There have been numerous formulas proposed for calibrating the attention span of children, adolescents and adults.
Some contemporary researchers advocate gauging children’s attention spans by multiplying chronological age by 3 to 5 minutes for each year of age. Others have set the human attention span at a maximum of 20 - 22 minutes of learning time for upper adolescence and adulthood.
Still other child development researchers have concluded that a child’s attention span is typically equivalent in minutes to the chronological age of that young boy or girl.
However, from working with educators, parents, and children over the past four decades, the following instructional attention spans seem most accurate and useful.
Attention Span: Under Optimal Conditions*
• Between ages 2 and 3 children have an attention span ranging from 3-4 minutes
• When children begin Kindergarten (approximately age 5), attention spans rise to a maximum of 5 to 10 consecutive minutes
• Between ages 6 and 8, the maximum time for focused attention, during instructional time, can stretch to 15-20 minutes when children are engaged in a single learning task.
• From age 9 to 12, the best estimates of an adolescent’s “focused attention” do not exceed 22 to 35 minutes, when they are engaged in learning.
*Caveat: Attention spans for children at play and when socially engaged will often exceed the maximum figures established for formal instruction.
Given today’s technological toys and tools for entertainment and productivity, sizeable increases in attention spans correlate with interactive involvement and far exceed traditional figures for customary instructional time spans. Extensions in attention spans are correlated with children are
• challenged (eustress)
• emotionally engaged (“fun”)
• receiving on-going feedback and support
Anyone with just a modest degree of experience working with children has noticed that when children are fully “immersed in enjoyment,” they frequently lose track of time and our chart-based expectations are repeatedly obliterated.
Technology and the Internet have prompted a new phenomenon referred to as “CPA” -continuous partial attention - where children and adults devote less-concentrated attention to two or more tasks that are attempted simultaneously without one’s full attention committed any single one of those endeavors.
As an expected outcome, the quality of execution in each task frequently suffers significant performance erosion. For example, a five-year-old can talk and he can also tie his shoe, but talking while tying his shoes concurrently can even lead to “performance paralysis.” One of the two tasks must reach the perform threshold of “automaticity” (where one task can be performed without actively and consciously thinking about each step in the process of execution) before we can successfully engage in the second task with some degree of expected roficiency.
Consequently, many American states have recently passed laws intended to curtail the hazardous practice of driving while using a cellular phone (and texting). Even the most reliable statistics on attention spans are meaningless when the brain is distracted. The charts presented here are most applicable under optimal conditions in the learning environment. They become distorted once distractions become a factor whether in a car or in a classroom.