skip to site navigation

Parenting: Attention Span

By Harald Breiding-Buss

At a training session for a previous job, some five or so years ago, about learning and memory in pre-school children, the tutor made us memorise a sequence of unrelated numbers and then try to recall them.

The average – and no-one strayed very far from it – that people could recall correctly and in the right order, was eight numbers. The tutor, who has been doing this for a while, said eight was pretty much the going rate at the time. About ten years earlier, the average had been twelve.

That’s a lot of lost capability in a very short time, although things may be looking up. Recent studies suggest that internet activities like ‘working’ on Bebo or Facebook lengthen attention spans.

Apparently, creating your own profile and page requires a fair bit of concentration and organised thought, and these sites are nothing if not competitions for the zaniest or wittiest (or rudest) pages. On the face of it, they seem like a waste of time, but apparently some learning is to be had here.

There is no doubt that shorter attention spans are a bad thing. They are at the root of impulsive (and therefore often destructive) behaviour. The constant drive for an instant thrill leads to dependencies too: cigarettes, drugs, gambling, alcohol.

The most intelligent person won’t do well at school, ‘tech or varsity if they have the attention span of a goldfish, because they cannot access that potential of their brain that would lift them out of mediocrity.

Short attention-spanners re-act to life rather than going through it with any sense of direction, let alone purpose.

Although girls are by no means immune to short attention span issues and the related impulsive behaviour, boys are typically far more at risk.

A whopping 49% of 15-24 year-old young men (32% of young women) have ‘potentially hazardous’ alcohol consumption, according to the latest Social Report. They are more than twice as likely than young women to be killed in a road accident.

There is almost certainly some genetic component to attention spans, but obviously social factors play a big role, especially if within just one generation we are able to retain so much less information.Attention Span

Trying to lengthen (or maintain) the attention span of our children may be the most important piece of parenting we do when it comes to giving our children the chance to reach their potential. So how?

The key word is ‘focus’. In order to develop an attention span of any significant length, children need to be given something to focus their attention on, and that means avoiding distractions.

Children of any age need one-on-one time with a parent. Depending on their age, you may use that time to play, to talk, or to work together on something.

If you sit down on the floor with a toddler playing, for example, with a farm set, tot will probably get distracted by anything else within a minute, and maybe even walk away. That is normal, and the key is to stay put and let toddler come back to you (they will, after an equally short time).

Your play does not have to be particularly educational or be intended to teach your child something – as long as you are doing it together and are focused on it. If your toddler is particularly easily distracted start with very short one-on-one times of ‘organised’ play, gradually lengthening it minute-by-minute.

One tip from the aforementioned tutor for very little children is giving two or three-step instructions: “Can you press the red button on the stereo and then bring me my book from the table?” for example. As they get older, encourage them to remember things rather than write it down right away.

Books are a key tool in fostering attention spans. The content of the book is not nearly as important as the looking and reading involved. Whether you look for things in pictures, read to your child, or encourage your child to read themselves, all of it requires a degree of concentration.

As the children get older, projects are a great way to focus attention. This can be building or repairing something, drawing, creating a web page, writing a short-story, recording a self-made movie or video clip – anything that has a beginning and an end, plus more than a few seconds of thought.

With any project it is especially important that they finish what they have begun. Not necessarily always (sometimes the project is simply too big), but most of the time.

On the flip side, nothing kills attention spans quite like a TV that is going all day. Many households not only have the TV going all day, but the radio or stereo as well, using TV just for the images, and completely unrelated to the sound coming out of the speakers.

Many TV programmes are quite good even for little children, but the TV should be turned on specifically for them and turned off after.

Finally, the biggest obstacle to a longer attention span might be you. If you find it hard to focus your attention on anything for more than a few minutes, you’re bound to benefit from focused one-on-one time, at least as much as your child – but it requires self-discipline!

Next: The Balancing Act

Father & Child News

The Last Post

As the history of Father & Child is at an end, it is time to reduce the hosting costs and... Read more →