How to Improve Your Child’s Attention Span

“Phoebe just doesn’t want to listen.” “I feel like I can read the same story over and over to Trevor, and he still can’t answer one question about it.” “Jill rarely finishes her work in class.” “I’ll ask Sam to draw a picture of his favorite game for me, but 2 minutes later he is scribbling all over another piece of paper.” “I’ve told Sarah to pick her toys up 5 times now, but she keeps stopping anytime she hears a car go by.”

Hi everyone, speech-language pathologist/momma here. If you hear these comments from your child’s teacher or hear yourself making them, your child may have a short attention span. Before I go on, let me be clear: some children are just very active and may need movement in order to listen. Some children, however, suffer from a short attention span and find it difficult to stay on task for a period of time.

How Long Should My Child’s Attention Span Be?

The chart below came from http://www.parentingpress.com/media/is-this-a-phase_excerpt2.html

Typical Attention Span by Age
Age Activity How Can We Help?
2 to 7 mo. A baby may watch someone, copy expressions, and trade sounds for as long as 2-3 minutes at 2 months. By 7 months, this typically continues for at least 5 minutes. Take turns leading and following. Be warm, interested, and interesting to look at. Let babies rest when they turn away.
18 mo. Alone, a toddler may spend 30 seconds on a single activity or a minute or two on several activities before seeking the caregiver’s attention. Keep adult expectations realistic.
2 yr. Alone, a 2-year-old may spend 30-60 seconds on a single activity; with an adult’s active encouragement, 2-3 minutes By playing with toddlers or talking about their activities, adults can increase children’s attention spans. Point out characteristics of whatever they are playing with: “Do you see the black dot on it?” “Will it fit in the cup?” “Can you push it over here?”
2½ yr. Alone, the toddler may spend about 2 minutes on a single activity. The usual preference: for almost constant attention from an adult.

With or near a small group of children, a toddler may play peacefully for 10 minutes.

3 yr. A preschooler working alone may spend 3-8 minutes on an interesting activity and may finish it if it’s easy. Look for ways to keep preschoolers interested in the activities they start. Encourage and follow their interests. Avoid distracting them or taking over the activities.
3½ yr. Working alone, a preschooler can stay busy for 15 minutes if there are a variety of interesting choices.
4 yr. By 4, a child engrossed in an activity may ignore distractions such as the call to dinner.

Alone, the 4-year-old may spend 7-8 minutes on a single activity, or as much as 15 minutes if the activity is new and especially interesting (an eye exam, for example).

With a small group, a 4-year-old may spend 5-10 minutes playing without interruption.

Four-year-olds understand it is harderto pay attention to uninteresting tasks, or when distracted by noise or their own thoughts. They are more likely to stay interested when they’re comfortable with the task or project and feel successful. They may need help to meet their standards. Adults can also keep children interested in projects with impromptu games and humor.
4½ yr. Working alone, the pre-kindergartener may spend 2-3 minutes on a task chosen by an adult such as getting dressed or picking up toys.
5 yr. By 5, most children can ignore minor distractions. Alone, they will focus on a single interesting activity for 10 or 15 minutes and on an assigned task for 4-6 minutes if it’s easy and interesting. A small group of children can work or play together without interruption for 10-25 minutes. Recognize that personal interest remains the most important motivation for 5-year-olds. It will double the length of their attention span.
6 yr. Working alone on a single activity, a 6-year-old may stay interested for as much as 30 minutes. Continue to build on children’s interests and stay alert to difficult tasks, so that you can help.
Compiled from multiple sources by Helen F. Neville

Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am not suggesting your child has ADD or ADHD; nor am I qualified to diagnose as such. I am, however, qualified to provide language therapy with a goal of improving attention span.

First, Find Your Child’s Starting Point

What is your child’s attention span as of now? Why? So later down the road you can compare their starting point data to new data to determine if their attention span is improving. Give your child a task to do. Something such as lining their toys up in a row, or finding how many red things they can find in the house, for example. Video record your child or use a good old fashioned pen and paper and record how many times you have to redirect (“redirect” is where you bring your child’s attention back to the task they are supposed to be performing) your child back to the task at hand. Do NOT give them a task you know they dislike, such as cleaning their room; they will then be trying to become distracted on purpose and do NOT record their attention span while watching t.v., IPAD, video games, etc. If your child is in school, ask their teacher to make an observation and do a count of how many redirections your child required.

Make an Attention Span Goal

Use your child’s starting point and create an attention span goal. Over time, this goal will change as your child’s attention span improves. Here are some example goals:

“When it is quiet, Phoebe will require no more than 4 redirections in a 5 minute period at home while doing ________.”

