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Pay Attention!

February 23, 2018

 

Although parents often complain the most about their older children's attention spans, we don't talk that often about our infants' ability to concentrate. Infants attend to all sorts of interesting elements in their environments: to sights, sounds, tastes, touches and smells. While we may not notice it, infants are carefully attending to the world around them, and, in doing so, learning how to concentrate in ways that will support learning other skills later. Montessori classrooms allow for this extended concentration, in some simple ways that parents can adopt at home. 

 

First, pay attention to what your child is paying attention to. When you notice that your infant is staring at something, let them stare uninterrupted until they look away. Children will stare at interesting stimuli as early as they are able to open their eyes. In early infancy, their attention may be captured by high contrast graphic stimuli. As their eyesight develops, they may notice and attend to more subtle stimuli. Watch your child, when you're holding them, or pushing in a stroller or enjoying time on the ground on their backs or tummies; when they notice something long enough to hold their gaze, look with them at the stimuli they've noticed and let them stay still until they look away. You might quietly name what you're seeing. "You are looking at the light through the window. I see the way the light is reflecting on the glass." This monologuing for your child keeps their exposure to rich language high and helps to affirm their attention. Wait until your child looks away to move them or keep walking. 

 

Give them a safe space to engage. Because you want your child to be able to concentrate on whatever catches their eye, you should be sure that what's in their eyesight is something safe to be caught. Provide a safe, comfortable space for your child to explore independently. In areas where that's not possible, hold your child close to you but at a safe distance from the things they might not be able to touch safely. If they express an interest or hold their gaze on a particular object, you can talk to them about that object and satisfy their curiosity while still keeping them safe. 

 

Choose what's in your child's environment carefully. Look at the Montessori classroom: simple, neutral backgrounds and a few, high quality, durable objects to explore. Avoid overwhelming your infant with bright murals or patterns on the walls, and instead, let the environment support them in paying attention to the things you want to draw their attention to. Your child needs fewer toys than you may imagine. For infants, look for interesting things to touch, curious shapes to manage picking up and manipulating, and items that are safe to mouth and chew. Offer toys that respond to children's actions on them in a way that children can see. For example, a rattle made of a series of wooden rings on a wooden rod is preferable to one with interior electronics that are hidden from the child. Your child will pay attention longer to the objects in the environment that "make sense" to them, and that sense making requires them being able to investigate cause and effect. You can find high-quality wooden toys for infants that provide a more reliable reaction to the child's actions and which feel more interesting in the hand than plastics do. 

 

Avoid screens until your child is at least two years old, and only then in limited exposure with your companionship. Infants do not benefit from screen time and, worse, they are easily overwhelmed by the quick changes in color, figure and sound on a digital screen. Let them attend to real things in their environment until they're a bit older. And yes, that includes your phone... while you may get a few minutes distraction while your infant is entranced by your screen, you send a better message (and support better attention!) by putting your phone away more often so it's not quite so attractive to your developing infant. 

 

Look at what your child is looking at, and follow their lead. Rather than drawing your child to toys or objects you've chosen, let them choose what they are interested in, but know that research shows infants will attend longer to stimuli when their parents are looking at it as well. Your child is learning both from the environment you've prepared for them and from how you interact in that environment. Model slow movements and thoughtful attending. 

 

Encourage attention. While there are lots of things you can get done more quickly if you give your infant something else to do in the meantime, remember that your infant wants to be involved in all the things they see you involved in. Instead of giving them a toy while you change a diaper, make eye contact and talk to your child about all the different steps you're completing. Name the clothing you're removing. Name the wipes and describe how you're moving your hands. Use interesting language to detail how your infant's body is moving. Narrating all the activities of your child's day gives them a rich exposure to diverse language and reinforces where they should be putting their own attention. 

 

Finally, avoid interruption. If your child is playing independently and concentrating, let them. Wait until they turn to look at you to start talking. Give them time to play alone in safe spaces, and notice whether they are interested and attentive to things before you burst on the scene. Like an unobtrusive Montessori teacher, practice moving quietly in the spaces you share with your child, so as to respect their thinking and attention as it moves through this critical window of development. 

 

While these steps will help your child to build their concentration, they'll also help to slow you down and notice with your child what a very special world they are coming to. Far more important than the children's TV or loud noises, far more important than the boxes full of brightly colored plastic toys or beds full of stuffed animals, your child wants your curiosity and responsiveness. Offer it freely: they'll benefit from the supports to their development and you'll be building a connection that will last a lifetime. 

 

 

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