How can teachers and homeschool educators improve their child’s attention for learning? The answer to this question depends, to some extent, on how long we might typically expect a child be able to hold their attention on a learning task. A common rule-of-thumb used by many teachers, is that a child should be able to ‘concentrate’ for one minute per year of age. So, according to this theory, a six-year old child ‘should’ have an attention span of about six minutes. Likewise, an eight-year-old ‘should’ be able to hold their attention for around eight minutes.
However, there is a problem with the idea that age can be used to predict an ideal or average attention time. Specifically, there is no research about child development, learning, or attention in general which supports this idea. In fact, the available research tends to contradict this whacky theory that typical attention time can be calculated by age. Specifically, while age appears to be a factor in the development of attention skills (1), there are a vast range of other factors which influence the extent to how long a child can give attention to any given task, in any given moment. This means that, in order to improve a child’s attention span, educators need to more deeply understand how attention, child development, learning and individual variation interact with each other.
Attention is one of most well-researched areas of psychology, with dozens – if not hundreds – of theories, definitions and metaphors that seek to explain children’s attention processing. However, there are several ideas about attention that are particularly useful for educators to understand.
Idea 1: A child’s attention has two parts
The first useful understanding for educators, is to know that attention has two parts. The first, and most obvious of these is the ability to tune in – or ‘attend’ to – certain information. The second, and equally important part of attention, is the ability to tune out irrelevant information. In other words, attention can be thought of as a way of processing information. It allows us to select some information, by tuning out and discarding the rest (2). In this way, attention is often referred to as a ‘filtering’ system.
Idea 2: Children have different types of attention
The second useful idea comes from understanding that there are several different ‘types’ of attention. In particular, understanding the different types of attention (and the relationships between them) can help us form a ‘map’. We can then use this map to problem-solve and tailor different approaches for improving a child’s attention in each individual circumstance…rather than relying on one-size-fits-all approaches.
As educators, when we talk about ‘attention’, we are usually referring to sustained attention. This occurs when a child is able to filter out other information, sufficiently enough to stay focussed on a task for a period of time. One example of sustained attention is when a child is able to persist with an activity and, at the same time, ‘hold off’ on responding to other things competing for their attention. These other things might include external factors (a interesting conversation with friends, another activity). They might also include internal factors (feelings of hunger, physical discomfort, needing to use the toilet).
One of the most important types of attention is referred to as ‘flow‘ or a ‘flow state’. Colloquially, a flow state is sometimes called ‘being in the zone’. Similar to sustained attention, flow is characterised by concentration and engagement (3). However, it has additional characteristics which make it particularly relevant to teachers and homeschool educators. In particular, the defining feature of flow is that engagement is accompanied by both joy and mental clarity. At the same time, self-referential thinking – such as anxiety or self-consciousness – declines (4). Unlike sustained attention, a child is not ‘holding off’ on attending to other things competing for their attention. Rather, in a flow state, the child does not consciously register any competition for their attention. As a result, the child’s attention becomes more effortless and neurologically rewarding.
A third type of attention not commonly understood in learning environments, is the orienting reflex. This is a subconscious reaction where attention is redirected – or oriented – to a new, unexpected or sudden stimulus. The reflex not only involves re-directing the brain’s attention, but also involves reorienting the muscles of the body toward the stimulus. The orienting reflex explains why, for example, it is very hard to turn away when driving past the scene of an accident. This is not merely ‘sticky beaking’, but literally a reflex that is almost impossible to override with conscious thought alone. The orienting reflex is a survival mechanism, designed to hyperfocus and re-direct attention to potential threats or advantages in the environment.
Attention loops can be thought of as tracks which interfere with sustained attention or flow. Put simply, these are loops where a child’s attention jumps between different tasks, or when their attention is split across multiple tasks. There can be many different reasons for these attention loops. These include biological and neurological differences (such as those involved in ADHD) or frequent activation of the orienting reflex. Factors such as stress, hunger/ thirst, or physical discomfort can also create attention loops.
Strengthening and improving a child’s attention
Often, attention ‘problems’ observed in the learning environment are related to attention loops, and are viewed negatively by educators. However, it is helpful to remember that, even when in an attention loop, children are still paying attention to something. Attention loops are therefore not a deficit in attention. Rather, attention loops arise when a child’s neurology interprets a multiple signals as ‘worthy’ of their attention. These interpretations may include stimuli as potential threats, advantages or orienting stimuli. By understanding that these loops are functional – or ‘serving a purpose’ – we can gain more easily and effectively develop strategies that may help improve a child’s attention.
Decrease triggers for attention loops
When working to improve a child’s attention, one of the most useful and simple starting places is to decrease any conditions that may create attention loops. Depending on the profile and needs of each individual child, some of the things that may contribute to attention loops include:
- Unpredictable, irregular or excessive noise in the environment.
- Excessive or moving visual or other sensory stimuli in the learning environment (such as walls of colourful artwork).
- Unmet physical comfort needs (hunger, thirst, seating).
- Unmet movement needs.
- Unpredictable routines or expectations. This includes unrealistic/ inhumane boundaries, or the absence of healthy boundaries.
- Tasks that involve multiple demands or frequent switching between cognitive processes.
- Insufficient (or too much) time to complete the task.
- Unmet emotional needs or feelings of being unsafe, humiliated, shamed or unwanted.
