elevating child care

Baby, Interrupted – 7 Ways To Build Your Child’s Focus And Attention Span

You’re off and writing. You’ve cracked the blank page and the keyboard’s clicking. Time melts away, as does the chirping bird, the sound of distant traffic, the tick of the clock, and the discomfort of the broken wicker desk chair you’ve been meaning to replace for months. Suddenly the doorbell jars you. It’s a neighbor friend. She snaps you out of ‘flow’, and back into reality. You love her dearly, but your concentration is broken nonetheless… Babies experience these interruptions all the time. 

We don’t think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, mostly because we don’t think to value what they are doing.  At the same time, we want our children to be learners and achievers. We want them to be able to listen patiently in the classroom and have the tenacity to solve difficult problems and pursue their dreams. We want ‘paying attention’ to come naturally, learning skills to come joyfully and easily. The first years of life are formative for developing focus and concentration.

Here are 7 ways to foster a long attention span:

1)      Minimal entertainment and stimulation. Babies are creatures of habit and can become accustomed to expect entertainment rather than doing what comes naturally — occupying themselves with their surroundings. Constant stimulation leads to an exhausted parent and an easily bored, over-stimulated child. Infant expert Magda Gerber taught that babies do not naturally become bored.  Parents do. Babies are entranced by the way their bodies can move, and the sights, sounds, smells, nooks and crannies of life that we adults take for granted. They need uninterrupted time to experience those things and assimilate them.  

2)      No TV or videos for the first two years. TV and videos are the most drastic way to undermine your child’s developing attention span because they engage and overwhelm a child’s attention rather than encouraging the child to actively flex his focus muscle. Imagine the powerful pull of the TV screen in a restaurant. You can be sitting with the most fascinating people in the world, and still you find your eyes drawn to the damn TV.  (For an in-depth study on the TV issue, I highly recommend Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – And What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.)

3)      A safe, cozy “YES” place. In order to remain occupied for extended periods of time, a baby must have a safe place. This can begin with a bassinet or crib, and grow with the baby to be a playpen, and finally a cordoned-off or gated play area. A too large area where there are unsafe objects available to a child is not the relaxed environment the baby needs for extensive concentration. Babies cannot play for long periods of time when they are distracted by the tension of parents worried about safety and the interruption of “NOs”.

4)      Simple, open-ended toys and objects. Unless distracted, babies are inclined to examine every inch of a simple object, like the pattern on a cloth napkin, and then experiment, i.e. wave it, mouth it, place it over their faces, and scrunch it into a ball. They are apt to tire of, or become over-stimulated by objects that they either cannot comprehend (like rattles and other mysterious noisemakers) or toys that they passively watch, listen to, and have a single function: like musical mobiles or wind-up toys. Those toys grab the child’s attention rather than strengthening his ability to actively focus and investigate, similar to the way TV and videos do. 

5)      Observe. And don’t interrupt. Observing the way our babies choose to spend their time makes us realize that they are not just lying there, but actually doing something. That something might be gazing towards a window, at the ceiling fan, or grasping at dust particles in the sunlight. Every time we interrupt our baby’s musings we discourage his concentration. When we observe we can see when there is a break in the action, i.e. the baby averts his gaze from the wiffle ball he was prodding with his fingers and turns to look at us. We can then ask to pick him up for a diaper change without diverting his attention and interfering with his train of thought.

6)      Baby gets to choose. Simple fact: children are more interested in the things they choose than the things we choose for them. Therefore, allowing a baby to choose what to do in his play environment rather than directing him to our choice of activity (a learning game, puzzle or flash card) will better engage his interest, focus and heightened concentration.  Children who are given plenty of opportunities to focus for extended periods of time on activities they choose are better able to pay attention in situations later (like school) where activities are adult-prescribed.

7)      Don’t encourage distraction. It is common practice to distract a baby with a toy on the changing table to “get the job done.” But this trains babies to NOT pay attention. Diaper changes, baths, and feedings are not dull, unpleasant chores for babies.   Babies are interested in all aspects of their lives. They want to be included in each step of a task that involves them and be invited to participate as much as they are able. When we teach a baby that he should not pay attention to activities he’s an integral part of, how do we then expect him to develop a healthy attention span? 

The ability to spend extended periods of time delving deeply, seeking greater understanding of an object or situation, can be developed and strengthened like a muscle. A home environment conducive to focus and attention can have a positive impact on – and maybe even prevent — some attention deficit disorders.

