Attentiveness is a cognitive aspect of self-regulation, but deserves a dedicated post, as it is critical for success in elementary school and beyond, and includes the ability to:
- control behavior
- concentrate while completing a task
- be self-motivated in learning
Children who struggle to pay attention often do poorly in academics, relationships and in life in general because, “The ability to think, retrieve, and remember information, solve problems and engage in other complex symbolic activities involved in oral language, reading, writing mathematics, and social behavior is dependent on the development of attention, memory and executive function.” (Dr. G. Reid Lyon of the National Institutes of Health, emphasis added.)
In the book, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, Shonkoff and Phillips describe this combination of attention and cognitive abilities as executive function, playing out as:
- generating and maintaining an appropriate mental representation that guides goal attainment: “I need to hold up the string and put the end through the hole in the bead”
- monitoring the flow of information about one’s progress: “I’ve got one bead on, now I’ll try another”
- modifying and flexibly adapting problem-solving strategies so that behavior is continually directed toward the goal: “Oops, that bead was too hard to string; maybe I need to find a bead with a bigger hole”
These functions begin to develop slowly during infancy, and then enter a rapid phase of development during the toddler and preschool years. Loving, caring relationships with parents/caregivers are crucial for healthy development, in addition to leading the child from dependence on adults towards independence.
Good caregiving provides “experiences, supports, and encouragement that enable children to take over and self-regulate in one area of functioning after another,” explain Shonkoff & Phillips. These researchers compare good caregiving to placing “scaffolding” around the child in the form of modeling, providing step by step instructions and acknowledgement – day after day during the early formative years. As the child becomes adept, the parent then begins to “remove” the scaffolding, piece by piece, encouraging greater and greater independence.
The Development of Attentiveness in Infancy
The development of attentiveness and executive function begins in infancy, and critical during this period is parent/caregiver interactions (positive, responsive, loving and respectful interactions).
Parents can encourage the development of attentiveness by:
- Attentiveness to their infant’s needs
- Positive attention and interaction with their infant
- Allowing their infant time for independent play (safe exploration in a prepared space/environment without adult interaction)
- Developmentally appropriate struggle – don’t interrupt too soon! (As an infant strives to reach for a toy, it is building muscle memory and connecting thought with action; they are also building attention skills; respect this process and do not jump in too soon!)
- Offering a variety of activities and routines
- Avoiding constant stimulation and entertainment (know that you do not always have to entertain your child; you will also want to stay away from screens for the first two years of life)
- Encouraging physical movement, once your baby is mobile (spend time outdoors and provide opportunity for large-muscle movement indoors and outdoors)
- Opting out of toys with buttons, flashing lights and sounds and instead choose open-ended, simple toys, and everyday objects that encourage curiosity and focus
- Reading books out loud, starting with short board books with black and white photos, and moving on to other stories as your baby moves through infancy
- Ensuring your child’s nutrition and rest needs are met
- Preparing the environment – our method of education has shown that a child thrives in a peaceful environment filled with neutral colors and natural materials (bright colors naturally stimulate, as can even well-intentioned background music)
The Development of Attentiveness in Early Childhood
You can help your toddler and preschool-aged child develop attentiveness by:
- Reading aloud to your child, moving from picture books to chapter books
- Providing them with free play time with open-ended toys
- Engaging your child in step-by-step activities (like baking cookies, doing puzzles, etc
- Providing them with independent, uninterrupted play time (without adult or peer interaction)
- Avoiding constant stimulation and entertainment (the APA recommends no more than 1 hour of screen time a day for children ages 2-5)
- Attentiveness to their needs
- Positive attention and interaction with your child (get down to their level, talk gently, look them in the eye, and communicate with love and respect)
- Being mindful of interruptions (respect, as much as possible, when your child is engaged an activity, from getting dressed independently to building with blocks) – do not hurry, push or pull your child through their day
- Communicating expectations in a clear, concise, respectful manner (parents often make the mistake of communicating expectations in passing, with a negative overtone, while their child is otherwise engaged, or in any overly complicated manner)
- Ensuring your child gets plenty of large-muscle movement and time outdoors!
- Ensuring your child’s nutrition and rest needs are met
- Engaging in attention-building activities: puzzles, memory, Simon says, Red Light Green light, etc.
- Practicing attentiveness: is your child able to give their attention when it is necessary? (In our classrooms, teachers often will ring a sweet sounding bell to get the children’s attention. The children learn to respond to the bell by quieting their bodies, turning their eyes to the teacher, and quieting their mouths. You can do something similar at home by the “5 Fingers” method: when you raise your hand and show your five fingers, it means to 1) eyes on you 2) mouth quiet 3) body calm 4) ears listening 5) nose breathing.)
- Practicing silence. (The Silence game is wonderful for increasing awareness and attentiveness, and is often “played” in our classrooms. At home you can continue this game indoors, outdoors and even in the car, by inviting your child to play. Explain that you are all going to be quiet for a short amount of time – and that they can listen to sounds around them, listen to their thoughts, or their breathing, etc. When the period of silence is done, you can ask your child what they heard, felt, or thought of during the silence.)
- Avoiding overbooking your child’s day – give your child the gift of time and space
When we move towards giving our child the gift of independence, a child may complain of being “bored”, because they are accustomed to always being entertained or their time always being scheduled and structured. But, children are resilient, and they will soon find creative ways to play and entertain themselves. Attentiveness is an important skill for a child to develop to do well in not just academic, but social settings.
We hope you can join us next week for our next installment in our series on kindergarten readiness: self care skills.