How to help kids focus and pay attention
It can be incredibly frustrating to call out to your child for dinner or ask them to come inside, only for your request to evaporate into thin air because they aren’t paying attention. Figuring out how to help your child focus is something many parents, nannies and babysitters struggle with. But don’t worry because this is common for young kids and there are plenty of techniques you can use to change their behavior.
“There are two lobes of the brain involved in concentration and attention — the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex,” says Rosina McAlpine, Ph.D., founder of Win Win Parenting. “The former is only fully developed in females during the early to mid-20s, and for males, it’s the mid to late-20s. So, while it’s frustrating for parents to feel ignored by their kids, they need to be understanding and patient and help support their child while they develop the ability to concentrate and pay attention for extended periods of time.”
Feeling like you’re at your wit’s end and have no clue how to teach a child to pay attention? Here are practical, expert tips and real-parent advice. A little really does go a long way.
1. Be mindful of what your child is doing
Is your child in the middle of an art project? Is she building a Lego castle? If time isn’t of the essence, you may want to put a temporary pin in your request. Most kids have some level of difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next — the main reason being they’re usually being asked to stop doing something they like doing in order to do something they need to do (and probably won’t enjoy as much). Also, keep in mind that young children lack the communication skills to explain why they don’t want to stop doing something, which often results in a child either melting down or flat-out ignoring their parents.
“If your child is completely engaged in something, ask yourself this: Do you need to speak with them right at this second, or can it wait until they are done?” says Sarah Conway, Ph.D., founder of Mindful Little Minds. “Kids don't like being interrupted while they're in the middle of something they enjoy any more than we do. Additionally, it’s much harder for kids to change direction when they are engaged in something, so it’s definitely not the best time to tell them to clean their room or start their homework!”
2. Don't yell out across the room
While being a parent can sometimes feel like a juggling act akin to something you’d see at the circus, resist the temptation to skip a walk up the stairs in favor of hollering from the kitchen.
“Rather than yelling requests at your child or giving them a laundry list of things to do while standing tall above, begin with approaching them, getting on their level — squatting down if they are on the floor — and entering where they are,” says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard College Toddler Center and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.” “Many children need a gentle hand on their shoulder before they can pay attention. Then, when you’re on their level, offer a little empathy and then the clear request. ‘I know you don't want to stop playing, but dinner is ready. Park your train, and I'll help you get to the table.’ This recognizes that they need to change focus, even if they don't want to.”
And if you have time, Conway suggests getting in on the fun with your little one before asking them to switch gears.
“Color with them for a few moments,” she says. “Play catch. Read that book together. They'll be much more likely to listen to what you say if they feel connected to you.”
3. Explain instead of ordering around
While it may seem obvious to you why you want your child to come in for dinner or clean her room, the logic may not be apparent to them. The reason? All they hear is yet another grownup ordering them around.
“My son used to completely tune me out in the mornings when I asked him to get dressed,” says mom Maureen Sanchez, of Tampa, Florida. “I found myself saying the words ‘You need to get dressed’ about 100 times before school. Finally, instead of barking requests at him, I started telling him why he needed to put clothes and shoes on before going to school. I’d explain to him that it was too cold to go out in his pajamas or that he’d hurt his feet on the sidewalk if he didn’t put on shoes. He started getting dressed almost immediately.”
4. Use your child’s interests
Another tool for teaching kids to pay attention? Speak their language.
“Your child’s interests are a great motivator,” says Conway. “There's no reason they can't continue their play while they do what you need them to do. Were they busy playing a superhero game? Ask them if they can use their super powers to fly into the bathroom to brush their teeth. Were they reading a dinosaur book? Have them stomp and roar into the kitchen to get those dishes done.”
5. Use a sand timer
If you’re working to get your child to sit and concentrate on tasks for longer periods of time, try using an actual timer. Children, who are concrete thinkers, have a hard time fully understanding abstract concepts (such as time) until about age 11. So having something they can actually see and touch can be helpful.
“Most children don’t have a sense of time,” says McAlpine. “So having a set of sand hour glasses as timers for five, 10, 15, 20 and 30 minutes can be a great way to help children develop their attention muscle as they start to visually see the concept of time.”
