Attention span is the length of time an activity is pursued. Attention is interfered with by distractibility, where the individual is uncontrollably drawn to some other activity or sensation. The child's focused, on-going behavior is interfered with by the distracting noise, sight, or personal feeling. Only a short time is spent on an activity, and a task is not stuck to. This type of child shifts from one activity to another and is easily sidetracked. Persistence is the ability to continue an activity. A persistent distractible child will come back to an activity and complete it. The nonpersistent distractible child does not complete tasks. Also, attention requires the ability to focus and screen out unessential material. A poor screening or filtering mechanism results in difficulty in efficiently attending to relevant information or events.
Even infants vary in distractibility. When an infant is reaching for something or gazing at an object, sounds or new sights may or may not easily distract that infant. Distractible infants may stop drinking a bottle when their attention is drawn away. As children develop, they learn to attend selectively and not pay attention (both looking and hearing) to irrelevant matters. Selective attention increases as mental age increases. Average length of attention span is approximately 7 minutes for 2 year olds, 9 minutes for 3 year olds, 12 minutes for 4 years olds, and 14 minutes for 5 year olds. If a 2 year old plays with a toy for a half-hour, her attention span is long. If she can usually only play for a few minutes, a short attention span is indicated. The distractible toddler continuously moves from one activity or toy to another. In a school setting, the distractible young child loses belonging, misplaces items, doesn't finish tasks, and is continually drawn away by any new event. The most confusing aspect of attention to parents is that length of attention depends upon the type of stimulus. If a toy is interesting enough, every very your distractible children may play with that toy for a very long time.
Distractibility may be a basic cause for hyperactivity in some children. Attention span can easily be measured by timing how long an activity is pursued. However, looking and thinking is required, and real attention is measured by the appropriateness of the response. Some children can stare at material without thinking. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of children have a seriously short attention span. While attention span increases with age, many of these children remain relatively inattentive throughout adolescence.