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    1001 Ways to Build an Attention Span

    August 31, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Okay, so maybe one thousand one was a bit of an exaggeration, though if you all fill up the comments with additional ideas, we might get there. I have been considering the concept of attention span throughout my short {so far} stint as a mother. I like thinking and wanted to raise children who are capable of it, but I was distressed by what I was seeing out there in the world. There are many, many children who cannot seem to attend to anything other than whatever suits their fancy for the next twenty-seven seconds.

    So, our family set out to build a way of life in which the children would develop the skill of attending, for we do believe that it is a skill. This is not to say that there are not biological factors. For instance, we once had some friends who had a daughter who had brain damage and as everyone knows brain damage can be fatal. She had been adopted from a mother who used various street drugs throughout her pregnancy, and we were all pretty sure that she would never be able to attend completely. However, the family had developed in her the skill far beyond what other families would have accomplished. My point here is that even a child who is damaged deserves the opportunity to learn to think at the level of which they are capable.

    I do not pretend that this is an exhaustive list. I am actually hoping that much is added in the comments. With that said, there are some things that I think are worth discussing.


    Let’s start with habits. One major facet of attention is the idea that it is a skill. We are born with little to no ability to attend, and life teaches us {or doesn’t, as the case may be} how to develop the skill of attention. Here is my list for developing the skill:

    • Turn off the television. Also, the DVD player and the video games, if you have them. I am not saying that watching TV is immoral or whatever, so please don’t misunderstand me. I also don’t make a habit of condemning friends for turning on a video once a week so that they can catch their breath.

      However, comma.

      If I had a child showing signs of ADHD, I would turn off the electronic media completely, with no exceptions. The child might throw a fit, declare himself bored, and do whatever else he can to torment his mother for turning it off, so this is not for the faint of heart. Much easier to never let them get addicted in the first place.

      Before I go on, I want to try and briefly explain why this would be a good step. In essence, these forms of media train the mind to experience the world in a flashy, disordered way. They also train the viewer to indulge the self. This combination, regularly offered to a growing young soul, is asking for trouble. The mental activity required for keeping up with a video is totally and completely different from that required to read and think through a good book. An exception may perhaps be made for old Mr. Rogers videos? I’m still considering this.

      Suffice it to say that ADHD and the flipping of subjects in television and videos and games have something in common.

    • Read stories. Some children just need practice. Start with shorter stories, and work up until a five-year-old can attend to a chapter book without pictures. His younger siblings will be able to listen to them even earlier than he can.
    • Let them be bored. Bored children eventually begin to have thoughts. If we entertain them, we are relieving their minds before the boredom has born any fruit.
    • Train talkative children to be quiet. One of our children went through a stage where said child talked and talked until my ears bled. It was too much. I remember asking an older, more experienced mother what to do, and she said she had more than one child for whom she set a timer and required them to keep their silence. Some of these children are hardly able to make it two minutes {ask me how I know}. But they can be trained. Once they are trained to close their mouths, something I found helpful was to go over the Proverbs that extol the man who listens, and condemn the fool for excess talking.
    • Ask good questions. I am trying to learn to do this. Someone told me to do it, and I can’t remember who. The idea is that you can help keep a child’s mind on a subject for a longer period of time by engaging him in discussion about that subject. So don’t just read a book and then go do something else. Instead, read the book and then ask the child what his favorite part was, or what he remembers. Narration helps, too.
    • Keep a nature journal. A child will look at something in nature, and consider it longer, if he is drawing it, labeling it, adding a quote about it, and so on. Ideally, this is not some sort of grueling activity, but rather a chance to really look, to really see, and so to savor.

      Come to think of it, the ability to savor something is tied to the skill of attending.

    • Art Narration. This is a lot like the nature journal. When a child studies a piece of famous art, he typically will not look at it very long. When he attempts to recreate it, he studies it, and also files it away in his memory. The act of art narration will keep him on his art subject longer than mere viewing.
    • Live a slow life. When life gets rushed, children are often dragged around. I remember when I realized that on rushed days, I didn’t give my children time to practice skills like dressing themselves or washing their own hands. There was no time! In not having time, I was also teaching them the habit of not attending, for there was no time to think about anything other than the next thing.
    • Get the wiggles out. Little boys especially are bundles of energy. Trying to get them to sit still when they haven’t done anything physically to burn off their wiggles will be difficult. My son and I rise at 6:00 a.m. {unless there is sickness in the house), and walk for about 30 minutes. Actually, I walk, and he rides his bike. This has a settling effect on him, and I wish I had thought of it earlier.

      I have a friend who used her giant trampoline in like manner.

    • Be generous and give them something worth attending to. This is what I have learned most in reading the works of Charlotte Mason.This woman made sure that everything she gave the students to think about was actually worth thinking about. In a cluttered world full of gimmicks, this might be a little more challenging. This is why I consider myself forever in the debt of Ambleside Online.

    What else?


    I know that I just wrote a theology of nutrition that explained how free I believe we are in Christ, and how good a world God made for us.

    However, comma.

