The ability to focus predicts success
We all know by now that being able to concentrate all of our attention makes it possible to persevere, to set and to achieve our goals.
Yet sometimes our toddler seems to have trouble staying on task for more than a few seconds at a time. What to do?
What any emotional parent would, of course – google ADHD symptoms. And now you have a headache, but it’s not just any type of headache.
Your mind gets flooded with questions. Does my toddler have ADHD? Is he being difficult to discipline? Or he is just acting typical for his or her age?
Bring on that nice guilt trip from self-questioning your parenting choices and capabilities! Add this to the general state of anxiety and confusion, and now we’re talking. You have been hijacked by the “self-diagnosis on the internet” virus.
But it’s all OK! If you often feel slightly crazy, it means you’re probably doing the whole parenting thing right.
Now, this is where it really helps to draw the line. Breathe deeply, step back and asses the reality of the situation.
When should we really worry?
The actual percentage of toddlers with ADHD in very small, so chances are you have a healthy, very energetic toddler.
First of all, most toddlers and preschoolers may sometimes have difficulty paying attention, following directions, and waiting or taking their turn.
Officially, the average attention span for a 2-year-old is 4 to 6 minutes and for 4-year-olds is 8 to 12 minutes.
Reality check: distractions, hunger, tiredness, interest and a whole bunch of environmental and psychological influences will play a huge role in determining how long a child can focus.
Heck, this happens to us adults, after years of practicing patience and with all the knowledge, meditation apps and tools that we have at our disposal. And if you really think about it, it makes sense. Some things are just extremely boring to us, some are super exciting.
First on my list of vital information that we don’t hear enough of is the fact that our child’s prefrontal cortex, responsible for focus, logic, control of impulses, is not fully developed. In fact, the human prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until around the age of 25, with some researchers going as far as 30.
Yay, we can now all safely justify the shitty decisions we made in our early to late 20ies.
For those of you interested in psychology, research shows that a lack of focus can also be a personality variation. According to the Big Five personality traits or “OCEAN” model, if you are high in trait openness, low in trait conscientiousness, high in extraversion, low in agreeableness and high in neuroticism, you will most likely have symptoms of ADHD. Both as an adult and as a child. But good news, if this is the case, you can improve this.
Are there activities that are helpful for teaching kids to focus better?
Yes. Besides sharing some memes with you guys, I really wanted to make an extensive list of things that we can do to help our toddlers focus better. I just couldn’t find such a list, so I wrote down this long format post, hoping that if you find yourself in a similar situation, I will help you find some well-researched advice.
Surely, I am not a trained specialist and obviously I don’t know your child, so you have to take what I say with a grain of salt. Focus training has not proven to definitely cure attention deficit but it is also not proven to be harmful, on the contrary.
If you still worry that your toddlers’ ability to focus is much below the average limit, you should definitely seek professional advice.
So, grab yourself some coffee and let’s go:
1. Set-up realistic expectations
How much should a toddler keep focus? Researcher Kathleen Kannass, Ph.D., associate professor of developmental psychology at Loyola University Chicago found in her research that an average 2 1/2-year-old can focus on a toy for about 4 minutes, while a typical 4-year-old might reach 12 minutes.
She also shows that we can start improving early attention in babies who are just a few months old. This means that early attention is not a fixed trait and toddlers can really learn to focus better.
But, uhm, how? The key here, in my opinion, is to have empathy and get reality checks very often. If it is difficult for us adults to focus on boring things, it is extremely difficult for a very active toddler to regulate and sit down on command on subjects that are either too boring and too hard to understand.
However, this does not mean we should not have any expectations at all. On the contrary. If we help them with the proper tools and mindset, kids live up to the expectations we have for them. There have been repeated studies showing how high expectations lead to better performance and how low expectations lead to worse performance.
For example, if teachers or trainers in studies believed some randomly selected students have higher IQ or high leadership potential, these kids actually ended up outperforming the others, scoring high on the traits teachers believed they had, even though this was not true initially. Mostly because teachers treated them with way more patience, smiling more, generally being nicer.
