How to Set Expectations Based on Your Kid's Development

by Sanya Pelini November 07, 2017

boy playing with toys

Expecting your child to act in a certain way or to do certain things is futile if he or she is not developmentally ready. Here are some of the things we need to know about how our children’s development affects their behavior.

You can’t force your kid to concentrate

Most kids have low attentions spans and are easily distracted, which means they are constantly looking for something new. While it’s possible to keep children’s attention for varying periods of time, most of them often need to pass on to something new fairly quickly. Although it is possible to help kids increase their attention span, their ability to focus increases with age. Expecting kids to focus and concentrate on the same activity for longer periods than they are able leads to fidgeting, “misbehavior,” or causes them to switch off. At age three, the need to be in constant motion affects kids’ ability to focus on activities that require them to be still and silent. Between the ages of three and four, most children can concentrate for five to 10 minutes on average but can concentrate for up to 15 minutes on a particularly interesting activity. At age five, a child’s ability to concentrate increases because he or she is better able to ignore minor distractions. Many five-year-olds can focus on an activity for up to 25 minutes, and six-year-olds for up to 30 minutes on average, but only if they are engaged in the right activity.

What you can do instead

It’s easier to improve your child’s ability to focus when you are aware of where her interests lie. She is more likely to focus and pay attention if she is interested and engaged. Consider what your child is already able to do. Activities that are too easy or too hard will lead to boredom or frustration. Changing activities regularly or proposing multiple activities can help improve your child’s attention span. There is also evidence that regular exercise can help improve a child’s ability to focus and concentrate. You can improve younger kids’ focus by intentionally directing their attention to activities in which they’re already engaged. When your child is playing with a toy, for instance, asking him to name the colors or shapes he sees may help focus his attention. Research suggests that helping children be more present by helping them avoid distractions can also help them learn to effectively manage their emotions by themselves. A child who is angry, hungry, or tired is less likely to concentrate on activities. Ensuring that your child is distracted by neither physical, environmental, or psychological issues can help maintain his or her concentration. That said, every child is different and some will struggle with focus and concentration more than others. Fortunately, there are several evidence-backed tips that could help double your child’s attention span.

Kids don’t know how to fake it

We all know some kids described as “inattentive,” yet the same kids can be extremely engrossed in certain activities. Kids have not yet mastered the art of faking. You can always count on your kids to tell you what they think. You know when they think your food is yum or yuck. If your kid doesn’t want to speak to her grandparents or isn’t as enthusiastic as you are about running into an old friend or relative, she won’t fake it. The same is true when it comes to activities, including those he is asked to participate in at school. If your child is not interested in what he’s doing or what he’s learning, he’ll simply switch off or put in a half-hearted effort. The thing is, young children are primarily driven by self-interest. They are unlikely to be attentive if they do not see how the activity will be of personal use to them.

What you can do

Personal interest is one of the greatest predictors of kids’ focus and concentration. When we find ways to connect information with our children’s interests, we make it easier for them to acquire new knowledge and to develop important skills, such as creativity and problem-solving. Instead of trying to force your child to fit a pre-determined pattern of “good behavior”, show her the available options. While she doesn’t have to hug the people she meets, teach her how else she can say hello or goodbye. Kids do not have to be perfect in everything. Accept that it’s okay for your kid to be okay.

Kids learn best when they are active

All education philosophers agree that kids learn best when they are actively involved in their education. They learn when they are encouraged to discover things by themselves. Too much control, in school and at home, prevents kids from learning important problem-solving and decision-making skills and also prevents them from discovering where their interests lie.

What you can do

Parental intervention is not always beneficial. Give your child opportunities to discover things by himself. Evidence suggests that providing unstructured but stimulating environments can help your child develop important skills that he can use beyond the childhood years.

Sanya Pelini


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