Why is it so hard for toddlers to focus?
It’s no surprise that toddlers aren’t the best when it comes to focusing their attention on something. Those little brains have SO MUCH going on! Attention is a skill just like any other that needs to be practiced and perfected. Babies aren’t just born with the ability to stay on task for a long time, they have to work at it. In the first four years of life, there is a great increase in the toddler’s ability to focus their attention on something. Read on for tips on how to get your toddler to focus.
Attention comes in stages. When babies are first born, they can’t even focus their eyes on one object or person for very long. After they learn to look at you or an object for an extended period of time, they have to learn to actively engage with an object, not just look at it. And in order to really count it as focused attention, they have to actively engage in an activity for an extended period of time. So as you can see, there are a lot of layers to attention. No wonder it takes our little people time to figure it all out!
Why is it important that toddlers learn to focus?
In a research article, you can find here, the authors state that focus and attention in early childhood is a predictor for a number of skills later on in life. Attention is foundational to learning, cognition, language skills, IQ, compliance, emotional regulation, and more. Wow! That’s quite a long and important list if you ask me. When you think about it, attention is the base of so many skills, so we need our toddlers to know how to focus. (Not to mention it’s super frustrating when your little one jumps from task to task with the attention of a squirrel.)
6 tips on how to get your toddler to focus
1. Pick an appropriate and fun task for your child to practice their attention skills.
If you are wanting to help your little person learn to focus, you have to make it FUN. You cannot expect them to pay attention to a 5-minute speech from one of your favorite politicians. That just won’t work for a toddler.
You have to choose a task that is:
- visual: Do not make your child merely listen to something. They likely do not have the language capability to understand something without a visual.
- interactive: Give your child something to DO. Make sure to choose a task that is engaging and fun for them.
- age-appropriate: Be sure to help your child work on a task that will be within their ability level. If you start them off with a task that is too hard, they will not be able to stick with it for an extended period of time.
- fun: Although you may be focused on helping your toddler learn the skill of focus and attention, you still have to disguise it in play. Choose an activity that they can genuinely enjoy, and they will have much better luck staying on task.
2. Prepare your child for the task you want them to focus on.
This tip is simple and straightforward. Before you have your little one sit down, talk them through what they are going to do. Help them to get excited about the activity you have planned for them. One of my favorite things about toddlers is how easy it is for them to get excited! If you hype up the activity, they will follow suit.
So if you are going to have your child color for a while, you can set the stage by saying something like, “After you’re done eating, we are going to color.” Then you can increase the excitement by asking some questions related to coloring, like “What color are you going to use first?” or “What are you going to draw?” or “What do you want me to draw?” This will help build anticipation before you get started. Toddlers are big about knowing what’s coming, so help them prepare by setting the stage.
3. Define the space where your little one will be completing the task.
Kids WILL get distracted sometimes. As I mentioned earlier, focus and attention are slowly building throughout toddlerhood. By giving your child a defined space to complete the task, they will be less likely to roam and wander off to the next thing.
You might define the space by sitting them at the table or in a regular chair or a high chair. Or you could use furniture or tape (check out this colorful tape here) to define the area they can play in. Preschool teachers use this approach a lot to help kids stay in center time, so it can work in your home too. By helping your toddler define the space they are in, you can help them increase their ability to stay on task.
4. Give your toddler a visual timer to help them know how long they will be working on the task.
Children are extremely visual learners. Toddlers rely heavily on their visual skills because their language is still growing. They likely don’t have a great concept of “five minutes” at this point, so giving them a visual timer will help them to understand what the expectation is. If your child begins to get off task, you can point to the timer and remind them that they should try to keep playing until the timer is all done. I love this because it’s as if the timer is in charge, and not you. If you continue to refer back to the timer, your child will hopefully understand that the task isn’t over until the timer is done. It’s gold!
There are a few styles of visual timers you can get. This one is similar to an analog clock like this one. My favorite visual timer though is a large sand timer like this. The choice is yours. (Bonus: these are also great for correction and discipline.)
5. Praise your child while playing to help them stay focused.
In the same study that outlined all the amazing benefits of good focus and attention, the authors investigated how positive feedback from caregivers impacted a toddler’s focus. The results were so encouraging! The researchers found that when mothers praised their children’s efforts (by saying things like “good job” or “you’re so smart”) they were able to stay on task for longer periods of time. That’s AMAZING!
This is just one more reason why I love words. They can be so powerful. So as your little one is trying to stay focused on the task you’ve set them up for, cheer them on. It can be general or specific, as long as it’s encouraging. Generally, if you are able to be positive and cheer your kids on, things go better for everyone! Check out my post here on other ways to be a better mom.
6. Practice makes
Okay, so now that you’ve got a good setup and ways to encourage your toddler to focus, you have to give them practice. They aren’t instantly going to be able to focus for 30 minutes, so help them build up their stamina. Give them practice and start easy. If you put too much pressure on them, they won’t want to keep trying, so keep things light and fun. You can see how well they focus the first few times you try out all these tips, and then add a minute or two the next time you try it out. Practice does not make perfect, but it does help your child to improve!
Go for it!
Now that you’ve implemented all of the above steps, I’d love to hear how it went in the comments! What are your best ideas for fun activities your little one can practice focusing with? Let me know.
Gaertner, B. M., Spinrad, T. L., & Eisenberg, N. (2008). Focused Attention in Toddlers: Measurement, Stability, and Relations to Negative Emotion and Parenting. Infant and child development, 17(4), 339–363. https://doi.org/10.1002/ICD.580