The Path to Paying Attention
by Ernie Batson, M.A.
The path to paying attention is quite a long and arduous trail. It all starts at birth and, hopefully, five or six years later the child is able to focus on their tasks and the people talking to them. Children are not born knowing how to focus; it’s something that is part of their development and is a learned skill rather than one that comes naturally. Along the way, children are going through three stages of development that start as young as 12 months and ends around six years of age.
I am writing about the path to paying attention for a couple reasons. One reason is those darn fidget spinners. Every time I think those things are finished I read another article claiming these toys actually help children focus. Simply put there are no toys that can replace, replicate, or reproduce the development of a child’s brain. When I read about toys taking the place of development I feel a strong need to say something.
The other reason is to help people understand what is developmentally appropriate. I talk with many parents who, thankfully, worry about their child’s behaviors and whether or not their child is normal. I believe if we understand the developmental stages of a certain skill we can all take a deep breath, relax, and give children the space and time they need to be a child.
Before I go into the three stages, please remember that ages and stages are just for general knowledge and guidance. Some children enter these phases at an earlier age while others wait a little while. Both are just fine because every child has their own developmental plan. I believe we forget about this fact and expect all children to be doing the same things at the same time. That’s not a fair expectation to have for children. Here are the three stages:
The Overly Exclusive Stage: This stage occurs between the ages of 12 and 20 months. During this phase baby can focus on an object so intently that all the bells, whistles, alarms, vacuums and noisy brothers and sisters won’t stop them from fixating on that one object. During this stage, I would talk for the child and describe what they’re seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, and tasting. For example, as baby is looking at a set of keys I would say something like “You’re looking at my keys. They’re very hard and shiny. I’ll bet they taste good.” People think I’m crazy when I do this with a baby and I do it because the baby is learning so much. Whenever we can connect words with experiences the brain is getting the necessary input for the thalamus to “send” all that information to the right place in the brain.
The Overly Inclusive Stage: “What’s this? What’s that? OMG, what’s this?” These questions are asked in a short period of time and with a sense of urgency unbeknownst to us! The brain has such a strong need for information and it’s driving the child’s curiosity. The Overly Inclusive Stage begins around 20 months and continues through the age of five or six. The best way to describe the behavior shown by children during this stage is ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). I only use these labels because we all have an idea of what this might look like. I do NOT believe children at this age have ADD or ADHD and I believe children should NOT be medicated for these types of behaviors. So much of these actions are due to brain activity and the normal process of development. Children must go through these stages naturally if we truly want children to have normal development.
Because this stage covers a long period of time, there are so many things we can do that help children develop the necessary skills to be able to focus. Here are some ideas:
Clear the clutter! When children (one to three year olds) are finished playing with a toy or doing a craft project, have children clean up their area and put everything away before they move on to the next activity or toy. It’s also important for children to do the majority of the work with a little bit of help from adults. Before you say children this young can’t clean up their mess, let me tell you about our infant playgroups. Children in our one year old playgroups will pick up toys and put them in a toy box when it’s time to clean up our toys. Granted this is something they had to learn (and it takes about five playgroups for everyone to get the idea of cleaning up) and yet, they are expert “picker-uppers’!
Clear the clutter Part Two! As they get older and have homework to do, I would make sure there is only one piece of paper out at a time. When they finished with the one in front of them, it gets put away and another sheet comes out. Keep the child on task of cleaning up one thing completely before moving on to the next mess.
Play Freeze Games. There are so many different ways to play freeze games; it’s really up to your imagination and creativity. However, any game you play needs to have the desired outcome of stopping and listening to whatever is going to be said next.
The magical number is three! Children (and adults) can remember things in threes. So, when giving children directions keep it to three things at a time. If a child is having difficulty remembering three things, give them one direction at a time. When they’re successful with that, increase the number to two. When they’re successful with that, increase the number of directions to three. I also like to ask the child to repeat my directions so I can make sure they heard me before going off to do the tasks.
Comprehension is king and queen! When you’re finished watching a movie or reading a book, ask your child to identify the most important person (main character), the problem they had to solve and how they solved their problem, sequence in order the top three events, and what was happening in the beginning/ending of the book.
Paying Attention: This stage picks up between 5 and 6 years of age; just in time for a child’s first entrance into public school. If the child has had enough experiences and expectations then they will be ready to listen to the teacher, follow directions, and complete tasks on time. If a child isn’t doing this by now, this tells me they need some extra time and practice; not medication.
There is one more piece that can help or hinder a child’s ability to focus and that is the child’s sensory development. In and of itself, sensory development is worthy of one or more blogs. Suffice it to say that sensory development is a huge piece in a child’s overall academic success. Without going into much detail of what it is or what to do, my best advice is to get your child in the mud, sand, water, snow, turn them upside down, rock them back and forth, and put all kinds of sponges in their bath. The goal is to stimulate a child’s senses. It’s not always neat and clean and I haven’t met a child yet that is neat and clean all day every day. For more information about Sensory Integration, I recommend checking out The Out-of Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz.
Finally, just because a child has the ability to pay attention doesn’t mean they are always going to do so! They’re still children learning all the nuances of life and there will be more exciting things around the corner than listening to and following directions. These situations help children refine the skill of paying attention and take them to the next level of focusing that in time will help them when they’re adults.
Thanks for reading and this is what I know about children.