Dr. Corinne Masur
Attentional Disorders are diagnosed all too frequently in young children and, even more concerning, 2- and 3-year-olds are medicated for what’s being called hyperactivity.
As mentioned in a previous post, deciding what makes a toddler “hyperactive” is a matter of definition. ALL toddlers are active and ALL toddlers have trouble focusing. Why? Because it’s their job is to explore the world! Not only that, they’re not yet developmentally ready to concentrate on one thing for a long time.
But can you help your toddler learn to control him or herself and to focus for longer and longer periods of time?
Yes, you can. And here are some tips:
1. Starting in infancy, play with your baby, talk to your baby, sing to your baby, and tell your baby little stories when he or she is looking at you.
2. Up to age 1, sing a few songs or read a quick board book during a quiet moment. Don’t expect your baby to be able to focus for any length of time beyond a few seconds. Let your baby chew on the book, hold the book, turn pages in the book. Have fun with it.
For building in self control, start to have rules that you repeat consistently and firmly like “no throwing in the house” or “no fingers near the electrical socket.” Your child won’t understand the words, but they will start to understand your tone of voice. Pick them up and take them away when they continue to do what you’ve said they shouldn’t do. Repeat the rule.
3. From ages 1 to 2, you can start to take your child to story hours and read to her or him at home. Try to do this on a daily basis. Read or tell a short story and encourage your child to focus on it for a short amount of time. However, don’t expect your child to be able to do so immediately! Encourage, make it fun, and gradually try to increase your child’s tolerance. At story hour, try not to feel embarrassed if your child makes noise or wants to run around—at this age, this behavior is completely normal. Bring your child’s focus back to the story as often as possible.
Also, start to establish a bedtime reading ritual. When you think your child is old enough, try to build in a little storybook or two before bed. Although it might sound strange, this is a good time to build focus. Sleepy kids are less likely to need to engage in motor activity – that is, they will be less likely to run away!
Children of this age will want to throw their toys, wreck the creations of older children, and get into everything that you don’t want them to. Continue to state rules firmly and continue to pick the child up and take him away when he doesn’t obey. Luckily 1- to 2-year-olds are small and portable! You don’t have to state the rule over and over—just say it twice and if they continue the activity, pick them up and remove them from the situation. Remind them, “We do not throw blocks in the house. If you want to throw, let’s go outside,” etc.
4. From ages 2 – 3, read slightly longer stories or try to read two or three stories consecutively. Also, try to make time each day to do a few puzzles or other fun tasks with your child. Encourage your child to wait until the story is done to go and play, and encourage your child to finish the puzzle before doing something else. You don’t have to insist or punish! Just make it fun and try to build the length of time that your child can focus and work on a little project.
If you have the time and energy, you can plan other activities at home that require your child to focus on a task for five or ten minutes. For example, have your child stand on a stool and help to cook (just keep them busy stirring so they can’t get into everything on the counter!). Give them a job that they can do successfully and help them to do it. However, don’t try this when you’re stressed or in a hurry—this will only lead to frustration and ruined cupcakes.
5. Four- to five-year-olds can be amazing. It’s surprising how much they’re able to do, and you can start to rely on them to do little jobs at home. Read them several stories at bedtime and encourage them to continue to focus until you’re done. Bedtime can be pretty dodgy at this age (they can really push the limits to stay up just a little longer!), so try to avoid a battle. Tailor the story time as you need to for your child and remember: you’re trying to build their individual tolerance for longer and longer focus.
As for self control, children of this age are often capable of quite a bit of it, but they don’t always want to control themselves. Encourage them and praise them when they do, and help them when they don’t. At this age, children sometimes still need an adult right by their side to complete a task or obey a rule.
And remember, although lots of kids seem to be able to focus on TV, cell phones, and computer screens, it’s often a passive experience for them. We’re talking about increasing focus on activities that engage their senses and encourage hands-on learning. When kids are in an environment that promotes curiosity, their capacity to focus has the opportunity to flourish!