The ability to concentrate is both an act of will and an acquired skill.
For very young kids, it is hard to impose the act of will. We can't ask a child to sit still and concentrate, listen or focus. It is also ineffective to nag, threaten or bribe our kids. By doing so, we are teaching them that they get extrinsic rewards or avoid unpleasant experiences if they 'work', co-operate or comply.
The results? A child who requires parents to dangle a carrot every time he is asked to 'work'.
It has to be more effective, in the long-term for sure, to help a child in his development of the concentration skill.
Like all skills, a headstart advantage makes a significant difference and any achievements accumulated over time are important.
A few things I used to/still do to improve my boys' concentration span when they were little:
1. Remove distractions
Take out one toy at a time and play with him or encourage him to play on his own. When there are too many toys in front of a child, of course we are tempting them to wander off from one to another. With my kids, I don't have to do that anymore, though I still insist that they don't watch TV and play toys concurrently.
2. Introduce activities that train concentration span, e.g. puzzles, crafts, sensorial and practical life experiences (like pouring/scooping) etc are great for this.
3. Whenever they wander off an activity, gently coax and bring them back to the same activity. Show them how to play something differently and new ways to explore etc. This is particularly effective and important in cultivating that much-needed 'extra minute'.
4. Provide toys and 'work' (for older kids) that are developmentally appropriate (rather than age-appropriate).
5. Ensure a balance between fun and challenge. When a task is too simple, it bores the child and encourages him (or his mind) to wander off. When it is too difficult, it discourages attempts and exploration. So it is always important to introduce a certain element of challenge to motivate learning, but ensuring that it is achievable when the child puts in efforts.
6. Be generous with praises and words of encouragement when the child makes efforts to try again or harder at a task.
7. Limit exposure to TV and the Internet (for older kids). It is so unnecessary for kids under 2 to watch TV, even educational programmes. There are more disadvantages than advantages, even if they are accompanied by an adult.
For very young children, extending their concentration span is as important as teaching them phonics since learning to focus on tasks early on in life means the child will learn much more effectively at every learning session, be it in school or at home.
In my classes, I introduce a variety of trans-disciplinary thematic games and activities at every lesson which not only teach content, but also concurrently work on a child's multiple skills. Concentration skill is one of them.
It is extremely rewarding to see 2-year-olds focusing through most parts of our hourly-long lessons, needing only an occasional coaxing from their accompanying parents to return to the 'centre of activities'. And it is heartening when my 3-year-old students can fully concentrate on our lapbooking activities with me throughout the lessons. Some of these kids wouldn't even read a book with their parents before!
When we see such progress, of course we should take a moment to rejoice. And I do. Most often, I do so with the parents.