Help your toddler pay attention with these concentration builders

Learning to manage time and be independent goes hand in hand with learning concentration.
Learning to manage time and be independent goes hand in hand with learning concentration.

Everyone knows a child can quickly become distracted, but even if yours is still a toddler, you can start building her ability to concentrate.

Concentration in class and while studying will be very important one day for school and afterwards, says Frances Smit, a play therapist who practices in Centurion and Pretoria.

"Concentration means paying attention to a specific task and ignoring external factors. With good concentration your child can focus, learn, ignore distractions and remember better," she says.

Children aren’t born with fantastic concentration abilities; it’s something you need to help them learn.

But if they can concentrate, they can master other important skills, such as tying shoelaces, reading, writing and cycling.

Fortunately, there are lots you can do to help your child focus, says Theresa van den Berg, an educational psychologist also from Pretoria.

"To effectively focus on a task means you can plan and execute it within a specific time frame. So learning to manage time and be independent goes hand in hand with learning concentration," she says.

Physical needs first

Theresa shares these tips:

Enough sleep is a prerequisite for better concentration. If a child is tired, she forgets and doesn’t want to participate.

A tired child easily feels overburdened and emotionally overwhelmed and subsequently can’t focus. Small children should get to bed early – definitely no later than 20:00.

A healthy diet with the right amount of vitamins and minerals is important for better concentration. Limit sugar intake and get your child to drink water.

A child must play and move so that her muscles can become strong. She develops by using her body and balancing her posture. Good posture control and balance are conditions for effective concentration.

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Improve concentration through play

Frances shares these tips:

Memory games such as those involving pairs of cards work well. Look for a handful of pictures that each have an identical twin, turn the picture side face down and see who can remember where each one’s twin is.

Place a couple of toys in a row and ask your child to look at them for 20 to 30 seconds. Take them away and ask her to recall where everything was.

As she gets older, you can add more items and ask her to replace the toys in the right order. Make her aware of her concentration by repeating the names with her and touching each toy as you name them.

Encourage your toddler to repeat songs and short poems after you.

Read to her every day. Get her to lie in your arms, or sit next to you and look at the pictures with you. Ask some questions about the story afterwards.

Clap your hands rhythmically and let your toddler repeat the beat. Ask her to close her eyes and recognise sounds. You can also mimic sounds.

Cut out a comic strip and ask your child to place the frames in the correct order. If the order is wrong, ask your child to tell the story.

Theresa shares this advice:

From a young age, help your child organise and sort. It might be difficult for her to sort out an entire room, so help her by making a game out of it.

For instance, say, "Let’s see how quickly we can put away all your cars in a bo.

Organisation and task completion skills are essential for concentration.

Help your child to organise the space around her by dedicating a big enough space for stashing away toys and books. Stick pictures on toy boxes, so she can see what goes where.

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Make picture charts for morning routines such as getting dressed, brushing teeth and hair and having breakfast. Stick to the routine and order of activities daily.

Listening skills

Children should learn to listen from a young age.

Teach your child to follow two or more orders in succession: "Please fetch your lunchbox and put it in the sink".

Help your toddler to solve simple problems by focusing on and making new plans.

So don’t always intervene and do something for your child; rather help her think of a solution: "I see you’re struggling with the puzzle. Let me help you find the sides to make it easier to complete the picture".

Refrain from negative feedback: "You have to try harder; it’s not there yet," or "You’re not thinking about what you’re doing".

To find solutions and perseverance, one needs resilience and positive motivation.

Rhythm and routine 

Routine helps a child take control and be more goal-oriented and focused.

Some routines should be fostered from when your child is still a baby, such as bathing, sleeping and eating.

Small children don’t have the concept of time adults have and for this reason, they should be taught about time through play and encouragement.

They often also expect their needs to be met immediately, and they struggle to delay and wait. Teach your child to delay and wait.

Perhaps she can save for something she really wants. Turn routine tasks into a time game: "I’m going to count how quickly you can get into the bath: 1, 2, 3, 4".  

Teach her to wait while you’re on the phone. She can press your hand to indicate she needs your attention, but she shouldn’t nag.

Realistic expectations 

Know your child and her development. Be realistic of what you can expect from her at a certain age.

If the expectations are too high, she’ll be frustrated and become demotivated.

Make time for creativity and dreaming. Read to your child: stories, poems and rhymes. Also, let her recount these stories back to you; it teaches her about time, space and sequence.

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Focus milestones

Don’t expect more concentration than your toddler can muster at her age, otherwise, she could feel negative and rebellious, Frances warns.

Also, take into consideration factors such as her mood and how tired and hungry she is.

The average time a child can concentrate is usually calculated on two to three minutes per year that they’re old.

So a realistic time for a two-year-old to concentrate is between four and six minutes.

8-15 Months

Any new activities, faces or events will distract your baby’s attention, although she can play with a single toy for one to two minutes on average.

16-19 Months

Toddlers often seem restless at this age but should be able to concentrate on a specific activity for more than three minutes.

20-24 Months

Sounds still easily distract them, but they should be able to focus on an activity without adult supervision for between three and six minutes.

25-36 Months

They can now concentrate on a game for between five and eight minutes and even take a break from the game, chat to an adult, and then go back to the game again.


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