However, a study done here in Bavaria, Germany, shows that expectations that are too high can be harmful to kids.
Our 2-year-old toddler can focus on accomplishing age-appropriate tasks. She gladly cleans up her spills, puts her dirty dish in the sink, puts back her shoes to the shoe rack, throws away her litter to the trash bin, washes her hands, brushes her teeth, passes on the dishes from the dishwasher so I can put them back in the cupboard. She loves to vacuum.
We didn’t need to reinforce these tasks on her, we just told her that this is how we do things and showed her how to do it herself. And then we sat back and watched her clumsily try and try again and again, praising her for trying. She really likes doing what grown-ups do and this is true for most toddlers.
Of course, we do not pin her down and force her to learn to read and do calculus. Studies show that kids are most likely to learn reading on their own for many reasons, especially if reading is valued in your family.
Most of the time she refuses to clean up her toys, but this is where we understand that expectations should not be too high. We show her how to clean them up, we do it together, but then again, she is 2.
2. Minimize Distractions
Loud background noise may make it harder for toddlers to learn language early on, according to a study published in the journal Child Development. While adults might have an easier time blocking noises out, for toddlers and preschoolers it is not as easy.
Loud tv, loud radio, a noisy big family, the kindergarten group filled with other kids moving around – all of these are big focus disruptors for the little ones. So be sure to keep a quieter environment as much as possible especially when you wish to teach your child new words and things. Alternatively, pick just one toy and take it to a separate area, with fewer distractions.
3. Influence attention by constantly asking them to keep focused
Attention can be influenced by frequent verbal instruction. Research shows that if you ask your child to stay on task and to ignore a distracting event, their attention and task performance improve significantly. In this study, they made kids play with a toy or do a puzzle and introduced a loud TV in the background with the intent of distracting the child`s attention.
This was how the dialogue that leads to better focus sounded like: “I’m going to give you some toys, and I want you to work really hard at playing with the toys. This tv is going to come on with some silly stuff, but I want you to keep playing with the toys, and don’t [experimenter shook her head no] look at the tv.
Remember, your job is to play with the toys and don’t [experimenter shook her head no] look at the tv.” In both the moderate and frequent instruction condition, all future instruction consisted of the experimenter saying, “Play with the toys, and don’t [experimenter shook her head no] look at the tv.
I find that regardless of distractions, it also helps a lot if you ask kids questions about the task you are doing together. This way you avoid them spacing out and you check that they are listening to you.
You can try asking questions about what you see. For instance, if you are doing a sorting exercise and your kids pick up an object, you can ask “What is that?”,”Where do you want to put that”, “What color is this object”?
You get the point: it keeps kids engaged most times and they also see that you are paying full attention to what they are doing. Which by the way, they love.
4. Minimize toys
For real, this is a topic that I cannot stress enough. This is probably one of the most common mistakes we make as parents and I was guilty of it in the beginning. The reasons why we buy so many toys are numerous and I surely can relate to some, although I was not aware of it. But after reading the research and finally listening to my husband, who was telling me about this before our first daughter was even born, I completely changed my mind.
Researchers report that when children under five have too many toys, they get overwhelmed and cannot concentrate on any one thing long enough to learn from it. This may even harm their development.
Having just a few, carefully selected toys is essential to increase both focus and creativity in children.
There have also been a number of experiments on toy-free kindergarten initiatives in Germany, that tested for 3 months the impacts of no toys whatsoever on kids 3 to 6. The outcomes were very positive, children were less stressed, more focused and had more confidence in themselves and their interactions with others.
P.S. Books don’t count as toys. There is clear research linking reading with improved academic performance and self-esteem.
5. Read to your child
Reading to your little ones is one of the most beneficial learning experiences. Apart from it helping improve their language and being fun, new studies show that parents who read to their babies and toddlers can potentially help curb behaviors like aggression, hyperactivity and difficulty with attention.
