When the attention skill begins
Many parents worry about their children's attention span even at an early age. At the least they see that they are not constant listening to dad when he tells a story, playing a toy or doing homework, many parents put themselves in the worst situation, fearing that their child may have ADHD or something like that.
It could be that yes, that the child had some concentration problem, however in most cases the problem is that their parents do not know at what age we acquire the ability to maintain attention , seeing with adult eyes the development of their children, who are still children and, like everyone else, their attention is rather limited.
Fortunately, this will change as the child grows older, becoming able to concentrate for longer, both on tasks that are fun and those in which they have to pay voluntary attention, such as homework or being in class. Let's see.
At what age do we acquire the ability to maintain attention?
Attention is an executive function that refines and develops as we grow. This is because as we mature, so does our brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, the brain region where executive functions are located. For this reason, the degree of concentration of a small child and that of an adult are very different: we cannot expect from an immature brain the same functions as one already fully developed.
When speaking of care, regardless of age, we can speak of two types: involuntary and voluntary. The involuntary one is the one that we show when we are doing an activity that we like, that awakens an interest that is not forced at all, while the voluntary one is that in which we have to do our part, focus on a task that can be us more or less unpleasant and in which a certain cognitive effort is required.
Attention in childhood works in the same way, only involuntary attention prevails. That is, children concentrate better and longer on those tasks that are fun or attractive, such as games, watching television or being read a story. They may show voluntary attention, that is, force their concentration, but it is rather anecdotal. It is difficult for them to make that cognitive effort to pay attention in those activities that seem monotonous, boring and heavy.
How is care progressing?
It has been seen that between the ages of 0 and 3, babies concentrate on tasks that attract and amuse them, although in reality any other activity can attract their attention. It should be said that, equally, they lose interest quite quickly in all the things they do, both those they like and those they don't. Thus, at the minimum that a minimally distracting stimulus is presented to them, they will leave what they are doing and move on to another. They cannot control it, it is in their nature, there is nothing to worry about.
An experimental case in which this was addressed is in the 1985 study by Bashinski, who took 4-month-old babies and divided them into two groups of equal size. The experiment consisted of putting them on their parents' laps and teaching them visual stimuli, specifically a chess board. Group 1 was shown a 4x4 board; while at 2 a 12x12, with many more squares.
The babies in group 2, with the more complex board, were more fixed than those in 1, now, we would not be talking about sustained attention. Babies simply fixed themselves for a longer time on a more complex and striking stimulus, in this case the 12x12 chessboard. It is neither voluntary nor conscious attention, only that, as this second stimulus is more striking, it surprises them more.
Between the ages of 2 and 4, voluntary attention becomes stronger and this is where we could begin to talk about how infants can maintain attention. They can pay attention for a longer sustained time, even on those things they don't like. It is a cognitively demanding activity that requires investing a lot of energy and having a minimally developed neurological structure, specifically the prefrontal cortex. At these ages the care, like the children themselves, is still in diapers.
As we grow, the attention becomes more stable. This is especially noticeable from 3-4 years of age, since boys and girls can play the same game for about 30 minutes and, if they like it a lot, they can reach up to 50. In older ones, between 5 and 6 years, the game can last up to almost an hour and a half. It should also be noted that we are talking about pleasant activities, since those that are not as pleasant as being in class, concentration lasts less, although it also increases with age.
According to several studies and what has been observed by child psychologists, psychopedagogues, child educators and other professionals who work in childhood, we can see that concentration, that is, the ability to maintain sustained attention, increases as it grows.. Next we will see the expected concentration time for each age during childhood:
- 4 months to 1 year: 3 to 5 minutes
- 2 years: 4 to 10 minutes
- 3 years: 6 to 15 minutes
- 4 years: 8 to 20 minutes
- 5 years: 10 to 25 minutes
- 6 years: 12 to 30 minutes
- 7 years: 14 to 35 minutes
- 8 years: 16 to 40 minutes
- 9 years: 18 to 45 minutes
- 10 years: 20 to 50 minutes
It should be noted that these values are not closed, but a simple orientation. Attention is a human function that presents individual differences, both in adults and in children, with which, there may be children who concentrate more and others who concentrate less than expected for their ages. Although they are not indicative of a learning disorder or giftedness or something like that, these values can serve as a reference to decide to go to a professional and see if our child has a problem.
