5 Areas of Attention: Is My Child Developmentally Ready for Sustained Attention, Focus and Multitasking
This article provides helpful information regarding the 5 areas of attention. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
A group of six-year-olds sit down during circle time to listen to their teacher read them a story. After 10 minutes, a majority of the kids are fidgeting, whispering to their neighbor, or seem to be daydreaming. Is this scene typical? Yes, this behavior is within normal expectations for this particular age group and is what we call “age appropriate.” All too quickly, many adults see a problem with how their child or other children are behaving or paying attention to activities in school, at home or during community events. Most children have a short attention span because their sustained attention has not yet developed. In fact, children at younger ages weren’t meant to sit still in class, attend and focus, and read and write before Kindergarten. Their brain development is not yet ready or prepared for this type of learning as we learn in the Huffington Post’s “4 Things Worse than Not Learning to Read in Kindergarten.”
To gain a more accurate picture of how long children can physically pay attention, think of their age as a guideline or a starting point. A child should be able to retain their visual and auditory attention for approximately 5 minutes if they are 5-years-old, 6 minutes if they are 6-years old, 7 minutes if they are 7-years-old, and so on. If an activity or event is interesting or new to your child, the number of minutes for sustained attention increases substantially. Typically, during the preschool years, and all the way through first grade, parents and teachers try to be creative when finding new ways to get their kids motivated and interested in a particular subject. After your child’s interest is sparked, their time frame of attention goes up and the child has more opportunities to gather knowledge. Visual cues also play a huge role in how your child maintains their attention and can improve it if they struggle to retain information or have trouble following directions.
5 Areas of Attention
In Kenneth Lane’s book, Visual Attention in Children, he discusses the five areas of attention and how they all relate to visual observation and how a child responds to stimuli within their environment (sound, sight, smell, taste, touch). These five areas of attention differ from Types of Attention, but they can still be related, especially if your child struggles with attention and focus.
As your child develops, their attention span will grow, which will help you determine if their behavior is age appropriate or potentially delayed. When attention and focus is difficult for a child in the classroom, and their friends and peers are able to sustain their attention, it may be a sign that they need help in areas of proprioception, vestibular, visual and gross motor. To better help you understand your child’s attention milestones you can monitor them in these five areas of attention to determine how they are performing in each area.
This first area is your child’s basic response to specific visual (sight), auditory (hearing) or tactile (touch) stimuli. It is your child’s brain function that allocates cognitive resources to focus on external or internal information or stimuli. With that focus, the brain can process the data. Your child’s attention span is their ability to keep their mind focused through attentive observation or active listening. By providing visual cueing opportunities for your child, you can increase the efficiency of your child’s focus and attention on external information. Visual cues can be used to direct attention, emphasize, or enhance a position in place or target. For instance, a bold or underlined word, a laser pointer directed to a part of a presentation, or a flashing sign in a busy city. These types of visual cues are everywhere in our world. Your child is automatically attracted to these types of visual cues seen and processed through their visual system.
This type of attention is your child’s ability to select from multiple factors or stimuli and focus on one item. It is selective process that occurs because the child is actively filtering out other distractions. Selective attention takes practice for your child to ignore all unneeded distractions, which is difficult if they struggle with issues like Sensory Processing Disorders because they are so sensitive to background noise and chatter. Remember that selective concentration not only filters out external influence (e.g., noise), but also internal information (e.g., thoughts).
Example: When a child is required to read and comprehend in a loud classroom, they must have the ability to filter out distractions so they can focus on their reading material.
Another term for this area of attention is alternating attention. This type of attention is when your child has the ability to shift their focus and move between two or more tasks that have different cognitive requirements. It is different from multitasking because your child must stop one task to focus on a completely different task. It is interesting to watch a child’s attention develop as they begin to have the mental flexibility to practice this type of attention. They will get more proficient in being able to alternate their attention back and forth between tasks.
Example: Reading a recipe and completing the tasks of the recipe.
This type of attention is what your child needs to focus on a task for a long period of time. It is the ability to concentrate on one activity or stimulus for a continuous stretch of time. It can be challenging not only for a child, but for an adult as well, especially if the task is boring or undesirable. Consequently, a child’s level of sustained attention will vary. There are endless factors that contribute to the degree of how long a child can hold their focus. In one study, the maternal behavior towards a toddler or child was a major factor in the length and stability of a child’s sustained attention. A key aspect of this type of attention is the capacity to re-focus if distracted.
Example: A child focused on a teacher discussing a new concept in math. Visual and auditory attention must be sustained on the teacher and the math concepts being introduced.
This area of attention is where a child can process two or more responses to two or more demands simultaneously. People are not mentally designed to attend in this manner, which makes sharing attention difficult. Unlike shifting attention, where you change from one task to a completely different task, using divided attention means that you attempt to perform the tasks at the same time. Another term for this area of attention is multi-tasking. When this type of attention is needed, your child focuses only a part of their attention on each task. In a sense, they are splitting their attention versus alternating attention. Your child is able to multi-task successfully due to muscle memory and habit. This muscle memory and/or habit allows your child to complete a part of the task without conscious effort, while also focusing their energy on another task or other part of the task, which makes it seem like they are doing more than one task simultaneously.
Example: A child reading sheet music while playing the piano. Your child is not consciously focusing on where to place their fingers if the muscle memory is in place from prior practice and experience. The focus then shifts to reading the piece of music.
Attention is often the beginning of other cognitive capacities. Your child must first learn how to attend and progress to sustained attention so he or she can process the information for meaning and understanding. If your child cannot physically attend or if they have to concentrate on attending over learning in the classroom, it is a sign that they may be delayed or struggling in other areas. Eventually, sustained attention should lead to learning with a purpose.