In fact, reading from a very young age, starting with birth and up to 3 years has really large positive impacts on a child’s behavior. I believe that passing on the love for books and reading to children is one of the best things we can do for them as parents.
6. Pick toys that your child is interested in
If you look closely, your toddler is already exhibiting likes and dislikes on most topics and he is shaping slowly a personality of his own. What worked for us was to keep an open mind and try new activities and then repeat the ones that my kid liked.
I believe strongly we should not force a toddler to focus for 4 minutes if he blatantly refuses the activity. I mean, why? Wouldn’t that be just us stubbornly forcing our likes on a toddler?
It happens more often than we would like to admit, mostly because we have a lot of fixed ideas and expectations of what our kids should be, what they should like or do, on what makes them smart or look good. Kids don’t care. And it’s fine. We should not let our expectations make us give up trying to play together with our kids.
For example, just one month ago, there was no way I could read a normal storybook to my girl. She insisted on turning the text-filled pages before I could even read the first words. But then I found that she would always bring very visual books, with day to day life scenes. Below are 2 of her favorites, “I go shopping” and “I go to kindergarten”.
She will look at all the small details and tell me what she sees. I ask her questions and she loves to give me her answers. This can go on for a long time before she gets bored.
So, preferences, preferences.
7. Select toys for various developmental needs
Toys are everywhere these days, but I think it is important to carefully pick just a few toys that cover the different developmental needs of our kids.
They could be toys that encourage reading habits (word puzzles), music skills (classroom instruments), pretend-play (like playing doctor, pretend cooking), that sharpen their imagination and creativity (art sets), for problem-solving skills (puzzles), for physical activities (building blocks), etc.
Luna likes and wanted to play over and over again with:
- Painting with water
- Wall painting in the tub using shaving foam and food coloring
- Reading books with many interesting pictures
- Matching games
- Sorting games
- Puzzles with large pieces
- Cards with objects
- Stacking boxes, cubes, big legos, food cans
- Harmonica and drums
- Play pretend – doctor or cooking together in her little kitchen
- Playing with the dog and taking away his toys
- Playing with her sister and taking away her toys
8. Take short breaks
Even those that are masters at focusing will eventually need a break. Our minds can struggle to focus intensely on tasks. What helps here is to divide your learning activities into segments that are age-appropriate, with 5–10-minute breaks between tasks. Something like the Pomodoro technique, but for toddlers.
9. Get plenty of physical exercise before learning activities
Did you know that toddlers should get at least 3 hours of physical activity? This should happen throughout the day and include indoor and outdoor activities. So make sure to get him to a playground if he seems to be extra active. There is direct research showing that physical exercise improves focus.
10. Get moving indoors
Experiments on school children where learning was paired with physical activities repeatedly showed improved concentration, memory and thinking skills.
In my experience, when Luna gets fidgety, we do something physical. We stand up, stretch, do a few jumps up and down, do the “Run Away” part of Baby Shark.
We then get back to the task and it proves to be super effective.
11. Rough and tumble play
Again vital info that we don’t hear enough of considering its importance. I believe rough and tumble play is essential for any child. Rough and tumble (RTP) is a common form of play between kids and their dads. It surely doesn’t have to be limited to dads, but it is so at this point because it is a form of physical play, characterized by aggressive behaviors such as wrestling, grappling, jumping, tumbling, and chasing, all in a play context of course.
Here is a pretty important catch on this one, for us women particularly – reports show that women sometimes have a hard time distinguishing rough and tumble play from fighting, especially women that did not engage in this type of play themselves. This is an issue especially in largely female professions, such as teaching. Luckily there is a growing awareness in teaching and general interactions with kids about the importance of RTP and about the fact that being too careful can end up harming the child’s development.
My own experience with this was a similar one. My husband naturally engaged in rough and tumble with our girl, while my face shifted in terror every time I saw them doing something that looked borderline dangerous.
Except it was nothing of the kind. You can really tell that the kids love it.
