At what age do we acquire the ability to sustain attention?
Let's look at when the ability to sustain attention emerges in childhood.
Many parents worry about their children's attention span at an early age. The minute they see that they are not consistent in listening to daddy telling a story, playing with a toy or doing their homework, many parents get into the worst situation, fearing that their child may have adhd or something like that.
It could be that, yes, the child has a concentration problem, but in most cases the problem lies in the fact that their parents do not know at what age we acquire the ability to maintain attention.The parents, seeing with adult eyes the development of their children, who are still children and like everyone else, their attention is rather reduced.
Fortunately, this will change as the child gets older, becoming able to stay focused for longer, both on tasks that are fun and those where he or she has to pay voluntary attention, such as homework or being in class. Let's see it.
At what age do we acquire the ability to sustain attention?
Attention is an executive function that is refined and developed as we grow older.. This is because as we mature, so does our brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, the brain region where the executive functions are located. For this reason, the degree of concentration of a young child and that of an adult are very different: we cannot expect from an immature brain the same functions as one that is already fully developed.
When talking about attention, regardless of age, we can talk about two types: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary attention is the one we show when we are doing an activity that we like, that awakens an interest in us that is not at all forced, while voluntary attention is the one in which we have to do our part, focus on a task that may be more or less unpleasant and which requires a certain cognitive effort.
Attention in childhood works in the same way, only involuntary attention is more important.. That is, children concentrate better and longer on tasks that are fun or attractive to them, such as playing games, watching television or having a story read to them. They can show voluntary attention, that is, force their concentration, but it is rather anecdotal. They find it difficult to make that cognitive effort to pay attention in those activities that seem monotonous, boring and heavy.
How does attention progress?
It has been seen that between the ages of 0 and 3 years, babies concentrate on tasks that attract and amuse them, although in reality any other activity can attract their attention. It is worth noting that they also lose interest quite quickly in all activities, they lose interest quite quickly in all the things they do, both those they like and those they do not.things they like and don't like. Thus, at the slightest distracting stimulus they will stop what they are doing and move on to something else. They cannot control it, it is in their nature, there is nothing to worry about.
An experimental case in which this was addressed is the 1985 study by Bashinski, who took 4-month-old infants and divided them into two groups of equal size. The experiment consisted of placing them on their parents' laps and showing them visual stimuli, specifically a chessboard. Group 1 was shown a 4x4 board, while group 2 was shown a 12x12 board, with many more squares.
The babies in group 2, with the more complex board, were more fixated than those in group 1, now, we would not be talking about sustained attention. It is simply that the babies were fixated for a longer time on a more complex and striking stimulus, being in this case the 12x12 chessboard. This is neither voluntary nor conscious attention, only that, as this second stimulus is more striking, it surprises them more.
Between 2 and 4 years of age, voluntary attention becomes stronger and stronger. and it is here that we could begin to talk about infants being able to sustain attention. They can pay attention for a longer sustained period of time, even to things they do not like. It is a cognitively demanding activity that requires the investment of considerable energy and a minimally developed neurological structure, namely the prefrontal cortex. At this age, attention, like children themselves, is still in its infancy.
As we grow older, attention becomes more stable. This is especially noticeable from the age of 3-4 years, since boys and girls can play the same game for about 30 minutes and, if they like it very much, they can play for up to 50 minutes. In older children, between 5 and 6 years of age, the game can last up to almost an hour and a half. It should also be noted that we are talking about pleasurable activities, since those that are not so pleasurable, such as being in class, concentration lasts less, although it also increases with age.
According to several studies and what has been observed by child psychologists, psychopedagogues, child educators and other professionals working with children, we can see that concentration, i.e., the ability to maintain sustained attention, increases as children grow up, the ability to maintain sustained attention, increases as we grow older.. Below we will see the expected concentration time for each age during infancy:
- 4 months to 1 year: 3 to 5 minutes
- 2 years: 4 to 10 minutes
- 3 years: 6 to 15 minutes
- 4 years: 8 to 20 minutes
- 5 years: 10 to 25 minutes
- 6 years: 12 to 30 minutes
- 7 years: 14 to 35 minutes
- 8 years: 16 to 40 minutes
- 9 years: 18 to 45 minutes
- 10 years: 20 to 50 minutes
It should be noted that these values are not closed, but a simple orientation. Attention is a human function that presents individual differences.In both adults and children, therefore, there may be children who concentrate more and others who concentrate less than expected for their ages. Although they are not indicative of a learning disorder or of giftedness or anything of the sort, these values can serve as a reference to decide to go to a professional and see if our child has a problem.