As Phoebe’s attention span improves over time, a new goal may be…

“With music playing (the kind with words), Phoebe will require no more than 4 redirections in a 5 minute period at home while doing ____________” or “When it is quiet, Phoebe will require no more than 2 redirections in a 5 minute period at home while doing _____________.”

Activities and Techniques to Improve Attention Span


Start out with minimal distractions. Turn off the t.v. and minimize background noise as much as possible, at least in the beginning. As your child’s attention span begins to improve, slowly incorporate background noise in; ’cause in real life, it’s noisy.

Be consistent. I say this in every post I write, because it’s so important! It does take time for your child to understand they need to do “y” when you do “x.” Stay steady – it may take time, but you and your child will fall into a pattern.

Use a timer. Tell your child that for the next “3 minutes,” you want them to pick up all their toys without stopping. I personally like to use a free Timer app on my phone during therapy sessions when working with children with attention span or transitioning issues.

Redirect. If your child stops doing what you asked them to do or they completely change the subject mid-conversation, redirect them by HOLDING UP YOUR HAND or TAPPING THEM ON THE SHOULDER, as means of getting their attention, and say, “We were talking about what movie to watch” or “You were picking up your toys.”

Task cards. Make some pictures of common activities or tasks you ask your child to do. You can either Google some pictures, draw some, or take actual pictures. If your child can read, make blank squares and just write on them. Take the appropriate task card and set it in front of your child or make a Velcro wrist band and put the card on the wrist band until the task is complete. This technique does require extra work initially, but it saves you from having to redirect your child so many times, as well as gives your child more independence.

Sticker between the eyes. Place a sticker between your eyes and challenge your child to see how long they can look at the sticker without looking away. They may look down at the floor a few times though because they’re doubled over laughing. I know this is unconventional, but it works – especially for those who are in the beginning stages of improving their attention span.

Find patterns and matches. The following website has simple to more complex activities that require children to use their attention span to complete the tasks: https://mother-top.com/how-to-develop-attention-in-children-activities-games-and-worksheets/

Play matching memory games. Lay matching cards face down. Take turns flipping two cards over at a time. Make sure to flip the card directly over onto the table or floor so your child can more easily remember where each card is. Start simple with 4 pairs of matches and then work your way up to more pairs.

Find only one color. Lay an assortment of blocks or toys in front of your child. Instruct them to “only pick up the red ones.”

Mazes. Have your child do puzzle mazes – these really require concentration! You can print some free mazes off at https://krazydad.com/mazes/index.php?sv=EZ. These range from easy to hard.

Clap for the word. Pick a book and find a word that occurs frequently throughout the book. Tell your child that you want them to clap every time they hear the word while you are reading. Modify this activity and do it while you are driving down the road. Don’t read, of course, haha. Say sentences, however, and have them clap every time you say “the word.”scared modern family GIF

Check progress. Remember to check your child’s progress so you can compare their starting point data to present data in order to determine if progress is being made.

Ask for more. If your child is showing improvement in their attention span, begin slowly asking more of them. For example, if they can perform an activity for up to 3 minutes without redirections, set the timer for 4 minutes. If they have been doing it before with no background noise on, turn on some music or talk out loud while they are performing the activity.

Make a schedule. Make a schedule for what your child is going to do for the next little while.

Increase distractions over time. In the real world, there’s cars honking, sirens, dogs barking, other people talking and moving, just a lot of background noise. If you live in a quiet neighborhood, make your own noise using radios, televisions, phones, etc.

In Summary…

Any task or activity is a new opportunity for your child to improve their attention span abilities. Remember to be very direct as to what it is you want them to do. Start simple, and over time, increase in difficulty as your child’s attention span improves.

My Disclaimer Statement: If you have any concerns about your child’s attention, please have them evaluated by a specialist. If you have any concerns about your child’s speech or language skills and have not yet done so, please have them evaluated by a speech-language pathologist. I am a speech-language pathologist, but this post is not a substitution for a formal evaluation or treatment. Your child and we (speech-language pathologists) really need you to continue seeking out ways to help your child improve at home – this makes your child’s progress and prognosis so much better when you do!!!

Please leave a comment or question in the comments below if you have any concerns, input, or would like me to write about something specific!

Related Posts:

What Does It Mean if My Child Has A Language Delay or Disorder?
How To Improve Your Child’s Speech at Home Using A Structured Approach
How to Improve Your Child’s Speech at Home Using Everyday Activities
Everyday Activities to do at Home to Help Your Child Start Talking
Is Your Child Having Difficulty Communicating? It May Be Due to a Limited Vocabulary Bank.
How to Expand Your Child’s Vocabulary to Improve Their Communication
How to Teach Your Nonverbal Child to Communicate Without Using Words
Part 1 of The Basic Language Concepts Your Child Needs and How to Teach Them at Home
Part 2 of the Basic Language Concepts Your Child Needs and How to Teach Them at Home

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