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My 3-year-old’s attention skills

toddler playing with toy cars

Key points:
1. Attention skills involve three cognitive networks: alerting, orienting, and executive control.
2. Alerting is staying sensitive to information, orienting is focusing on relevant information, and executive control handles conflicts.
3. Proper functioning of these networks is crucial for attention and focus, engaging various brain areas.
4. For children aged 3 to 5, attention span can be estimated by multiplying their age by two or five.

According to neuroscientist Michael Posner, there are three underlying cognitive networks that relate to different functions of the attention skills. The first one is alerting and it’s defined as being able to get into and maintain a state of high sensitivity to information. The second one is orienting, which refers to a person’s capacity to select only the relevant parts of the incoming information. Lastly, there’s the executive control function, which involves figuring out any conflict with feelings, thoughts, and responses that might impede focus and attention.


All three components are necessary to “pay attention” or “focus” successfully on something. When your child is doing something as seemingly simple as focusing on the bedtime storybook you’re reading, they are maintaining the functions of attention and using different areas of the brain, like the frontal and the parietal cortex. These parts will continue developing well into adolescence, but your 3-year-old is undoubtedly laying some very important bases now.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you can calculate the minutes of the attention span of children between 3 and 5 years by multiplying their age by two or five. That means that your 36-month-old child can probably stay focused on an interesting toy or situation for a maximum of fifteen minutes at a time. Therefore, if you want to engage your child in something, try to suggest 10-minute-long activities.

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