastes like keeps him actively engaged in the learning process and helps him attend for longer periods of time. I would prompt my son to “make a movie in your head” when giving him a multi-step direction. If he got upstairs and forgot all or part of what I had asked him to do, he knew to watch that movie in his head to help him remember the tasks. This is also a helpful strategy to increase reading comprehension and recall of auditory information. Picture it!
5. Stay active and interactive. If you have a child with a short attention span, be aware that this child needs time to mature and will not do well when required to sit passively for long periods of time. Incorporate movement when you can, because a child in motion is more alert and some kids need an outlet for excess energy. Involve your child in the lesson as frequently as you can, making it interactive even if you are just having her answer a question or retell something in her own words. My children could pay attention for longer periods of time when I had them write or draw on a white board with dry erase markers. When the lesson itself is not really conducive to physical activity or interaction, you may be surprised at how much longer your child can attend if you provide small and quiet fidget toys.
With maturity, attention spans lengthen. Some children take longer than others to develop but most improve their ability to pay attention dramatically over time. If your child is not there yet, try the ideas above. You cannot force physical maturity, but you can incorporate these strategies to nudge and stretch the attention span to lengthen it just a little bit more. Gradually, you will see your child attending for longer and longer periods of time. As with so many things, you will have helped them on their way to growing up.