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When do kids learn to focus?

By Julie Rawe

At a Glance

  • As kids get older, they can pay attention for longer periods of time.

  • The amount of time kids can focus depends on a lot of things besides age.

  • Some kids have a harder time focusing on tasks they’re not interested in.

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Like many families, you may wonder, Is my child’s attention span typical? How long should my child be able to focus? But the amount of time doesn’t just depend on your child’s age. It depends on other things, too, like how interested your child is in the task.

Kids develop at different rates. This means some kids may take longer than others to “stick to” a task and avoid getting distracted. Some kids may have a harder time paying attention to tasks they’re not super interested in. Learn more about when kids can focus.

When do kids learn to focus?

As newborns, babies start to focus on things like a caregiver’s face or voice. But they’ll turn their attention to any new sound or object.

As they get older, they learn to tune out distractions. They get better at choosing what to pay attention to. They also learn to control when they shift their attention. This is what lets us “multitask” by doing things like listening to instructions while we’re working or playing.

Selecting, shifting, and sustaining attention are different skills that kids build over time. Here’s what these focus skills often look like at different ages. 

Up to 1 year: Babies are very distractible and focus on whatever is the newest or most exciting thing in the room.

Between 1 and 2 years: Most kids are very rigid in how they pay attention. They can focus on things they enjoy, but they block out everything happening around them.

Between 2 and 3 years: Most kids can play on their own for short periods of time. If you ask them to do something, they can — but only if they stop what they’re doing and concentrate on what you’re saying.

Between 3 and 4 years: Most kids can shift their attention away from what they’re doing and need less prompting to look at you while you’re giving instructions.

Between 4 and 5 years: Most kids can pay attention to you — even if they’re not looking at you — while they’re doing another activity like playing or working.

Ages 6 and up: Most kids can shift their attention enough to follow instructions and routines and can pay attention to things they may be less interested in, like schoolwork.

What affects how long kids can focus?

As kids get older, they can focus for longer periods of time. But attention spans are a bit like rubber bands. They can get longer when kids are really interested in a task — like when they’re watching a funny video. And they can get shorter when kids are less interested in a task, like when they’re doing homework.

Other things can affect how long kids can focus, too. For example, does the room have lots of distractions they need to tune out? How much sleep did they get the night before? Did they eat breakfast this morning? Are they experiencing a lot of stress?

All of these things can make it easier or harder for kids to stay focused on a task. And because there are so many factors to consider, it’s hard for experts to say what a “typical” attention span is for kids at different ages.

For example, many 5-year-olds can focus for about 10 minutes during circle time at school. But kids that age should be able to focus for much longer on more interesting tasks — like playing a fun board game in a setting that has a lot of structure to help them stay focused.

But if those 5-year-olds are feeling very tired or hungry or stressed, even a favorite activity might not hold their attention for very long. 

What’s next?

Families often want to know the amount of time kids can pay attention. But it’s important to think about many factors besides age that can affect a child’s focus.

Have you noticed your child struggling with focus more than other kids the same age? Learn more about trouble with focus in kids and how to help .

Key Takeaways

  • Kids can focus for longer on tasks that interest them.

  • Kids ages 6 and up can typically control their attention enough to focus on things they’re less interested in.

  • When kids feel hungry, sleepy, or stressed, it can make it harder to focus.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom