Sit Still, Pay Attention and Look at Me: Understanding the Developing Attention Skills of Children – Dr. Becky Bailey

Educators increansingly report children with limited abilities to attend, self-regulate, tolerate frustration, and delay gratification. Often both adults and children struggle with skill of conscious, mindful attention. We frequently resort to demanding a child’s attention (sit still and look at me!) or fall into the belief that if we get children to sit still and pay attention in circle time for 10 minutes when they are 2 years old, they will be prepared for a 20-minute circle at age 4. Attention is a complex skill that does not develop through stamina training. This session covered how attention develops in our social brain.


Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change its structure, circuits, chemical composition and function in response to changing environments. Where we place our attention literally alters the structures of our brains.

  • Average focused attention span in 2000 = eight seconds.
  • Average focused attention span in 2013 = four seconds.
  • Attention = Attend, distract, refocus

Attention is a whole brain/body/mind activity; it is not stamina training.


Noticing and downloading calm or excitement.

Assertive adult – Focus o what you want and use a tone of no doubt.

Rhythm and routines in pictures – Music and movement with pictures/visuals books showing what to do and what to expect.

Composed adult – Model and teach children how to breathe and relax.

Safety job description, language, intention and sensory diet.



Joint attention: The ability to share a commmon focus on something (people, objects, concept, event, etc.) with someone else. It involves the ability to gain, maintain and shift attention.

  1. Orienting and attending to a social partner
  2. Shifting eye gaze between people and an object
  3. Sharing emotional states with another person
  4. Following the gaze and point of another person
  5. Being able to draw another person’s attention to objects or events to share



Describe emotional signals (“Your face is going like this”)

Name the feeling communicated. (“You seem _______ .”)

Acknowledge the child’s desire with positive intent. (“You wanted _______ .”) or “You were hoping ________ .”)



Regulating and developing the executive system for optimal attention requires:

  • Conscious awareness of triggers
  • Intentional goal setting and commitments
  • Maximizing play’s ability to override biology: Play extends attention span
  • Utilizing social play, dramatic play, all play: Play is not just to give the brain a break, it develops attention
  • Noticing instead of judging: Talk out loud
  • Balancing novelty and routine
  • Keeping realistic expectations: Attention span is equal to age: Two-year-old = two minutes, 20-year-old/adult = 20 minutes
  • Using interest and relevancy



Exercise, drink more fluids, get rid of clutter and do one thing at time (multi – tasking is the enemy of attention). Focus on what you want and what is most important to you.


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