Ok, ok, so where’s the connection between this and focus? While it primarily teaches kids body awareness and control, I believe it is key to developing cognitive and social-emotional skills.
With rough and tumble play, kids will get exercise and consume some of their energy, they will improve their motor skills, flexibility, hand-eye coordination, and they will gain better body and emotion control, thus having an easier time focusing.
Once you get past your instincts for protection, it is actually easy to observe that kids are naturally interested in this kind of play. They will come to poke you, they will giggle around you and will roll over like little kittens, squeaking with joy and excitement.
If you wrestle with your kids, you throw them up in the air, you let them pull your hair or let them slightly hit you, they will soon learn what hurts, what doesn’t and the limits to what they can do.
Your feedback and that of other kids is crucial to understanding social norms and interactions. I observed that kids who like each other engage in this kind of play all of the time, and it is important to let them do so.
I am now glad I did not intervene because our girl is extremely confident in her body at her age and everyone seems to point this out to us recently.
12. Create structure in your home
I am now a firm believer that creating routines is extremely beneficial because virtually everybody learns and works better in a predictable pattern or environment. I used to have no structure or plan for my day and it exhausted me and it surely did not make me feel good at all. And no wonder, I was aiming at nothing and everything was unknown. That is too much information for the brain to take in at once.
So I learned how to use a schedule. Making a daily plan – and working on sticking to it has changed everything because it encouraged organization and self-discipline.
Structure and routines are important for toddlers and kids in particular. It helps them have a sense of security and deal with life changes much easier. They bond with the family during activities and there is diminished stress in a household where we know what to expect. Kids build up self-confidence from doing things by themselves and they learn how to manage their time.
Our typical daily schedule looks like this:
- 7:00 – Waking up, having breakfast and getting ready for the day
- 8:30 – Walking with Luna and Nadja to day-care
- 8:30 to 10:30 – Playtime, housework and feeding Nadja. Naptime for Nadja
- 8:30 to 13:30 – Work time for my husband
- 10:30 to 13.30 – Work for me during Nadja’s nap
- 13:30 to 13:45 – Lunch
- 13:45 to 14:30 – Free time
- 14:30 – Picking up Luna from day-care
- 15:00 to 17:00 – A walk outside for 2 hours or activity outside of the house
- 17:00 to 18:00 – Playtime and free time indoor
- 15:00 to 18:30 – Second part of the workday for one of us, depending on who has more urgencies
- 18:30 – Everybody sits down for dinner. We discuss what we learned, our plans and events, what were the highs and lows of the day and how to improve
- 19:00 to 20:00 – Bath time, room clean-up and sleep routines for the girls, preparing clothes for the next day
- 20:00 to 21:00 – Sports
- 21:00 to 23:00 – More work at the PC for us adults
- 22:30 to 23:30 – Wind down routine before bedtime
However, it is important to know that we are not persecuted by our schedule. In fact, it is our friend now. The point of it is to have a day that is very close to our ideal day, while still considering our individual circumstances. For us, it is having 2 small babies and no parents around, but everyone will have a different schedule.
I know that we are somehow privileged to be able to both work from home, but this came to happened because we started learning to use structure and routines to our advantage. Long term use of schedules leads to so much more freedom, I guarantee you.
We also leave room for creative and spontaneous things and prioritize in the moment. For instance, we stopped wishing for the perfectly clean house a while back. Priorities. We can leave dishes in the sink with no guilt feelings, clothes waiting to be folded for 3 to 5 business days. Spending time with our loved ones and learning is a priority, so we always adapt accordingly.
13. Praise for Effort, Not for Intelligence
In NurtureShock, Po Bronson explains how children who are constantly praised for being smart will take less challenging tasks because they are afraid of not being successful at harder tasks, thus disproving their “smart” status. However, praising kids for trying hard at something will make them choose harder tasks in the future.
Surely, the concepts of good, quality work and trying hard are not always easy to explain to toddlers. But kids really need to know that trying again pays off.
