The “One More” Rule to Extend a Toddler’s Attention

This week I’ve done lots of thinking about the attention spans of toddlers.

Thinking for me always involves reading to see what other SLPs have written and what the research says. Here’s the best of what I found:

At there’s a great graphic for the attention span of children ages 2 to 10 with the catchy title “Normal” Attention Spans Might be a Little Shorter Than You Think. This site listed a range of 4 to 10 minutes for a 2 year old and 6 to 15 minutes for a 3 year old. Check it out for yourself.

A 2008 study from Infant Child Development (Gaertner, Spinrad, Eisenburg) reported that a toddler’s attention span is variable from 3 to 6 minutes. The researchers stated that beyond that time frame, a child will require adult support.

No kidding, huh?

Investigators in the last study also reported that low-attending infants became more attentive when adults were involved in their play. Being present is a powerful tool. In my experience, a responsive, FUN adult who is willing to sit down on the floor and truly PLAY is the #1 way we increase a toddler’s attention span.

Beyond simply being there, what else can we do to improve a toddler’s short attention span?

My BEST strategy for stretching attention with a toddler or young preschooler is easy to remember.
When I teach this technique to parents or therapists, I call this the “One More” Rule.

This means we’ll only ask the young child to do “one more” of whatever it is we’re doing before he can leave the activity. This may be
putting in ONE MORE piece of the puzzle
reading ONE MORE page of the book
taking ONE MORE turn in play
completing ONE MORE try with ANY goal

Holding up my index finger as if I’m counting to 1 is the visual cue I use as I’m saying, “One more time! One more!”

Almost any child can be coaxed to do “one more” if he knows you will allow him to move on to something new.

Many times you can encourage a toddler to do several “one more’s” before he truly balks.

This won’t improve a short attention span immediately, but it will help a child learn to extend an activity just beyond his stopping point.

Over time a child who would only do 2 Potato Head parts before running away will now put in 4 pieces. In a few weeks, with consistent application of this strategy, maybe he’ll try 5 or 6 pieces before he’s had it.

Forcing a toddler to sit for 10 minutes or more for one activity while he’s obviously miserable is counterproductive for learning.

The only thing he may be learning during this time is, “This lady is mean…”

With consistent, gentle insistence from a playful adult who cheerfully says, “C’mon! One more time,” most toddlers will learn to cooperate.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen… each “one more” at a time : )

I’m going to discuss this topic on my podcast next week… Monday 2/17/14 at 3 pm eastern time. We’ll talk about this idea and other tips for extending a toddler’s attention span. If you can’t join me live, you can listen later at this link:

Teach Me To Talk: The Podcast for February 17, 2014

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