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10 Tips for Getting Kids to Pay Attention

Gillian Burdett
July 19, 2017

An inattentive child is a frustration all parents have dealt with. Continually having to repeat directions can be exasperating and hinder a child's progress in school.

According to a study conducted by Meghan McClelland, an associate professor at Oregon State University, preschool children who were rated high by their parents on attention and persistence had a nearly 50 percent greater chance of earning their bachelor's degree by age 25. 

"Surprisingly," she says, "children's math or reading scores at ages 7 or 21 did not significantly predict whether or not they completed college. However, a child's ability to pay attention, focus and persist on a task at age 4 increased the odds of completing college."

Claudia M. Gold, a pediatrician and author of "Keeping Your Child in Mind," says that children who have difficulty paying attention may not have learned how to control their feelings because "learning and attention both require the ability to regulate emotions."

With that in mind, here are 10 activities you can do to help your child develop their attention skills.

  1. Help Your Child Identify Their Feelings
    Children can become overwhelmed with external stimulation and unable to stay on task. If your child is upset or worried, find the root of the problem. Your child will learn to deal with his or her emotions better if you acknowledge those feelings. Overwhelming emotions seem not-so-large when a parent or caregiver can put them in perspective. Children need to understand there are boundaries for behavior, and even when upset, they can't let their emotions take over.

  2. Limit Screen Time 
    Sometimes a child can sit for an hour absorbed in a television show, but can't seem to pay attention to a tutor's 15-minute math lesson. Kathy Slattengren, president of Priceless Parenting, says the type of focus that keeps children riveted to the screen is called hyperfocus. It's a state in which one is able to concentrate on one subject exclusively, unaware of any surrounding activity. 

    "The type of focus kids need to succeed in school is intentional focus," she adds. Studies suggest too much television can retrain the brain, making it more difficult for a child to develop this type of focus. Turn off the television and have your child engage in activities that require active participation to develop intentional focus.

  3. Provide Clear Directions
    Break assignments into small steps, and ask your child to repeat the directions. This will help your child with organizational and sequencing skills and ensure your directions are understood.

  4. Recognize the Limits
    Even adults have limits to the length of time they can focus on lessons and lectures. As a rule of thumb, you can use your child's age as a guide. For example, a 5-year-old's mind will wander after five minutes, so break tasks into five-minute chunks; a 10-year-old should be able to stay focused for 10 minutes.  

  5. Set a Timer
    A kitchen timer will help your child learn time-management skills. Knowing there is a time limit will remind children to redirect their wandering attention back to the task at hand. A timer also tells the child the task has an end, relieving them of the hopeless feeling that it will go on forever.

  6. Play Games
    McClelland's research shows playing movement and music games helps preschool children develop attention skills. "Playing games such as 'Red Light, Green Light' and 'Simon Says' are fun and engaging ways to promote these skills. Parents can also reverse the rules to make the games more challenging."

  7. Follow the Leader
    To help young children intentionally focus, Slattengren recommends games that require children to follow the leader's actions. With the Clapping Game, the leader claps out a rhythm and the children repeat it. You can increase the difficulty of the rhythm with each round.

  8. Provide Puzzles and Building Sets
    Putting together puzzles and creating structures with building blocks, such as Legos or Lincoln Logs, requires children to intentionally focus. Other quiet attention-building activities are card games such as Concentration and Go Fish.

  9. Monitor Your Behavior
    Children take cues from the adults around them. If you find yourself only half-paying attention to your child while checking email on your phone, be aware you are modeling this behavior in front of your child.

  10. Provide Security
    Above all, children need the security of knowing they have a loving adult to depend on. Without a stable routine and assurance someone is there should they need protection, children won't be completely free to fully focus on their work. The anxiety of insecurity will be too great a distraction.

Attending to your children's emotional needs, ensuring they have a sense of security, and engaging them in attention-building activities will help them develop the essential focusing skills that will serve them well now and throughout their lives.

Gillian Burdett is a freelance writer. Her work can be found here.

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