A recent, widely shared myth states that we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish. While that’s not actually true, our attention spans are shorter than they have ever been—and we can credit information overload for that.
So it’s understandable that children struggle to focus and engage in school, and consequently have a hard time retaining content. This doesn’t have to be the case, though. There are several ways your child can work on increasing their attention span to avoid falling behind in school.
Before increasing their attention span, it’s important for your child to understand why it’s hard to sit still and remain focused during a teacher’s lecture or a classmate’s presentation. It has to do with how our brains are wired—the more information we are presented to, the harder it becomes to filter through it and prioritize.
That’s why teaching your child how to prioritize and filter through information is more efficient than simply limiting their internet access. After all, you can’t escape the overload. We rely widely on digital platforms on our daily lives, so they will be faced with an abundance of information no matter where they look.
To help you, we published a free Executive Functioning eBook that includes several strategies, and tools on learning how and what to prioritize. Applying the prioritization tips from the guide will give your child a great head start on the process of increasing their attention span.
The second step is exercising your attention. That’s right—just like exercising your body through crunches, jogs, or yoga, it’s possible to exercise your attention to build more stamina. Here are five mental exercises to include in your child’s routine:
- Memory games: Memory games require a level of focus most children don’t experience nowadays. For example, you can only succeed in matching games by keeping a mental account of where previous elements are located. Children are competitive by nature, so if you create a system that challenges them to improve their performance (and possibly reward them for it), your child will work harder to increase their memorization skills.
Most importantly, it’s impossible to do well in memory games if you’re distracted, which teaches children the importance of giving 100% to the task they are currently doing.
- “Multitasking-Free” Days: Designating a day of the week as the “multitasking free” day is a powerful tool. For a whole day, if your child is obligated to focus solely on one task at a time, they will quickly increase their attention span. Children are used to doing chores and studying while on their phones, watching cartoons or YouTube videos, and listening to music. And that’s okay. But if there are designated days without these distractions, your child will learn how much easier and faster it is to accomplish things without multitasking.
Setting specific boundaries is crucial—whether it be taking their phones away or shutting down the internet, it’s essential to build a mostly distraction-free environment for that day. If a whole day is too much at first, you can try starting out with blocks of 3-4 hours.
- Pleasure reading: Reading is a healthy habit for any person, regardless of age, but it’s especially important for children. It stimulates their imagination and creativity while improving their interpretation skills. Reading also increases your child’s attention span. After all, you can’t follow a story along if you are continuously distracted.
A great way to exercise focus through reading is picking a physical copy of a lengthy book (no audio-versions or e-books) and allowing your child to slowly progress through it. The goal here is not to finish the book as soon as possible, but rather take their time and actually absorb the words on the page.
- Attentive and active listening: People tend to listen to respond. After the other person has said two or three sentences, it’s normal for us to start thinking about what we are going to say back once they are done speaking. But that’s an unhealthy way to interact with others, and it hinders our attention span. The moment we shift our focus from active listening to formulating a response, our attention is gone.
Work with your child to develop active listening skills by asking them to take in what you say and, before replying, say it back to you in their own words. That extra step adds a layer of attentiveness that eventually leads to a longer attention span—especially when listening to a teacher’s long lecture.
- Break down tasks into smaller ones—then slowly make them bigger: Breaking down major tasks into small tasks is a common way to increase productivity and boost confidence. But a great way to increase your child’s attention span is—after breaking down their tasks into smaller ones—slowly breaking them into bigger ones, until they are able to complete entire major tasks at a time.
By creating a process in which your child progressively works on longer, bigger tasks, you allow them to naturally develop a longer attention span. It might take a while, but rewiring our brains is a thorough process.
As you apply the techniques above, it’s important to remember that children’s decreased attention spans are a biological phenomenon years in the making. Unfortunately, there aren’t magical solutions that can double or triple the length of your child’s attention span overnight. But applying these concepts will help—and eventually you will start noticing a change in their ability to focus, stay engaged, and retain content.