You can begin supporting a healthy attention span for learning from birth. Here are five simple yet powerful keys that help attention develop.
Many social observers believe that humans’ attention spans are getting shorter, thanks to our sound-bite world of 140-character news and six-second movies. Yet being able to focus and process information remains an essential skill that babies need to learn in order to be smart, active learners who are successful in school and in life.
A healthy attention system is needed for good cognition. Babies aren’t born with a full-grown attention span though. Certain factors help healthy attention develop.
It’s a good idea to talk to and emotionally connect with your baby as often as you can. This interaction is what helps babies as young as 9 months old begin to engage in “mutual focus”—that is, following an adult’s gaze to look at the same thing, such as a toy. An early example of “joint attention,” or “shared attention,” it’s the basis for communication, collaborating, and learning. By the second year of life, your baby will show increasing interest in what’s going on around the room and follow your gaze. Kids in classrooms use joint attention throughout their school careers.
The Role of Nutrition
The brain is made up of fats, and a prevalent type of fatty acid in it is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The retina of the eye is especially rich in DHA.
Vision is a critical part of attention. Numerous studies have established a link between nutrition and the development of a strong visual system.
By recording babies’ heart rates, eye-tracking, and behavioral responses to being shown adult faces, researchers can track their attention. (Heart rate slows when a baby is attending to something.) When studies compared babies who had received either formula that had DHA to those who hadn’t received DHA, those who had DHA in their diet showed better sustained attention scores through 9 months of age.
Varied Activities and Routines
A toddler can’t focus much longer than 15 minutes, at most, on one thing, and less if it requires a lot of concentration. Short bursts of focused activity, followed by physical activity, can help to reset her attention span. This helps explain why toddlers don't do well in the type of academic classroom where school-age kids thrive. Toddlers and preschoolers need a day paced with action, rest, nutrition, and quiet play.
Age-Appropriate Skill Building
To help maximize your child’s focus, start with what your child can do, and gradually add more of a challenge as she masters it. For example, start with reading board books. Once your child is able to turn the pages to “read” without chewing them or trying to pull them out, you can work up to longer books with paper pages. Build on one skill at a time instead of trying to skip over stages.
It’s only natural that if we’re interested in what we’re doing, our attention remains captured for longer. Use your child’s interests and likes to captivate her. For example, if she likes trucks, read books about construction and roadwork. Point out the different colors, shapes, and tools you see.