    There are a lot of children who are fed something that the FDA “approved” of as food that God did not say is food. With that said, I think that food is something we need to consider when dealing with an ADHD child. If I had a child like this, I would eliminated these foods, in particular order:

    • MSG. Also known as: monosodium glutamate. Also known as hydrolyze protein, autolyzed yeast extract, and/or soy isolate.
    • Red 40. Actually, I would say here all artificial colors and flavors, but if you have to choose one, choose Red 40. I cannot tell you how many mothers I have met who find that their children are better behaved when they are off of Red 40.
    • White sugar and white flour. The idea is to give the children things that are nutrient-dense, especially toddlers who don’t eat much of anything. Highly processed foods tend to be mostly-empty calories, which is why I’d avoid them.

    And then I would feed them food that God made. Period. Give them nourishing food. Feed them eggs or chicken with the skin on, for the brain is made of fat and cholesterol. Give them fruits. Give them vegetables. If you want to give them a superfood, try cod liver oil, which is a wonderful source of brain-building Omega 3 fatty acids.

    Every time I have encountered ADHD children, barring extreme circumstances like the one I mentioned above, I have noticed that their diets consist of artificial foods rather than real ones. Eating real food is an important cornerstone of health, even brain health.

    What do you do?

    How does your family build an attention span? What do people you know do?

    Read More:
    1001 Ways to Build an Attention Span {Part the Second}
    Lessons from Charlotte: Paying Attention is a Mental Habit

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  • Reply Mystie September 25, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Oh, yay! Nature study and narration are two things that continue to elude me. 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 25, 2009 at 4:32 pm


    Okay, I started answering your question about nature study and it turned into a blog post. SO…I wanted you to know that my answer will be auto-posted tomorrow (Saturday) morning. I hope it helps!

  • Reply Rachel R. September 17, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Can you explain more about how you go about your nature studies? This is something I have been wanting, for a while, to do with my 7yo. But I don’t know what instruction to give her, to help her understand what I would like her to do. (We also now live in a subdivision, although we do have plenty of wildlife in our own backyard, so our subjects for observation are somewhat limited.)

  • Reply queen shenaynay September 4, 2009 at 4:01 am

    Hoo Brandy, I’m about to start dancing in the aisles here! 🙂 Seriously, thank you for taking the time to compose this. So important. I’m enjoying your blog.

  • Reply Regular Jane from Oregon September 3, 2009 at 3:51 am

    Thank you for the two posts. I had no idea that MSG had three other names. I now recognize them on many food labels I’ve read lately. YIKES! I bought some little granola bars the other day and the ingredient list was about 20 items long. I regretted the purchase for the sake of ease while in the van. Thank you, I learn so much from your blog as of late.

  • Reply Kansas Mom September 1, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    Based on some recent reading, I’ve been using Quiet & Nap time as my own time to get things done. First Son is learning he has to entertain himself. He actually does an excellent job and naturally had an uncanny level of attention, even as a toddler. I can’t take credit for that; he came that way.

    In addition to reading to our kids, I think we need to leave lots of books within reach. I often find my children (even the baby), quietly thumbing through books. First Daughter will tell you she can’t read, but she likes looking at the pictures (and I know she’s telling herself the story in her head).

  • Reply Rahime September 1, 2009 at 4:28 am

    I definitely think it’s crucial to give children things that are worth thinking/reading about, to ask them real (thoughtful & thought-provoking) questions, and give them (school) work worth doing (one of the major problems I see in school these days). Also, I think you hit the nail on the head with needing to eat right, exercise and, especially, turn off the electronic noise.

    I think it’s important for children to have increasingly challenging REAL work (work that contributes to the family’s livelihood and sustenance, whether learning the family business, cooking meals for the family, or helping to plant the year’s garden, etc.). Also important, is finding area of interest to the child and helping them to cultivate those hobbies, interests or talents. I think this one’s tough ’cause there’s a tendency in our world to dabble in a lot of activities without really mastering any of them, but learning a new skill and achieving mastery of it teaches focus, dedication, and self-discipline that is rare in children (well, people) these days.

  • Reply Rebecca September 1, 2009 at 3:28 am

    I have recently started sending L to play in her room alone for short periods of time. I don’t think she was capable of this just a couple of months ago, but I have seen in the last couple of weeks that she can and will find something to do without me having to think every little activity up for her.

    I noticed when my mom reads to L, she spends a significant amount of time on each page. I tend to rush through the story to get to the point (=the end), but I think lingering over the details really has aided in developing her concentration.

  • Reply Dominic and Kimberly August 31, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    bad couple of sentences, sorry a littel ADD problem, hehe

    Of course they still always specific areas of complete free choice and free play necessary for their development, but the time all of the “centers” was limited.

    Of course they still had specific areas of complete free choice and free play necessary for their development, but the time spent at each of the “centers” was limited.

  • Reply Dominic and Kimberly August 31, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    What do I do?

    In my preschool classes choices were very important. Children learn independence by making their own choices. Too many choices can also be overstimulating.
    To work on this, I set out several different activities for the children to choose from. This increases focus and exposes them to activities they may have never thought of trying. Of course they still always specific areas of complete free choice and free play necessary for their development, but the time all of the “centers” was limited.
    I’ve tried to mimic this at my house recently in the way I organized my playroom.

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