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Ask A Speechie: How can I help build my toddler’s attention skills?

May 25, 2020
Ask A Speechie: How can I help build my toddler’s attention skills?

Many parents are taking-on more formal education duties at home with their toddlers, as well as with their school-aged children, during these times of isolation. 

On occasions some toddlers may be encouraged to sit  at a table and pay attention to traditional learning, including adult-led tasks such as memorising fixed patterns (e.g. learning the alphabet or counting), before they have first mastered social-emotional skills. 

In our work as Speech Pathologists and Occupational Therapists we frequently are guided by the principles outlined in the DIR Model and Greenspan Floortime approach.  These principles advocate more effective learning outcomes for toddlers, and some older children, could be achieved by parents/caregivers engaging in high quality play with their children instead of adult-led table-top activities.  It is argued that high quality play enables children to develop a foundation of fundamental social-emotional skills including an interest in people and an understanding of contextual social cues/solutions (e.g. building empathy, understanding what others may be thinking and feeling through gestures/facial expressions given different situations, identifying and demonstrating socially appropriate responses etc). 

“The Floortime Center” in the USA refers to research* that found development of social interaction leads to the formation of attention skills later in life (e.g. the ability to pay attention to a teacher, complete written tasks, or read a book). It also cites research* that indicates mastering sustained interactions with another person (e.g. parent/caregiver/peers) in early childhood, typically is the forerunner to forming sustained concentration abilities later in life, as well as achieving improved educational and social life outcomes. 

So armed with this information, parents can feel justified in casting-aside their struggles to engage their toddler, or even some older children, in traditional learning tasks as the first priority if their child could still benefit from improving their social-emotional skills. Instead it is appropriate to initially aim to achieve a robust foundation of social-emotional skills by being face-to-face with their child on the floor – participating in conceptual, creative, richly interactive play – and having fun together as a first port of call. 

* Jake Greenspan lecture entitled “DIR Model: Social-Emotional milestones necessary for a successful life”, The Floortime Centre (USA).