This was mind-blowing info to me since I was praised for being smart all the time as a child and I had to do work with myself to take on challenging tasks after a point in my education. So basically, I invite you to consider from now on “Wow, you worked really hard”, instead of “Wow, you are so smart”.
14. Teach your kids frustration tolerance
Yes, somehow related to the above. But frustration is an inevitable emotion that is part of life and there is no way around it and there shouldn’t be. Avoidance of frustration is a bad idea on so many levels, for kids and adults alike. In fact, if you avoid discomfort, you are actually prolonging mental distress.
What we can do is to teach frustration tolerance to kids. Praising a child for the effort he put in is pretty much praising him for coping well with frustration.
We all know that anger and frustration arise in us adults all the time, the difference being that we have learned how to deal with it because we know our triggers and how to navigate through the feelings. At least most times.
Just like us, kids become so much stronger and composed when they learn how to cope with anger and frustration. This eventually helps them focus better on things that are hard. So this is a huge thing for us parents to teach them.
Stepping back and then letting my kids deal with frustrating moments was hard for me, but this is a vital part in their development. It gives them a chance to work and find a solution to a problem they have, which gives them satisfaction and confidence in their abilities. They learn that working through hard tasks and persisting has rewards.
The key here is to take your time and try to resist the urge to tell your child how to do something or to do it for them. Instead, once they are old enough, try asking them questions on how they want to solve something.
I also suggest you really resist the urge of picking a child up or helping him climb things he could climb himself, just because he asks for your help or appears to be in distress.
Kids cannot learn frustration tolerance if they are never frustrated. The faster we jump to their rescue, the slower they will learn vital skills. It pays to reflect a second on why we help the kids when they get frustrated.
I think it is a great idea to find out whether we ourselves are dealing with high-anxiety and low-frustration tolerance and if so, to find out things we can do to cope with this.
I just want you to know that you are doing a great job as a parent, even though your kids feel frustrated at times. Even though you make mistakes. Even though they are clumsy and slow and you need patience and time that you don’t always have. I totally get it. But we are all learning here. And it’s ok.
I find it helps to think that your job is not to keep your child safe from all frustrating events but to make him become a strong person in the world, one that will thrive even when we will not be around.
15. Drink water
Many of us sometimes forget to drink enough water during the day, yet dehydration can make us feel tired, irritable, slow or even sick. When our brains don’t have enough fluid, they can’t operate at peak performance. Making sure your toddler is hydrated is an easy way to help improve his concentration and mental performance.
To convince Luna to drink more water, we tried a lot of different cups. The perfect one for us is the Magic Cup from NUK. The magic of it is that it is completely spill-free. Other tips are using normal straws or putting a slice of fruit in her water.
16. Eat breakfast
Make sure your kids start the days with a healthy breakfast, ideally rich in protein and healthy fats.
If you are like me, you’ve probably been told most of your life that the best time to eat sugary things is in the morning. Nope, and it turns out that it is not the case at all.
In fact, studies show that eating a high protein breakfast can help regulate blood sugar and regulate energy levels throughout the day. This way your toddler will not have unpredictable energy throughout the day, as it can be the case with a breakfast high in carbs.
So whenever possible, ditch those carbs and try eggs in any combination, sausages, spinach, cottage cheese, yogurt, broccoli, mushrooms, fresh veggies, raspberry and blueberry, avoiding bagels, pastries, white bread and sugary stuff.
You can also help improve concentration throughout the day by feeding your toddlers healthy snacks like almonds, yogourts, wholegrain crackers, fresh fruit and vegetables.
17. Put them in bed before 20.00
Everything else is too late for a toddler. Even for one that wakes up at 8 and has a 2-hour nap throughout the day. Here is a list of reasons why your toddler should have up to 14 hours of sleep. It is proven that tired kids are impulsive and distracted, even though they do not have ADHD.
All content on this post, including medical opinions, research and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.
* This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclaimer for more info.