Tips for Building Attention Skills

Sarah Billingham
January 16, 2024

Attention and listening skills are the bedrock of language development and allow us to learn other skills. Learning to focus is a really important part of early development that helps us to listen to others and engage in shared activities. But how can we help our children to develop their attention skills?


As with any skill, attention doesn’t develop all by itself. We need to give our children opportunities to practice. Play based opportunities that grab your child’s attention can be a great place to start. Initially your child might only join in for a couple of minutes, but by providing regular opportunities, in short bursts, we allow our children to practice and increase the amount of time they can concentrate for.


Our surroundings impact on our ability to concentrate.  Children are very easily distracted in a place where there is a lot going on. When we reduce the amount of distraction, our children can concentrate better.

Noise – background noise can be incredibly distracting, and children can find this hard to filter out. Turn off the radio/ TV and close the door to reduce noise from another room to help your child’s concentration.

Clutter – none of us have a perfectly tidy house but when wanting some focussed attention from your child, clear a space at the table. Children are naturally drawn to other toys or colourful objects; they find it harder to look at what you are showing them when there are lots of other things to tempt them. Out of sight, out of mind.

I have been known to do a quick sweep of clutter from the dining room table straight into a laundry basket (to deal with later on) when needing my daughter to focus on her homework.  

Movement – anything that is moving catches our eye; people walking past, trees moving in the breeze or images on a screen. We can’t always control these things, but we can think about where we place a child within the environment. Consider sitting your child with their back to anything that might be moving, or away from a window where they might notice things happening outside.


At home, we have a tendency to do things where our children appears most comfortable or relaxed; on the carpet or the sofa. However, a child’s physical position can impact on the level of attention they can give to an activity. Young children are still developing their trunk control and core strength. So, if a child is sitting on the floor, they have to put quite a bit of energy into keeping themselves stable in that position in order to be able to attend.

There are three different positions which might help your child to focus.

Seated – Children are better able to attend if they’re sitting on a chair, rather than on the floor. Make sure that you are using the right size chair so that your child’s feet are flat on the floor.

Standing – Some children can attend really well to something when they are standing up. Perhaps you have heard people raving about the benefits of standing desks?

Standing allows for some movement and young children can join in with tuff tray activities, or tabletop activities standing up.  Make sure that the table or surface at the right height for them, so that they’re able to access these resources easily.

Lying on tummy – For some children, lying on their tummy propped up on their arms, is a position they respond well to. It gives good sensory feedback and also limits their line of sight meaning they are more likely to look at what you have placed in front of them.

Short Bursts

Have heard of the Pomodoro Technique?  Lots of adults use this technique to help them by chunking their work into 25-minute slots.  They apply their best, focussed attention for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break. They might take a longer break for 15 to 10 minutes when they have done four blocks of 25 minutes. There is a lot of research to suggest that you can attend better when tasks are time limited and there are regular breaks or opportunities to move.

Exactly the same thing is true for our children but in their case, a 25-minute stretch would be far too long!  Attending to a game or sharing a book for a short burst of time followed by some movement is much more effective than trying to keep your child seated for a longer period of time.

Some children respond well to the use of timers. One way to do this is to set a time limit. Show the child how long they need to sit and listen for using a sand timer or the timer on your phone. Alternatively, set a task that has a clearly defined end and time how long it takes. Perhaps a jigsaw puzzle, where you work together and measure how long it takes you to do it. Next time, see if you can do it any quicker. You might start with a very simple jigsaw and then build up the complexity of the jigsaws you choose over time as well. A specific goal can help your child to focus.


Model what good attention looks like. It might sound obvious that children will learn from what they see, but sometimes they need you to explain what you are doing. That way children can they learn from that model, and copy it. Describe how you help yourself to concentrate. Do you turn the radio down in the car when you need to park? Do you go into another room when you need to take a phone call so that you can give the caller your full attention? Do you repeat things like phone numbers back to yourself to help you remember?

When you are doing these things, explain to your child what you are doing and how it helps you. Modelling our thought processes is one of the most powerful ways we teach our children.

For more tips and tools on supporting early language and communication development visit the Confident Communicators Facebook group or the Confident Kids Blog.

Sarah Billingham is a specialist teacher and runs Confident Kids a unique Early Years service. She equips parents and practitioners with expert knowledge and the practical tools they need to offer their little people the very best language and communication support.

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