McAlpine suggests setting up an activity and starting with the five-minute sand timer. Once your child is able to easily focus on the activity for five minutes, move to the next timer.
“You can do this for preschool children right through to teen years with their homework assignment,” she says. “Keep in mind, though, some children are naturally able to stay on task longer than others, and the more you consistently practice this technique, the more progress you’ll see in your child.”
6. Create the right environment
Just as you wouldn’t be able to crack open “War and Peace” in a nightclub, your child isn’t going to be able to focus on something when it’s noisy and chaotic and there are distractions present.
“Having an environment conducive to concentration is key — particularly when kids are doing homework,” says McAlpine. “Make sure your child has a space that’s quiet, clean and that there aren’t any iPhones, tablets or video games present.”
“Getting a desk for my daughter’s bedroom was one of the best decisions our family ever made,” says mom Courtney Alderson, of Westfield, New Jersey. “She used to try to do her second-grade homework and reading at the kitchen table while the dog barked and her little sister noisily bounced around. It almost always ended in tears.”
7. Help them regulate their emotions
Are you razor-sharp at work when you’re upset or nervous? Of course not. But, as an adult, you have the tools to mitigate uncomfortable feelings in order to get things done. This doesn’t necessarily come naturally for kids.
“Children who can identify and regulate their emotions are more able to focus their attention,” says McAlpine. “If a child is angry, anxious or upset, they will not be able to focus on their work.”
How can you teach your child to recognize and take on their often-confusing feelings? McAlpine suggests showing children deep breathing techniques, as well as teaching them positive self-talk.
“Giving your child go-to phrases such as ‘I'm OK,’ ‘Everything will be alright,’ ‘I just need to give it a shot’ and ‘I can get help’ are all positive ways children can regulate their emotions, and it will help focus their attention back to the task at hand,” she says.
8. Give a heads up, and involve them in the transition
Few people like to be caught off-guard — especially when there’s not a fun surprise on the other end — and that goes double for little ones.
“For kids who seem to ignore instructions, a heads-up can be helpful before you need them to actually pay attention,” says Klein. “Even though young kids have a poor sense of time, letting them know that 'in two minutes,' it will be time to get in the bath will give them a sense of what will be happening.”
Then, make them a part of the transition to the next activity, Klein suggests.
“They can run with you to the bathtub, play 'throw your clothes high and into the hamper' and pick which bath toy gets dropped in the bath first,” she says. “All of these hands-on, engaging activities will help keep them focused on what needs to be done.”
9. Limit screen time
Sure, TV and video games can offer parents a much-needed break from sibling squabbles and choruses of “I’m bored,” but in the end, screen time seems to only affect children’s attention spans for the worse. A 2019 study found that kids 5 and under who spent two hours or more on a screen were 7.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
And this certainly isn’t the first study of it’s kind. In 2018, another study found that teens who frequently used smartphones and mobile apps were twice as likely to have behavioral problems, as well as signs of ADHD.
The Mayo Clinic advises forgoing media altogether (except for video chatting) for kids between the ages of 18 to 24 months. For children between the ages of 2 to 5 years, screen time should be limited to one hour of “high-quality” programming. (In other words, no YouTube videos of kids unwrapping toys.)
When it comes to older kids, it’s up to parents to decide how much screen time is right for their child, but limits should be set. Parents can place restrictions on screen time by doing the following:
Have tech-free zones or times in the house.
Encourage unstructured playtime.
Have children charge their phones out of their bedrooms at night.
Eliminate background TV.
Limit your own screen time.
10. Have a sense of humor
Need we even tell you? Having a sense of humor is key when you’re a parent, and it can help get your child to pay attention to boot.
“The ability to laugh and be silly is a gift to moms and dads,” says Klein. “The next time your child seems to be tuning you out when you ask her to wash up, get creative. Rather than yelling and making the same request over and over, maybe look into space and say, ‘I think this little girl really does not want to take her bath. I may just have to take it for her!’ This kind of lightness grabs the attention of most children and changes the whole vibe.”