Applications of this knowledge
All this should be of help to many of those parents who, not being able to detach themselves from the concern of their role as parents, are very attentive to their children and sometimes, at the slightest opportunity, exaggerate things. If they see that their children do not last more than ten minutes reading they start to think that there could be a problem and if, in addition, they see them playing something they apparently like but in no time they get tired, these parents get the creeps: "but, if he likes it how come he is not able to continue playing? what's the problem?"
In fact, one of the problems that many parents believe their children have as soon as they enter the psychologist's office is ADHD.. They don't know what the diagnostic criteria are, nor how to evaluate it, they simply believe that their children have ADHD simply because they see that they get distracted doing what they are doing, without realizing that they are children. How can they not get distracted? Their brains are not yet ready to concentrate on a stimulus for long periods of time.
We must understand that the nature of children is very different from that of adults and that we cannot study them through our adult lens, much less being their parents. For example, when a child is 3 years old, we cannot expect him to concentrate for as long as an adult does. If we see that a child is a very active child, we should not think that he is hyperactive, absent-minded and inattentive, simply that he is just that, a child, it is in his nature to be like that.
But the reality is that many parents, especially the "helicopter" type, force their children to stay focused more than is neurologically possible. An adult, who can stay focused for 50 minutes at a time, thinks that a child will too, but that's not the case. Before the age of 10, it is practically impossible to find a child who can concentrate as long as his or her parents, and it is normal to acquire the ability to maintain adult attention at the age of 12 or well into adolescence.
But although some 10-year-olds are capable of concentrating for 50 minutes at a time, it must be said that this is not at all common.. Attention, like any other human faculty, presents individual differences, and children of that age have concentration periods ranging from 20 to 50 minutes. This is very important to take into account in class, since 3rd and 4th graders will need to change activities every 20 minutes if they want to make the most of the session. If homework lasts longer than that, many students will lose track of the class.
In earlier grades, of course, activities should be shorter in duration or at least more engaging, since voluntary attention is not the strong point of young children, so teachers can rely on involuntary attention and entertain them while teaching them the content. Children who do not understand what is being explained to them end up getting frustratedThe children who do not understand what is being explained to them end up getting frustrated, seeing the classes as a real bore and run the risk that, in order to amuse themselves, they start to clown around.
Repercussions of knowing all this
Once we understand all this, we can understand why it is so important to know at what age we acquire the ability to maintain our attention and how long we are able to stay focused. In this way, parents do not run the risk of making the mistake of establishing homemade diagnostics that will only mislabel their child. A child who believes he has attention problems may have them become a reality, weighing down his academic performance. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As parents, we must understand that sooner or later we must understand that sooner or later the child will be able to concentrate for longer, and we cannot force this process.. There are children who endure more, others less, but they will progressively improve. If this is not the case, if they have an attention span significantly below what is expected for their age, then there is reason to worry and go to a professional. Now, if there are no alarms or anything to indicate that there is a problem, we should not worry.
In addition, we must understand that time does not pass in the same way when we are small. Although it is not entirely so, in the child's mind 20 minutes can be perceived as if it were two hours for an adult. Their experience of time is longer and slower, so having to concentrate on something they do not like can feel like a real burden and it is normal that there is a moment when they lose concentration. It is not a problem of intelligence, it is that they get bored and every effort has a limit.
Knowing what their maximum concentration time is will help us to set them tasks that can be done within the capacity associated with their age, so that if they finish them, they will be able to do them within their age.If they finish them successfully, we will increase their self-esteem when they see that they can do them. In addition, we will be able to guide their learning in a way that avoids frustration, boredom and fatigue, three aspects that can be detrimental to learning.
- Betts, J., Mckay, J., Maruff, P. and Anderson, V. (2006) The Development of Sustained Attention in Children: The Effect of Age and Task Load, Child Neuropsychology, 12:3, 205-221, DOI: 10.1080/09297040500488522.
- Bashinski, H. S., Werner, J. S., & Rudy, J. W. (1985). Determinants of infant visual fixation: Evidence for a two-process theory. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 39(3), 580–598. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-0965(85)90058-X
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)