Provide more opportunities for ‘flow’ attention
Increasing opportunities for flow attention is one of the most effective ways to support attention development in children. This is because it is sustained, self-motivated and highly resistant to attention loops. In turn, one of the most powerful contexts for supporting flow attention is child-selected play. However, play it is not the only activity that can generate a state of flow attention. Activities like cooking, walking, or even cleaning can all potentially lead to a flow state. Regardless of the specific activity, flow attention is usually associated with conditions that are:
- Chosen by the child (i.e. voluntary activities).
- Consistent with the child’s skill level (i.e. they can engage in the activity with a degree of competence, and they can see/ hear/ feel that they are progressing toward mastery).
- Enjoyably challenging (i.e. the task is not so easy that it can be completed without some degree of problem-solving).
- Intrinsically rewarding (i.e. the task itself feels positive for the child). (5)
From this list, we can see that flow attention is more than just ‘fun and games’. One of the defining characteristics of flow is that there is a balance between two forces. The first of these is the child’s desire to do the activity (intrinsic motivation). The second force is a moderate – but tolerable – amount of frustration at not having ‘quite yet’ mastered the ability to do the task. This creates a degree of tension, or inner ‘tug-of-war’ for the child. In turn, this propels their attention to focus on the task at hand. We can use this knowledge to understand that the less motivation a child has for a task, the more simple it needs to be. Alternatively, the harder the task, the more we need to match it to their motivations.
Practical strategies to improve a child’s attention for learning
In my own classroom settings, the first step I always take to improve a child’s attention, is to observe children at play – without any specific ‘teaching agenda’. This provides me with the opportunity to notice the sorts of play (or other activities) that each child is currently drawn to and inherently motivated by. Specifically, I will be looking for the experiences where each child is already able to sustain their attention. I am not only observing the child’s interests (e.g. dinosaurs or fairies), but more importantly how they engage with the play materials. Once I have an understanding of these motivations for each child, it becomes easier to identify ways that will support and extend each child’s attention in learning. This can be done in many different ways:
Putting it into practice: A real life example
Several years ago, I worked with a young child who I will call “Eddie”. Eddie was almost seven years old, and an extremely gifted reader (at about a grade 7 level). However, Eddie also refused to write. Any time he was asked to engage in a writing task he would employ all sorts of avoidant behaviours. These included taking multiple trips to the bathroom, or spending excessive time organising his writing materials. Once writing, he could only sustain very short periods of activity (between one or two minutes) before he lost attention.
My first step was was to set aside several blocks of time where I could observe Eddie’s play preferences. I discovered Eddie experienced great joy in construction play. In particular, he was drawn to building imaginary cities with cardboard materials that he could cut, glue, tape and decorate. He would happily stay engaged in this activity for well over our two hours. As his attention began to wane, he would re-engage quite easily if I said “what if we…” or “let’s pretend that…”. Not all children are the same in this regard, so noticing Eddie’s individual responses provided valuable clues about his attention needs.
Honour the child’s interests
The next step was to set up some classroom experiences where Eddie could more easily sustain his attention. Initially, this simply consisted of offering a cardboard- making station, in an area where there were minimal other distractions. I initially did not interfere with this play too much – other than to allow Eddie ample opportunity to ‘practice’ sustaining his attention. Not surprisingly, there was no battle or difficulty in having Eddie engage.
Build on what they can already attend to
Over the term, I gradually introduced new writing elements into the cardboard-making station. This began simply with using paint brushes and colourful markers as ways to decorate the cities that he and his friends were creating. Then, I would use Eddie’s language (“what if we…”) to offer new challenges that he wanted to achieve, and which could only be met by adding in progressively more complex writing tasks. These included:
- creating signs, initially using symbols or pictures, for the cardboard city;
- creating maps of the city;
- drawing ‘blueprints’ for other people to build;
- creating stories and characters for our cities;
- ‘writing’ these stories using pictures and simple symbols; and finally
- ‘writing’ these stories independently.
Using this approach, Eddie was fully engaging in writing activities by the end of the term. More importantly, was that he was able to comfortably sustain his attention for periods of 20 minutes and longer, and began experiencing writing as a pleasurable activity. These specific activities will not work for every child. However, the example does illustrate how paying attention to the ways in which individual children engage with materials and experiences can help extend and improve a child’s attention.
(1) Betts, J, Mckay, J, Maruff, P & Anderson, V 2006, ‘The development of sustained attention in children: The effect of age and task load’, Child Neuropsychology, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 205–221, retrieved March 27, 2022, from <https://doi.org/10.1080/09297040500488522>.
(2) Krauzlis, RJ, Wang, L, Yu, G & Katz, LN 2021, ‘What is attention?’, WIREs Cognitive Science, vol. n/a, no. n/a, p. e1570, retrieved March 27, 2022, from <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/wcs.1570>.
(3) Nakamura, J & Csikszentmihalyi, M 2014, ‘The concept of flow’, in Flow and the foundations of positive psychology, Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 239–263.
(4) van der Linden, D, Tops, M & Bakker, AB 2021, ‘The Neuroscience of the flow state: Involvement of the Locus Coeruleus Norepinephrine System’, Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 12, no. 645498, retrieved March 28, 2022, from <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.645498>.
(5) Thornhill, SMS & Badley, K 2020, Generating tact and flow for effective teaching and learning, Taylor & Francis Group, Milton, UNITED KINGDOM, retrieved March 30, 2022, from <http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/deakin/detail.action?docID=6368166>.