The Development of Attention

When a child has difficulties with attention, we often start to notice these difficulties as they enter school. Sometimes the teacher will bring to a parent’s attention that their child is having trouble sitting still during circle time, focusing on a task, or following instructions. It is important to distinguish between what is developmentally appropriate, and what might be indicative of attention issues. Here are some questions and answers about attention:

What is attention?

There are a number of theories about what attention is. Most commonly, attention is thought to be the focusing on an object, person or event while our brains process information related to that object, person or event. While we are ‘paying attention’ to something, we are working on blocking out things in our environment that might interfere with this focus. As such, our brains are doing a few things at once. Our ability to attend to something is thought to increase during childhood, due to development of the brain. Interestingly, brain imaging has shown that early in infancy, subcortical areas of our brain, those areas involved in more basic processes (such as reflexes) are activated when a child is attending to an object or person. Researchers have looked at heart rate during attention tasks, and noted that an individual’s heart rate decreases when they are fully attending to something – this pattern has not been noted in very young infants (Richards, 2004). This may be because an infant has limited visual and auditory abilities, and may be turning or orienting themselves towards a sound or change in their visual field, rather than fully attending to something. Activation of the brain gradually shifts during the first 6 months after birth from these subcortical areas, to areas of the cortex (the parietal and temporal lobes, which are involved in processing sensory information, including sounds and sights), and finally to the frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain. These frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain are often involved in higher level processing of information. For example, these areas are also activated when completing tasks that involve organization, planning, problem-solving and higher-level reasoning. Researchers have outlined many types of attention, such as visual or auditory attention, sustained attention, selective or focused attention or divided attention.

How does attention develop during childhood?

It is important for parents, educators and health professionals to understand how attention develops, and what is ‘normal’ at different ages. It takes some time for a child to learn to complete one-step instructions without the support of an adult. Cambridgeshire Community Services in the United Kingdom have a table posted on their website that briefly outlines what to expect at different ages with respect to attention skills. This table can be viewed by clicking here. A summary of research identifies 6 stages of attention development, and the average time that a child can attend to a stimulus over time, from age 2 to 7 – this can be viewed by clicking here. Basically, these resources indicate that a child should be able to fully pay attention for up to an hour, and complete a task without adult support around the age of 6. Of course, there will be variability in this, as not all children are made the same. Some may take a little more, or a little less, time than others to fully develop this skill. There is also variability depending on what the child is attending to – some things may be easier to pay attention to than others.

What do I need to think about when helping a child develop their attention skills?

There are a number of activities that a parent or teacher can engage in with a child to help develop these skills. However, a number of considerations must be made when working on these skills.

  • How skilled in the child in controlling his or her behaviour? How impulsive is he/she? Is he/she able to stop him/herself from jumping around long enough to focus on a task? If this is a challenge, it might be helpful to wear out some of this energy first before starting an attention task, or to set up a reward that the child can have when they finish the task.
  • How motivated is the child to engage in the task? Is the task of some interest to him or her? You may want to ask the child about his or her interests, and then pick something with them that they seem excited about.
  • Is the child able to understand and complete the task? For example, if he or she does not know his/her colours, or the alphabet, you would not want to engage in a task that focuses on these things.
  • What setting are you able to complete the task in? You may want to start working on attention skills in a quiet setting, and gradually work up to a setting with more noise and distractions. If you start in a noisy environment, this may be overwhelming for the child and limit your success.
  • While you want some structure to your task, you may need to break it up for ‘energy release breaks’. Pick a task that you can break up into parts, if needed.
  • While lots of choices can be great, too many can be overwhelming. Keep choices to a minimum.
  • Praise is an important part of working on attention skills. Recognizing the child’s efforts will help them feel more positive about the work they are doing, and also increase self-esteem.
  • Mood can certainly have an impact on a child’s ability to pay attention. When working on tasks to build attention skills, it may be helpful to ensure the child is in a happy, content mood before starting. It will also be important to maintain that mood as much as possible throughout the activity.
  • Consistency is key. Keeping a child’s schedule consistent reduces the amount of information they need to think about, and can help them to reserve their brain power for when they really need to focus on something. Morning routines, bedtime routines and regularly scheduled ‘down time’ can be helpful.

What can a parent or teacher do to help a child work on their attention skills?

Now that you have some understanding of what is developmentally normal for attention skills, and some considerations when helping a child develop attention skills, there are some activities that you might enjoy engaging in with your child. These activities may work on other skills as well.

  • Concentration: also called Memory. Do you remember when you were a child and you had a deck of cards with animals (or objects) on them? You would put them all face down, and flip them up two at a time, trying to find a match. Then, if you did not have a match, you would flip them face down again, and start over. You can even do this with a regular deck of cards! Take out a few pairs of numbers, mix them up, and play the game. Over time, you can increase the number of cards to choose from. This both increases the amount of time a child has to sit and perform the task, as well as how much they have to remember.
  • There are a number of activities on the website, Eye Can Learn, that work on visual skills, but also attention. For example, Hidden Pictures requires both visual perception skills, as well as selective attention.
  • The Teaching Expertise website has a number of activities to help improve listening skills and attention. For example, if your child likes to colour, they may enjoy listening to some fun instructions telling them how to colour something. Or, if you child likes to play guessing games, 20 questions may be a fun activity that requires them to focus their attention for a period of time.
  • Scavenger hunts can be a great way to have fun while working on attention. You may make a list of common items you have around your house, and offer a reward each time your child finds one of these items. Alternatively, finding an item might lead to the next clue, and a bigger reward in the end.
  • Meditation can be very helpful for improving attention (even in adults!). Taking some time to clear your mind and relax each day can help you to focus better when you need to.

Should I be concerned about my child’s ability to pay attention?

Often, difficulties with attention are noted when a child begins school, as mentioned above. Teachers have the benefit of seeing how a child compares to his or her peers in the classroom, making it easier to see when a child is having difficulties focusing throughout the day. It is important to have a discussion with your child’s teacher to find out what your child is doing, and to think about whether these are behaviours you have seen at home. It is also important to think about other possible explanations – have there been significant changes at home? Does your child have symptoms of anxiety? Does your child have any significant medical conditions or are they on any medication that might affect their ability to focus in the classroom? Currently, psychologists, psychiatrists and other health professionals look to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fourth Edition, when deciding about such diagnoses as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. The criteria for ADHD can be found by clicking here. If you have concerns, it may be helpful to speak with your pediatrician or family physician for more guidance, or get a referral to a mental health professional. In addition, a psychological assessment that examines attention, using interview, observation, questionnaires and standardized measures to assess attention, cognitive skills and academics, can be useful for school and community planning.