Sue Cowley: How To Help
Young Children Build Focus

Keeping little eyes on the prize

Sue Cowley explains that a child’s age plus two is a good rule of thumb for the number of minutes they can typically hold their concentration, and gives us techniques to encourage focus such as ‘chunking down’ your instructions, following child interests, and providing sensory experiences.

Small children are full of energy and curiosity – it can seem like they flit from one thing to the next, never settling for long on any one activity. There is so much for them to discover.

On the other hand, we have all seen how focused a young child can be when they are completely engaged in doing something that fascinates them, whether this is digging in the mud kitchen or playing with funnels and jugs in the water tray.

When thinking about how we can best support children’s learning, and particularly how we can get them ready for the next phase of their education, one of the key skills that we need to foster is the ability to concentrate and to focus. This will help them a great deal when they move on to school, where they need to be able to sit still for longer periods of time, to regulate their own behaviour and to listen to more complex instructions.

What is focus?

Focus is the ability to maintain our attention on a single thing, for a sustained period of time, without being distracted from it.

Focus is an essential ingredient for learning. Being able to listen to others, to follow guidance, or to concentrate on what we are doing means that we can get the most out of the learning opportunities that are offered to us.

How long can young children concentrate for?

In the Early Years Foundation Stage, children are right at the beginning of their journey towards learning how to focus for extended periods of time. By the time they are in Year 11, children will have to attempt to concentrate in silence for periods of over an hour and a half, in their GCSE exams. However, children can only move towards this goal in small increments – it can be damaging to expect too much too soon.

A very rough rule of thumb for how long a child can concentrate is their age plus two. This, of course, doesn’t mean children aren’t able to concentrate for longer. But it does mean that if you talk to a group of three-year-olds for more than five minutes without interspersing your teaching with other activities, some of them might start to lose focus on what you are saying.

Increasing focus

There are plenty of ways to increase a child’s ability to focus.

First and foremost, you have to ensure that children are active participants in their learning, as this will help them maintain attention. For instance, you could get them to mark make their ideas onto mini whiteboards during a discussion, or perform some of the actions of a character in a story as you read it to them.

Think about the way that you give instructions – if you try to put across lots of information at once, your children will struggle to retain it, and they may lose focus when they attempt the task you have just explained. ‘Chunk down’ your instructions into smaller parts, and offer them visual cues to help them retain what you have said.

The power of sensory experiences

Once, we were carving pumpkins for Halloween at preschool. I watched as one of our youngest children, who was only two at the time, sat and scooped the seeds and the goo out of her pumpkin for more than half an hour. Every so often she would inspect a piece of the goo, put it to her lips to have a taste, and then carry on scooping it out. It was clear how the sensory involvement she felt with the activity kept her completely focused.

Think about how you create opportunities for sensory exploration in your setting – gloop, mud, sand, natural materials – all offer children lots of encouragement to focus, explore and learn.

Building on interests

Children are much more easily engaged with something, and focus on it more fully, when they have a keen interest in it . By building on your children’s interests, you respect their input and create a sense of ownership, and you also increase their focus on what they’re learning.

Think about a child who is fascinated by dinosaurs – you can use that interest to extend learning in lots of different areas. For instance, counting dinosaur footprints, talking about fossils as a relic of the past, and sharing stories about dinosaurs.

Time to daydream

At the same time as you are building concentration and focus, do not underestimate the value of what we refer to as ‘daydreaming’.

When people are being creative, it is often necessary for them to slightly lose focus, in order to see new patterns within the bigger picture. Balance activities that require full concentration with opportunities for your children to ponder and to have some quiet time without adult input.

Focus and SEND

Some children really struggle to learn to focus, and in certain cases this can indicate a special educational need, for instance an issue with an attention deficit, or a processing difficulty. If you notice that a child has great difficulty retaining instructions, or that a child moves from activity to activity without ever really engaging in any one, flag up your concern with your SENCO.

Sue Cowley is an author, teacher and trainer who has helped to run her local preschool for the last ten years. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation.

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