Helping all children become happy learners

Attention Milestones


Attention can be described as the conscious awareness of selected sensory perceptions and internal cognitive processes. This is a rather abstract definition and deserves further explanation. We only become fully aware of something when it enters our minds. It only enters our minds as a result of unconscious evaluative decision-making processes. These processes continually sort and sift through all the incoming sensory data that we receive and prioritise the most important 'bits' for us. What is considered important will depend on a number of factors such as the context i.e. what we are doing and where we are; the relevance to what is already gaining our attention and particularly anything that could potentially cause us harm.

All these sensory and attentional processes are under developed at birth and take about seven years to mature to adult level. Thus a young child's control over the 'target' of their attention and the ability to remain focussed and concentrate follow a developmental pathway. For each individual the speed of this development will vary and therefore the milestones given below should only used as a rough guide.

Development of Attention

12 months - Fleeting Attention

At this age the child will attend (focus their attention) on the most dominant stimulus around them. Their attention is immediately drawn to another sound or sight etc if that becomes the dominant stimulus.

2 years - Rigid Attention

At this age the child is more able to remain focussed on a preferred stimulus. They can now concentrate on a focus and their attention is less easily drawn away by the introduction of a new stimulus around them.

3 years - Single Channelled Attention

At this age the child has control over what they attend to. They are more able to follow adult direction but need to stop what they are doing and focus their attention. This means they need to look at the speaker to listen fully to instructions.

4 years - Focussing attention 

At this age the child is more able to switch their attention between tasks. The child stills needs to stop and focus completely on the new stimulus but is then able to return to their original focus. This means that a child can be interrupted during a task and be able to quickly refocus to the task afterwards.

5 years - Two channelled attention

The auditory and visual inputs are integrated sufficiently to enable the child to do one task and understand an instruction given at the same time. Thus a child of this age can, for example, listen to a story whilst performing another task.

6 years - Integrated attention 

By this age a child's attention system has reached maturity. They now have complete integration of auditory and visual inputs so that two channelled attention is possible in a variety of contexts. In a classroom setting the child can now remain on task and be able to take in new information and instructions from the teacher.

7 years and older

A child who presents with immature attention skills beyond the age of 7 years need to be identified by their schools. These children are highly likely to require additional strategies to manage and support their learning needs.

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