There are many different schools of thought when it comes to finding the most beneficial ways of helping children concentrate. When it comes to student attention span, so much of it is developmental, but that is something that can be worked with given the proper tools and mindset. Most people do agree that it is harder to captivate the audience of younger children as opposed to those who are older. Simply stated, the younger a child is, the less of an attention span they have. However, it is possible to help foster concentration in young children if the proper steps are taken.
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Helping Children Concentrate: A How-To Guide
Part 1: Begin with the End in Mind
One of my favorite sayings is “Begin with the End in Mind.” What I mean by this is that the best way to start any project – big or small – is with a clear picture of the end goal. And, educating kids is definitely a big project!
Before we dive into tips and techniques for helping kids focus, let’s talk about the end goal. We all want similar things for our children:
- We want them to be happy and healthy.
- We want them to grow, learn and mature into capable adults that are equipped to achieve their goals.
- We want them to be ethical, decent and productive.
- We want their hearts to be full of contentment and peace.
In sum, we want our kids to develop an honorable character and to be successful in their well-chosen pursuits.
What does that have to do with developing their ability to concentrate?
“The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. It lays the whole basis for his character and social behaviour.”
– Maria Montessori. The Absorbent Mind.
If Dr. Montessori is right, and I’d bet a shiny nickel that she is, fostering this ability to concentrate in our kids helps us give our children the gifts we most want them to have. With some simple teaching techniques, it is much easier helping children concentrate than trying to fight nature.
Part 2: The Link Between Concentration and Success
Concentration is the ability to focus the mind on one subject, object or thought while simultaneously excluding from the mind all unrelated thoughts, ideas, feelings, and sensations. Achieving any goal requires this ability to focus.
Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori method, was born over 100 years ago and knew this based on her observations of young children in Italy. She said:
“An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child’s energies and mental capacities, and leads him to self-mastery.”
“Concentration is the key that opens up to the child the latent treasures within him.”
Interestingly, much newer research from Angela Duckworth on a topic called GRIT reinforces what Montessori already knew. Here’s the Cliff Notes version (but you can check out her book here):
- Grit is defined as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” (Kind of sounds like Grit and Concentration go hand in hand, huh?)
- When it comes to high achievement, grit may be as essential as intelligence.
- Grit is a particularly helpful trait when it comes to challenging experiences.
So, Montessori and Duckworth are saying a lot of the same things: kids who can intensely focus on achieving goals, and do so over the long haul are the most likely to tap into their innate talents and to be successful.
Did you hear that?!? This means that: Kids who can concentrate, and do so for long periods of time, are the most likely to succeed! It is only natural that we, as educators, should foster in attempts of helping children concentrate as much as we can.
Part 3: What is a Normal Attention Span?
The average attention span is known to increase with age. This is so predictable that experts agree on using the following formula to determine what a normal attention span is in a young child:
AGE x (2-5 MINUTES) = AVERAGE ATTENTION SPAN
Here’s how that plays out in terms of what is reasonable to expect from our young children:
- Age 1: 2 – 5 Minute Attention Span
- Age 2: 4 – 10 Minute Attention Span
- Age 3: 6 – 15 Minute Attention Span
- Age 4: 8 – 20 Minute Attention Span
- Age 5: 10 – 25 Minute Attention Span
So, what does this mean?
Well, first and foremost, this takes some pressure off of us. Reality Check: no matter what we do, simply allowing our kids to mature along the normal course of development will lengthen their attention spans, no matter how much we actively intend on helping children concentrate.
Second, this puts things into perspective for us. Regardless of how laudable our goals are, it is simply not reasonable for us to expect small children to focus for extended periods of time, even if they’re REALLY interested in the task.
Third – and finally – it tells us what to aim for as we move along this path of developing their concentration.
I urge you to keep in mind that every child is uniquely gifted – our job as educators is to help them discover and develop their gifts. As Einstein said: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its’ whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Part 4: A Roadmap for Success
Here, I lay out a practical and easy to follow plan designed to lengthen the young child’s attention span and helping children concentrate.
Observe the child until you can answer these questions without hesitation:
- What does the child enjoy doing most?
- What does the child continually come back to, over and over again, as if it’s on repeat in his mind?
- What currently holds the child’s attention the longest?
PLEASE start with observation!
Why? Think about it… when do you concentrate for long periods of time? For me, it’s when I’m passionate about something. And, study after study says it’s the same for all people, big and small. So, what? This means that we MUST find out what interests and entices the child in order to cultivate his ability to focus. Kind of sounds like this whole student-centered learning idea, eh?
Second: Prepare the Environment
Make sure you have everything you need, including some tools or manipulatives the child has not yet seen, but that you feel confident he or she will enjoy. Also, make sure there is enough time for the child to fully engage and focus. Interruption is the enemy.
For example, if the child most enjoys pouring, research some pouring activities and then collect what you already have in your home to facilitate — likely, this would include measuring spoons, measuring cups, different sizes of bowls, cups, and ladles, etc… Then, go to the Dollar Store and get what you don’t have. For pouring, you might buy some inexpensive rice, beads, funnels, and food coloring.
Preparing the environment is CRUCIAL.
Your goal is to encourage longer and longer periods of focus. So, you MUST have what you need on hand and immediately available. This will enable you to extend the activity as the child nears the end of his current attention span.
When you set up the pouring station, be sure to make it orderly and attractive. After all, you want the child to WANT to work there!
Third: Provide a Student-Centered Choice
Let the child lead.
Let’s continue with the pouring example. Ask the child “I see that you’re enjoying pouring. Would you like to pour sand or water today?” (Be sure you have a bowl of each at the ready to whip out and add to your prepared station!) In reality, the child’s response to your question doesn’t matter, because you already know he loves the activity, and all of the materials you offer him will be on hand should he change his mind or begin to lose focus.
Fourth: Don’t Interrupt
Resist the urge to interrupt or comment, even if it is to praise. Just supervise and be the purveyor of tools, always respecting the child’s need to learn and discover independently.
Fifth: Extend the Lesson
As the child begins to tire of the activity, provide a new tool or strategy to refocus his attention on the original task.
Back to pouring: if the child chose to pour with water, and he was getting tired, I might offer food coloring in a dropper so that by pouring, he would get to do some color mixing. In this way, the child continues being focused on pouring (the original task) for a longer period of time. Be sure to keep it student-centered by asking: “would you like to pour with colorful water next?” Make it exciting and interactive: for example, “Would you like to start with blue or green?”
Sixth: Praise Upon Completion
When the child finishes his work, praise him or her for achieving the goal and minimize the importance of the work product. Likely, there will be a mess. Who cares? If you really did use water and food coloring, you will likely have nothing but black water. So what? The goal was for the child to concentrate. Praise for what he was able to do: “I like the way you worked hard and focused on your pouring.”
Seventh: Celebrate and Rest
Give the child some unstructured play (which is so important, anyway!) and give yourself a pat on the back. Nothing about this is easy. But, as they say, difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.
About the Author:
Mandi J. Zielinski is an attorney and professional entrepreneur who runs several small businesses. She homeschools her two children with a multilingual, Montessori-inspired approach. She is the founder of Multisori, the simple but powerful idea that optimal learning occurs when education is customized to the unique needs of each child. Mandi dreams of a student-centered world full of successful, happy kids that love to learn. You can connect and collaborate with her via her Facebook Community: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Montessori.Inspired.Homeschooling/