Let's look at this photo of Circle Time in an early childhood classroom. The Teacher is demonstrating or instructing, One Child is responding or interacting, Four Children are paying attention, or passively learning, and Two Children (that we can see) are inattentive or are not learning. And we can't be sure how many more are on the rug and have possibly left the lesson mentally, but at least two out of seven aren't learning. That's almost 30% of the group!
What's wrong with this picture? Well, we see this virtually every time we form a group and provide learning in this manner. Show-and-Tell goes this way, Circle Time, Morning Meeting, and any Large Group Instruction or Small Group Instruction that is Teacher-Centered or focused on one individual.
Why aren't we changing this? Can you see the learning happening? Not for everyone! And Everyone Has the Right to Learn, During Every Lesson, Every Day! So, we need to work on this issue and engage more students until we have all of them! That's what's wrong. Take notice of what you aren't doing for the child who is distracted, rather than noticing which child has checked out. Don't decide that these children don't have a long enough attention span to learn this information; it's not the case.
Working toward a solution, let's start with the math. The research tells us to take the child's age and add two minutes to that number to determine the total number of minutes that you can expect that individual to remain attentive to one individual speaking or demonstrating. That means that a 3-year old will give you five minutes of her time, and a 6-year old will give you eight minutes of his time. However, there is another factor to put into the equation. For a child who has distraction issues, which can vary across a wide range (sensory concerns, possible ADHD, a tooth ache or a cold, hungry or feeling too warm, didn't get enough sleep or even simply missing mom today), the new equation becomes one of subtraction. Take the child's age, minus two minutes! Now you have a 3-year old who may willingly give you one minute of full attention, or a 5-year old who can offer you three minutes to get your message across. This is the formula we are working with in these circumstances. We need to know it well and set expectations accordingly. But wait...
Now look at Sam; look at her build in the blocks center! She has been there working hard on her town and her tower for about 20 minutes. Where did that attention span come from? She's only four years old. She should be able to sit there and build for about six minutes! Didn't I just provide a research-based formula to follow?
I recently made this connection in my own kindergarten classroom. I realized that the children who checked out on the rug did so, not because of a lack of developmental readiness, but because of a lack of engagement. Engaging students is my responsibility, not theirs. We no longer have any passive learners on the rug. Every individual is very busy working on a task at the same time as the student who is our message reader works on the teacher's message. The activity on the rug is integrated with the message reader's job, and is a developmentally appropriate activity with room for more or less depth, depending upon the child.
Engagement: 100% !!! A Rug Full of Actively Engaged Learners! We Can See the Learning Happening, For Everyone. And we don't see any passive learners or disengaged students. Time for attention to task on the rug has extended dramatically for us, expanding the breadth and depth of the learning!
Keep in mind, also, that there are many factors that play into the limited attention span of a child. Children with sleep issues are often misdiagnosed with ADHD, as are children whose self-regulation skills have not developed at the same pace as peers. The overstimulation of excess screen time can also lead to inattentive behavior. Before making judgments about ADHD or development, revisit your strategies for engaging a group of individuals who may be as unique in their attention spans as they are in individual strengths and talents. Employ strategies that enable success for everyone!