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Attention and Listening Developmental Milestones

The ability to focus attention on something or someone is important for all types of learning, particularly speech and language development. A child develops their attention and listening skills by listening to everyday sounds around them – the telephone, washing machine, animal noises etc. They will also need to focus their listening on spoken language, including single words and sentences, before they can learn to speak for themselves and communicate effectively with others.

Babies and young children develop attention and listening skills through frequent opportunities to interact and play with others around them in quiet environments.                             

Good attention is the ability to focus on something specific for a certain length of time. As children progress through education, it becomes increasingly important for them to focus their own attention for sustained periods of time. To learn at school, a student must be able to listen and attend to what is happening around him/her to understand it, despite varying levels of distraction.

AgeAttention levelEffect on languageStrategies to develop and support attention and listening
Up to 1 year*Very distractible.
*Attention is fleeting and given to the most exciting stimulus in the room.
Can find it difficult to attend to what you are saying.Find out what motivates your child and incorporate these into activities.
Between 1 and 2 years*Can attend to an activity of their own choosing for a longer period of time but need
to block out all other distractions.
*Attention is described as rigid and inflexible.
Your child may block out what you are saying to concentrate on what they are doing.*Allow them to finish what they are doing before gaining their attention. 
*Gain your child’s attention first by using their name and/or touching them. 
*Sing songs with your child and leave out words for them to fill in.
Between 2 and 3 years*Attention is still single channelled but beginning to be able to attend to adults.
*Beginning to switch attention between adults and task.
*Able to listen to adult instructions if the child stops what they are doing. 
*Adults need to ensure they have the child’s attention before giving any instructions.
*Make sure child is looking towards you when you are speaking to them. 
*Be specific; using the child’s name to help focus their attention. 
*Play games so your child develops their ability to listen to and follow simple instructions, e.g. ‘Simon Says’, musical statutes, ready, steady, go…
Between 3 and 4 years*Attention remains single channelled but child is more able to control their attention.
*Child is able to switch between task and adult spontaneously.
*Will look at an adult when they speak. 
*Able to shift their attention from the task to the adult giving instructions.
*Tell your child when it’s time to listen.  Teach listening rules in nursery/school; sit still, look at the person speaking, think about the words and wait for your turn to speak. 
*Use gestures, pictures and objects to hold the child’s attention. These also help them understand spoken information. 
*Break down long or complex instructions into shorter ‘chunks’ of information and repeat if necessary. Give the child time to process the instruction. 
*Gradually increase the amount of time children are expected to listen for.
Between 4 and 5 years*Able to integrate attention to multiple channels for short periods of time.
*Can attend to verbal instructions without needing to look at the adult giving the instruction.
Can listen whilst also completing another activity such as playing or working.*Praise good listening skills. E.g.  good listening (to X),
*Teach listening rules in nursery/school; sit still, look at the person speaking, think about the words and wait for your turn to speak. 
*Use visuals to reinforce listening rules; posters in classrooms, symbols that can be given to children to remind them of rules.
5+ yearsSustained and integrated attention is well established and under the child’s control.Able to listen and attend well in class.*Allow processing time. 
*Simplify instructions into logical sequences and repeat keywords if necessary. 
*Encourage child to say if that haven’t understood and ask for clarification or repetition.

How you can support your child at home?

General Resources

How to use timers to develop Attention and Listening    

It is completely normal for a toddler and child in preschool to push boundaries, oppose, and have trouble regulating their emotions (your child’s tantrums are actually a sign of healthy development), and have trouble transitioning from one activity to the next.

Managing transitions is probably one of the hardest day-to-day challenges. But why?

One reason is that children want to do things that make them feel good! They want to stay at the park or avoid taking a bath because that means that bedtime comes after. The other reason is that children do not understand the concept of time! Not only because they can’t read a clock, but for the first 5 years of life, children have no sense of time, meaning that 1, 5, or 10 minutes feels the same way to them.