Focus is power. A long attention span is essential for creative, athletic and academic achievement. Attentive listeners make the best friends, spouses and parents. 

So next time you check on your baby, tiptoe in and peek before saying, “Hello.” Babies relish their “flow” time, too.

The video below (also posted in Infant Play – Great Minds At Work) demonstrates the positive effect that uninterrupted infant play can have on a child’s focus and attention span at age 2.

I share more about this respectful, trusting approach in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

Related Posts with Thumbnails

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102 Responses to “Baby, Interrupted – 7 Ways To Build Your Child’s Focus And Attention Span”

  1. avatar Hank says:

    I just turned 70 and for the first nine years of my life, our family would listen to the radio. In the summer months, I listened to my grandmother’s soap operas (Backstafe Wife, Pepper Young’s Family) and late in the afternoon and Saturday mornings (Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Smilin’ Ed’s Gang, Let’s Pretend and Archie Andrews). I could picture the characters in my mind and the sound effects made it seem real. It stimulated by imagination.

    • avatar robin says:

      2 years of no screen is no where near enough. In the last 25 years of assessing 2nd graders the eye tracking issues have exploded! Too much screen! I didn’t have a tv until my first born was 10 years old. After that it was in my bedroom and only used for very special occasions….slumber parties, wisdom tooth extraction.

  2. avatar Cindy says:

    Hi Janet — I read all of your blog posts and love your perspective! This one is wonderful, as usual, and I have a question for you. I don’t have the time to read through all of the comments, so you may have answered this already! Or something similar…

    I am a classroom educarer/teacher. Currently I am a solo teacher with 5 children ages 16 months to 24 months. Capacity in our small room is 2 teachers and 10 children, which we will probably reach in the spring when another teacher is added and 2 – 5 more children.

    I have several children who wander consistently and don’t get involved in any particular thing. Do you have any recommendations for that? As a solo teacher, I am also responsible for all of the functional work in the classroom and must admit I get flustered and frustrated when this happens so often especially during the times when I must do the functional work and my hands are tied up.

    Our center is based on a loose Reggio approach, so we are encouraged to have many natural materials available and allow the children to lead the way.

    Thanks for any advice you have!

    Cindy

  3. avatar Becky says:

    This is fabulous, as I’ve often noticed adults interrupting children as if what they’re doing doesn’t matter in the least. It’s totally disrespectful and has gotten them rebuked by my daughter, which those people, of course, took as rude and her not wanting to be with them, when really she wanted to continue what she was in the middle of.

    I would say that this advice applies to children of all ages, and not just babies.

    I do disagree with caging up kids, however. Making the whole living area (and perhaps gating off an unsafe room or stairs) safe would be a far better option.

  4. avatar Caroline says:

    Just a question…

    I understand the focus and attention this child has.

    One question I have is in a social setting, is this child able to deal with interruptions?

    Has he accepted that not all time is quiet and focus driven?

    My concern is that increasing a child’s focus can be a detrimental thing when they are hit with media and other attention grabbing antics?

    THank you

    • avatar TGrant says:

      I have found that the opposite (about socialization) is true. Children who have been allowed to concentrate for periods of time are better listeners when others are speaking (they pay attention); notice details about the speaker (facial expression, emotional states, etc); are better at designing play (creating “parts” for everyone according to their skill level; etc) and many other prosocial behaviors. They also show respect for others, and do not mindlessly interrupt them –instead waiting for their friends to finish what they are doing and to look up at them, before speaking.

      In our society, we TRAIN children to have ADD through a constant bombardment of media, noise, and interruptions. They learn that trying to pay attention is often painful, impossible, and futile.

      • avatar Janna says:

        As an adult who has ADHD, I would like to take a moment to point out that ADHD isn’t just about focus and attention span. It is primarily an executive function disorder, which means that our problems stem primarily from a problem in the frontal lobe in doing things like making and following plans, managing our behaviour in response to emotions, thinking before we speak or act, and many other related things. Attention span and focus are controlled by executive functions. Most ADHDers are able to achieve what we call “hyperfocus,” which is basically “flow” – we basically tune out the world while we are engaged in whatever we’re hyperfocused on. The unfortunate part is that we are rarely able to control hyperfocus. (If we can learn what triggers it then we can sometimes use it to our advantage, but mostly we’re at the mercy of our frontal lobes.)

        ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning that the brain literally develops differently from non-ADHD brains. It’s actually behind by about three years, but some people’s brains catch up in their twenties, which is when the brain actually reaches maturity (around age 25). I’m one of the many who didn’t have that happen.

        Another little thing about development: children generally aren’t ready, developmentally, to sit and attend to an externally-directed activity (e.g., a teacher) for longer than 15 minutes until they’re at least 7 years old. But self-directed activities? My five-month old (who does not crawl but is adept at rolling over and can scoot himself on his back across a room pretty quickly) spent an hour exploring a small fabric doll I gave him the other day. He chewed on it, he threw it a short distance away and then stretched to retrieve it (and referenced me for approval when he did it – I was very proud of myself for not nudging it closer and just watching to see if he could do it himself), and he examined it with his hands and his eyes.

        The tips in this article could be very helpful for children who are going to grow up to have ADHD, but they’re not going to keep them from developing ADHD because it’s not just about focus and attention span.

        (I would apologize but I feel that it’s important to speak up about these kinds of statements about my own condition when I see them. The stigma attached to ADHD is very real and I am tired of seeing false statements about it all over the place. My son is likely to have ADHD since it has a strong genetic component and I will do everything I can to make sure that he knows how to manage his symptoms adequately if it turns out that he does have ADHD. My goal for him is that he will grow up to be a well-adjusted member of society who defines his own success and achieves it on his own terms.)

  5. avatar Ibrahim says:

    If you get the child used to doing its own thing without interruption or instructions, it finds it hard to follow instructions later. This is my experience. Natural stimulation is a good thing. Talking and singing are good things which make the baby more intelligent.

  6. avatar Simona says:

    Dear Janet,
    I really love this post. I wish I had discovered your site 3 years earlier and in this way I could have educated my son differently. He doesn’t do almost anything by himself and always wants my attention. Now I understand what my mistakes in rising him were. He’s 3 and a half years old and in two weeks time he’s going to pre-school. I’m worried that he won’t be able to stay focused for too long. Also, it’s sometimes hard for me to do any chores as he constantly asks for my attention. Do you think it’s too late for me to do anything to boost his attention span.
    Love,
    Simona

  7. avatar Asmaa says:

    This is very interesting and useful actually but what about older children (4-8 years) whose attention span is already ruined? any tips?

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks Asmaa. The most simple answer is to allow your children to focus on their interests as much as possible. Allow them to be self-directed, rather than adult-directed in their play and leisure time.

  8. avatar AZEEM says:

    Mine is a 04 year old baby boy,

    Single child in our home, ispite he is very intelligent and smart, but at the same from birth he is engaged in mobile and TV ,, and now he doesnt able to concentrate much and not giving replies to our questions oftenly , he talks what he wants to but, repaet our questions and doenst replies ,,, please help that how to trained and encourage him to behave like a normal child

  9. avatar Nathan says:

    In investigating daycares for my newborn, I’m concerned with some (that I otherwise like) that play music the entire day. I think this seems like overstimulation and a distraction from the infant’s focused learning. While I often read that background TV is a distraction for a baby, constant all-day background music seems like it would have the same effect, but I rarely see comments either way. What would you say? Thanks.

  10. avatar M W says:

    Very true and lots of food for thought. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  11. avatar Brittany says:

    Is it too late to apply these techniques at 7 months old?

  12. avatar Annika says:

    Dear Janet,
    I recently found your website and read your book “Elevating Child Care” – so much of what you’re writing resonates with me.

    I have a question. My son is 6 months old and has enjoyed “alone time” since he was a newborn. It is reassuring to read your book to know I did something right. He is my first child but my husband’s third (they’re 8 and 10). While his older siblings adore him, they are constantly in his face, trying to push toys in his hands, making him laugh etc. My husband behaves in much the same way.
    So my question is: What should I do in situations where I feel my baby’s being interrupted? Winter break is over now and I feel the constant entertainment my baby has received will backfire on me as this is not how I interact with him.

  13. avatar Tracie says:

    This is great and encouraging as my Mr 2.5 does not always join in a group sing song when in a group session and I was worried but now see it’s possible he just wants to finish what he’s doing x

  14. avatar beatrice says:

    what if the baby is already almost 1 year old and you did not apply these? :(

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