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How To Help Your Preschooler Pay Attention

Preschoolers can be inattentive. They may fidget, squirm and giggle during reading time. When asked to pick up their toys, they often put exactly one item in the toy box before deciding it's more fun to play than pick up. They may have to be told something a hundred times before it sinks in – especially if it's something they don't want to hear. It can be frustrating to parents, but, according to Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., it's also completely normal.

Set Realistic Expectations

Phelan has been a clinical psychologist for more than 25 years, specializing in children and families, and is the author of numerous books and videos about parenting. He says the problem with the attention span of most preschoolers is not the child's – it's the parents'.

"A parent often has an unrealistic expectation of what a child can do at age 3 or 4, especially if it's a first child or if the child is very bright and verbal," says Phelan. "A 'normal' attention span for a 4-year-old is about four minutes if they're involved in free play."

Phelan says the biggest problem with parents is that they tend to have what he calls the "little adult assumption." In other words, parents think that children are merely small adults and should be able to respond in an adult manner.

Preschoolers and ADHD

Phelan says it can be extremely dangerous for parents to make assumptions about their child's attention span and to assume there's a problem with it based on his or her behavior at home. It isn't until the child is in a group situation, such as preschool, where there is some sense of relativity, that any judgments can be made. In other words, how does your child act in relation to other children?

Even that can be misleading in some circumstances. Almost as soon as Patricia Weathers' son, Michael, started kindergarten, she started getting notes from the school about his lack of attention and the possibility that he had an attention disorder.

"Eventually, we discovered Michael wasn't even disrupting his kindergarten class," says Weathers, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "He just wasn't finishing his tasks."

According to Phelan, this definitely is not ADHD. "Although ADHD can be diagnosed at age 3 or 4, the criteria at that point is not attention span but violent or destructive behavior," he says.

Know the Difference

By age 5, Trystan Colclasure of Orangevale, Calif., had been kicked out of daycare and very nearly out of preschool because of his poor impulse control and inability to sit still for even a moment. His mother, Teressa, says Trystan had so much trouble controlling his behavior from about age 2 that she occasionally feared for his life.

"He would run off when we went outside and many times had close calls with almost getting hit by a car," says Colclasure. "He could always tell me what good choices and bad choices were and even what would happen for making bad choices. But when he was in a situation, he did not think about it, he just acted on impulse."

Trystan has since been diagnosed with ADHD. Michael, meanwhile, is excelling academically.

"The name of the game is that children are sloppy, loud and chaotic, and parents need to accept that in a non-judgmental way," says Phelan.

Attention Activities for Preschoolers

While most experts discourage formal "workbook" learning situations for preschoolers, it is possible to play in a way that teaches your child good listening skills – which is what paying attention is all about. The following tips come from June Oberlander, a former kindergarten teacher, mother of two and author of Slow And Steady Get Me Ready (Xulon Press, 2002):

  • Make a simple drum from a coffee can. Tap on it once and ask the child to copy. He may just pound on it, so repeat your request and ask him to just tap it once. Praise him when he accomplishes the task. Gradually work up to more repetitions, up to four.
  • Put some small items, like rice, beans, bells or beads, into small containers. Make two of each container. Shake one container and ask your child to find the matching sound from her containers.
  • Act out nursery rhymes using a motion that is triggered by a word in the rhyme. For example, recite "Jack Be Nimble," and at the verbal cue of the word "jump," have the child jump over an unlit candle. This teaches him to listen closely.

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