When children start approaching school age, as a society we start expecting that they can attend for longer, after all, if we aren’t focused on a task being taught to us at school, how can we learn, right? When you’re getting your child ready to start school there are some key components we need to think about when it comes to attention and concentration. The components I’m going to explore that I feel are most important when getting ready to start school are:

1. How long can they attend to an activity?

When I’m talking about attending to an activity, I’m not talking about if they can sit and watch a show on TV for a set period of time (although that is useful information too!). We are talking about how long your child is participating in a set activity. For example, if they are building with blocks, playing with figurines, drawing, or engaging in an imaginative play game. How long roughly are they staying with that activity before moving on to something different?

Tip to try – Use a timer (visual timers are best so you child can see when the activity is going to end) – this can help you work out how long they are actually attending to an activity, but also can help build in goals for your child to increase their time on an activity before moving on.

2. Can they attend to tasks that aren’t of their choosing?

So now we are thinking about how a child might be able to engage for quite a while in an activity of their choosing – but what about when they are asked to join in a task not chosen by them? We are talking about times when you suggest and set up an activity and ask your child to join in (most parents will tell us about their child’s participation in drawing or activities at a table when asked these questions). So why is this important? When a child starts school they will likely have a daily schedule to follow, where all the children in the class are expected to participate in set activities, usually at the same time, for set periods of time, before moving onto the next activity. For a child to complete the activity, they need to be able to join in, even if it’s not an activity they want to choose or participate in.

Tip to try – Use visuals (or words on their own if that works for your child) and show them the activity (not of their choosing) first, then encourage them to choose what they do next (reward). Over time you can work up to increasing the number of activities that aren’t of their choosing before they get to do their chosen activity.

3. Can they listen to AND follow instructions?

When we start asking questions about listening and following instructions, parents might respond with “they seem to have selective hearing, and don’t listen to what I’m asking them to do”. It’s most definitely worth making sure your child’s hearing is ok, and that their processing auditory information correctly (that’s a whole other topic, but if you’re concerned, we’d recommend you speak to an audiologist, occupational therapist or speech pathologist). If hearing is in check, then we need to work out where the skill is breaking down – is the instruction too difficult? How many parts are there to what you’re asking your child to do? It’s worth really focusing on the words you’re using when giving instructions, and counting how many instructions your asking your child to follow (it is that your child can follow one instruction like “go and get your shoes”, but when you ask “go and get your shoes and socks, put them on, pick up your hat and got to the front door” that they are really getting muddled up?). By the time a child starts school, most children can follow 3 step instructions (depending on what the instructions are and how familiar they are with the activity).

Tip to try – Have fun! Instruction games like Simon Says (and versions of this) or obstacle courses are lots of fun for kids. You can even turn your morning routine instructions into a game!

Important Point – Before you go and start putting on lengthy timers, or thinking your child isn’t joining in an activity for long enough, I want to reassure you that when we are talking about the concentration span of most 4-5 year olds, we are expecting that they can attend to an activity for between 5-20 minutes, depending on the activity, the environment (and distractions), and how hard the task is.