Visual timers are a great collaborative tool that help children anticipate and navigate transitions more easily. If a child understands when an activity ends and another one starts, they will be more willing to collaborate and accept this transition. While timers aren’t a magical solution, with enough time and consistency, they can assist in helping hard transitions feel easier for our children.

Implementing visual timers for children at home is a great way to help anticipate transitions for your child, time management, foster independent play, and reduce any power struggles when setting boundaries. When children can actually see the passing of time, they can better understand it. Children do better when they feel better, and eliminating any anxiety over what is going to happen soon can help them feel more in control.

Choose the right kind of timer.     

To implement a timer in your child’s life, we recommend you choose one that shows the passing of time. Some look like a regular kitchen timer with colours, others look like a traffic light, or you can even choose a sand timer. These timers often work better than setting a timer on your phone or microwave, since your child can’t understand what the numbers mean.

Introduce the timer with a fun activity!

Start by introducing the timer with a more fun transition first (not a chore!). Use it when the activity that comes after the timer ends is a fun one for your child. We recommend placing the timer in a place where your child can see it easily and bring their attention to the countdown as a fun activity!

Explain how it works.

Get down to your child’s level and explain that when the timer goes off, it will be time to stop playing with blocks, and time to play with the puzzle (or something they enjoy). If your child isn’t verbal, saying this in a nice, affirmative tone will suffice. If your child is verbal, you can ask them to confirm that they understand what will happen.

Use a positive tone.

When the timer goes off, you can use a positive, affirmative tone and say something like, “Oh, the timer is off! That sound means it is time to stop playing with blocks. It is time to play with your puzzle now.” If your child shows resistance, you can validate their feelings while still holding the boundary: “Ugh I know it’s hard to say bye to blocks, you like blocks. But it is time for puzzles now.”

Choose one or two transition periods to start.

Start slow. You don’t want to overwhelm your child by suddenly having the timer present at every single transition. Start by implementing it with only one transition a day. Once you feel like they have a good grasp of the timer concept, you can start using it in transitions that they usually have trouble with, like bedtime, for example.

3 strategies and tips to integrate timers into daily life.

The first thing you need to know is that visual timers aren’t a magical solution to parenting struggles. Their application and your child’s acceptance of them will take time and consistency. Remember to use a positive, affirmative voice when communicating boundaries and expectations around the timer, and to highlight your child’s positive behaviours instead of always highlighting the negative ones through discipline.

Tip #1 Use timers to transition from one activity to another.

A commonly difficult day-to-day transition is ending screen time. At the beginning of screen time, you can say, “OK, time to watch some TV. I’m going to set the timer here so you can enjoy your show for a while. Once the timer goes off, we have to turn off the TV.”

Tip #2 Use a timer to foster independent play.

Play is a child’s job, and children love to play with us. It is unrealistic for parents to drop what they are doing all the time to play with their children, but using a visual timer can help you gain some extra time to finish a task and foster independent play.

Let’s say it’s 6:00 PM and you are rushing to finish dinner, but your 4-year-old is begging for you to lay on the floor and play with them. You can pull out the visual timer and say, “Hey sweetie, I need to finish dinner. Can you play on your own until the timer goes off? Then Mummy will be able to play with you.” This will help your child wait a little less anxiously and will promote independent playtime. Remember that it is normal to not get a positive response all the time from your child, their favourite activity is over after all, but with enough time and consistency, it will be easier for them to accept the transitions.

Tip #3 Use timers to increase the time spent on an activity.

Certain activities are boring for children, like chores, brushing their teeth, homework, or cleaning up their room. You can use a visual timer to help them understand how long they are performing an activity. Remember to start with small increments of time, and then start building up from there.

Here is an example: You start implementing quiet time, but your child gets antsy at the 5-minute mark. Start with your timer at 3 minutes, congratulate your child when they can wait until the timer is off, and then slowly add more time to the timer every couple of days until you reach your desired amount of quiet time.