"...the only problem is I can't get her to sit still through an activity"

Quite a number of parents are worried about the attention span of their children and in this article, we would talk about what is a real attention span for children at different ages, the type of attention there is, what we can do to increase attention span and when we should be worried.

What is an attention span
Attention span is the amount of time spent concentrating on a task before becoming distracted [Wikipedia]

What is the realistic real attention span; 

Children in their early years are not developed for the expectations we put on them in different areas of their lives, from walking to running to writing, and more so in our part of the world but today let's look at what we should expect.

There are different studies that the numbers can be different but here's how to calculate it

Children's attention span is 3-5 mins per year of your child age. 
 Here is an example chart:


This list only shows what they are capable of, it doesn't exactly mean your 2-year-old will actually sit for an activity for 6 mins because there are other factors that inform if they will actually sustain their attention for the stipulated time. The time we should be worried as parents are when all things being equal (check the what affects attention span below) is when they still can't seem to pay attention and hyperactive. Don't forget to always consult your paediatrician if you feel anything is out of place.

Factors that affect attention span; 


  • Environment; A highly stimulating environment can affect the attention span of your child. If there is a lot of distraction in the environment, it's not realistic to expect that they will be focused on the activity. Even as adults, who have the developmental capacity to focus for longer, we get distracted by something as simple as our phone ringing how much more kids?

  • Maternal Behavior: This study shows that maternal behaviour can affect the attention span of children. I would not necessarily say maternal behaviour, I would say primary caregiver because whoever interacts with the child the most can affect them. The summary of the study is if we are not warm and interactive with our children and we fall back to snapping at them, nagging them about something constantly intruding into their focused time to "correct" them can interfere with the cognitive function of focus that is developing. 

  • Their needs are not met: If the needs of the child are not met, there is so much focus that can be achieved. The need for food, expend energy, sleep, love, are some of the things that can affect them. 

  • Exhaustion: We know how hyperactive children get when they want to sleep? Imagine trying to get them to do an activity that requires focus at that time. Isn't it impossible? Sometimes we don't pay attention to those things. 

How can we help our children increase their attention span?


  • Interest-based activities: Have you noticed how your children are always focused more on activities they either choose themselves or are interested in? Even as adults, when you are somewhere you don't want to be you start fiddling with your phone or sleeping. Think about how you can make the thing you want your child to do interest them. e.g if your child is into Legos and you want to teach a new math concept, there is nothing wrong with using legos to introduce the concept and you'd see how much difference that makes. 

  • Step back and observe: When your child is into an activity and you think they are not doing it 'correctly' just step back and observe when they are done, you can show them the right approach to it. I am also guilty of jumping in to show the right way but I'm learning that my jumping is a distraction too. So, step back and observe. The reason why you are observing is to let the cognitive function of focus continue to develop without your interruption.  

  • Provide structure for the day: A routine can help them understand what comes next and can help them know when it is time for a sit-down and when they do it over time it would be something they expect throughout the day. 

  • Pick optimal times to schedule focus activities: Whatever time you know to be your child's optimal time, create the focus activities around that time and lower your expectations based on circumstances that are happening around in your lives per time e.g we are in the middle of a pandemic and children all over the world have been thrown into a new normal, let's not expect super well-behaved children that do all the activities put in front of them quietly and follow all the instructions without properly stabilising them for the new normal. If you've just moved house is another example. Just remain sensitive. 

  • Provide outlets for the 'distraction': Whatever your child loves to do instead of the activity provide an outlet for that. E.g your child will rather be jumping instead of doing an activity, create a jumping time where everyone is jumping and get it out of the system. 

  • Anchor your activity to their interesting 'distraction': The activity you want them to be engaged in anchor it to their interesting distraction. Let me give different examples, in the previous point, the child wanted to jump and maybe you want them to pack up their toys, say something like "Pack up your toys then it would be jumping time" If you want to let them watch an educational program, you can say "Let's watch 5 mins of national geography then you can watch Peppa pig" does that make sense? The consequence for doing A(what you want them to do) is B(What they want to do) 
One thing to note is that you don't force the children to do what they don't want to do, these are just strategies to help you ensure they get to do activities that will help increase their attention span. One will at least work for your child.

5 areas of attention to note;



  • Focused Attention; When a child's attention is focused on visual or auditory information
  • Selective Attention; When a child can filter all the distractions around them and focus on a task
  • Shifting Attention; When a child can begin a task stop and focus their attention on another task 
  • Sustained Attention; When a child can focus their attention on a task for an extended period of time 
  • Divided Attention: When a child can multi-task. 

Children reach each area of attention at different ages, they will continue to grow and increase their capacity to pay attention. While we continue to present to them opportunities to increase their attention span let's not forget to create a loving environment they need to thrive and exercise more patience.