To understand what behaviour is appropriate in different settings it is useful to know what is considered to be normal attention for a child’s age and developmental level.
Once this is understood then realistic expectations can be made for the child.
0 – 1 Years
During this stage, the child is very distractible. The child’s attention flits from object to object to person or event to you. Anything new, such as someone walking past, will immediately distract the child.
1 – 2 Years
At this stage, the child can concentrate on a concrete task of their choice but does not tolerate intervention by an adult, whether this is verbal or visual. The child may therefore appear obstinate or ‘wilful’. The child’s attention is single-channelled and they have to ignore all extraneous stimuli in order to concentrate upon what they are doing.
2 – 3 Years
Attention at this stage remains single-channelled: that is, the child cannot attend to auditory and visual stimuli from different sources. The child therefore cannot listen to an adult’s directions while they are playing but has to shift their whole attention to the speaker and back to the game with an adult’s help.
3 – 4 Years
At this stage, the child must still alternate their full attention – visual and auditory – between the speaker and the task. However, the child now does this spontaneously without the adult needing to focus their attention.
4 – 5 Years
The child’s attention is now two-channelled at this stage, i.e. they understand verbal instructions related to the task without interrupting their activity to look at the speaker. Concentration span may still be short but teaching in a group situation is achievable. The child is at nursery school stage where they will work in small groups for short periods of time.
5 – 6 Years
Auditory, visual and manipulatory channels are now fully integrated at this stage. Attention is well established and sustained. The child starts at school and attends for long enough to sit through a lesson without becoming distractible, if the conditions are correct.