Applications of this knowledge
All of this should be of help to many of those parents who, unable to detach themselves from the concern of their role as parents, are very aware of their children and sometimes, at the slightest degree, exaggerate things. If they see that their children cannot stand reading for more than ten minutes, they begin to think that there could be a problem and if, in addition, they see them playing something that they apparently like but they do not get tired at all, these parents get the creeps : "But if you like it, how come you can't keep playing? what's the problem?"
In fact, one of the problems that many parents believe their children have as soon as they enter a psychologist's office is ADHD . They do not know what the diagnostic criteria are, nor do they know how to evaluate it, they simply believe that their children have ADHD simply because they see that they are misled doing what they are doing, without realizing that they are children. How can they not get confused? Your brain is not yet ready to focus on a stimulus for long.
We must understand that the nature of children is very different from that of adults and that they cannot be studied from our adult perspective, much less being their parents. For example, with 3 years we cannot expect that a child will spend as much time concentrated as an adult does. If we see that he is a fidgety child, we should not think that he is hyperactive, clueless and inattentive without more, simply that he is that, a child, it is in his nature to be like that.
But the reality is that many parents, especially "helicopter" types, force their children to stay focused more than is neurologically possible. An adult, who can be concentrated for 50 minutes at a time, thinks that a child will too, but this is not the case. Before the age of 10, it is practically impossible to find a child who can spend as much time concentrated as his parents, and the normal thing is to acquire the ability to maintain adult attention at 12 years of age or well into adolescence.
But despite the fact that some 10-year-olds are already capable of concentrating for 50 minutes at a time, it must be said that this is not entirely common. Attention, like any other human faculty, presents individual differences, and children of that age have periods of concentration that go from 20 to 50 minutes. This is very important to take into account in class, since 3rd and 4th grade children will need to change their activity every 20 minutes if they want to take advantage of the session. Homework lasting longer than that time will cause many students to lose track of class.
In previous courses, naturally, the activities should last less time or, at least, be more attractive, since since voluntary attention is not the strong point of young children, teachers can take refuge in involuntary attention and entertain them at the same time they teach them the contents. Children who do not know what is being explained end up becoming frustrated, seeing the classes as a real bummer and running the risk that, for fun, they start clowning around.
Repercussions of knowing all this
Understanding all this, it is possible to understand why it is so important to know at what age we acquire the ability to maintain attention and for how long we are able to be concentrated. Thus, parents do not run the risk of making the mistake of establishing home diagnoses that all they are going to do is mislabel their child. A child who thinks he has attention problems can make them come true, dragging on his academic performance. This is self-fulfilling prophecy.
As parents, we must understand that sooner or later the child will be able to concentrate for longer, and that we cannot force this process. There are children who endure more, others less, but they will progressively improve. If not, if they have a significantly lower attention span than expected for their age, then there is reason to worry and see a professional. Now if there are no alarms or anything to indicate that there is a problem, we need not worry.
In addition, we must understand that time does not pass in the same way when one is small. Although it is not quite like that, in the child's mind 20 minutes can be perceived as two hours for an adult. Their experience of time is longer and slower, so having to be focused on something they don't like can be experienced as a real heaviness and it is normal for there to be a moment when they lose focus. It is not an intelligence problem, it is that they get bored and every effort has a limit.
Knowing what his maximum concentration time is will help us to assign him tasks that can be done within the capacity associated with his age, with which, if he finishes them successfully, we will increase his self-esteem when we see that he can do them. In addition, we can guide their learning in a way that avoids frustration, boredom and fatigue, three aspects that can harm learning.
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