Learning to concentrate takes time. Parents can do many things to encourage their child's ability to concentrate – through having the right expectations and planning activities.
Giving full attention
The ability to concentrate develops over time. Maintaining focus is a complex behaviour at a young age.
When parents pay attention to their child, they are modelling behaviour and are much better able to notice their child’s needs and interests. When parents concentrate on TV, phone messages or social media more than on their child, they are giving them the message they’re not as important.
It's unlikely parents can give a 100 percent focus on their child 100 percent of the time. Managing a home, family and maybe work or community commitments, will distract parents. But they can be available to their child, giving them their full attention when they need it.
Modelling full attention is one way parents help their children learn to concentrate. What else can they do?
Having the right expectations
Parents need to have realistic expectations based on the child’s maturity and ability to concentrate. Is the environment calm and conducive to concentrating?
Each child is different, and these differences affect how well they can concentrate. Some children are far more active than others and are constantly on the go. Book-sharing with a highly active toddler may involve a parent reading while their child wanders around the room. It doesn’t mean they’re not listening or focused, but that moving around helps them to concentrate.
When parents have an idea of their child’s natural temperament, they will feel more confident about how to help, and their expectations will be more realistic.
Parenting style is critical.
- What is their approach like?
- Do they use a calm voice and manner and give simple and clear instructions?
- Do they make sure they have their child’s attention by getting down to their level?
- What play activities does their child have to encourage concentration?
- Are the activities appropriate for them?
- Do they offer a manageable level of challenge so the child is not bored but also not finding it too difficult?
Toddlers will often stay longer at something if a parent joins them in play. Activities like play dough, stacking and building are effective, especially if the toddler is encouraged to take the lead.
If, after encouragement, it's clear the toddler has no interest in the toy or activity, parents are best to forget it. They could try again at another time. Trying to force participation won’t work for anyone.
Having limited choices helps toddlers concentrate, as too many options can be over-stimulating. It's best not to have all toys available all the time. Some should be packed away. The child will find it easier to focus if they only have access to the toys they are currently interested in. Toys can be monitored and swapped as the child becomes less interested.
Playing games when out and about also works well. Examples include the 2-year-old version of ‘I spy’, ‘Where is the dog?’, ‘Can you hear the baby crying?’ and ‘Look, here are the bananas’.
Does the child understand what is expected of them? They may need more time to respond.
Preparation and planning helps a child know what’s going on and prepares them if a change is about to happen.
Giving praise or positive feedback about their achievements, and when they have tried really hard, will encourage them to do more of the same.
The world is a very exciting place for children of this age. They are motivated primarily by their curiosity, not their parents' voices. That means concentrating and staying focused for a long time doesn’t come easily to them.
Adults are more able to ‘tune out’ other distractions and may not even notice sounds or sights that are distracting their toddler.