Headstart for Life

Your Child’s Attention and Language Skills

Posted on Monday, February 27, 2017 by 2 minutes

“Are you listening?”

“Are you paying attention?”

“Remember what I said?”

How many times have we asked this question to our children? 5? 20? 50? 100? We may have used this question more than we realised. As a speech – language therapist, I often catch myself uttering these words many times during my sessions. But have we asked ourselves, why do our children seem to have a hard time attending to what we are saying?

Is it an attention problem?

Or is it language difficulty?

Some children who developed the ability to pay attention well may learn language faster than children who do not. Some children lose their interest very quickly and oftentimes we find ourselves chasing after them after 2 minutes of sitting down with a book in our hands. There are days that our children can show good concentration skills and pay attention to what they are doing. But there are also days that all they do is run around, not listening to anyone.

But how do we know our children’s attention span is developmentally appropriate?

At this point, it is best to understand how our children develop attention span as they grow. This way, we will be able to identify whether our children may have attention issues, speech and language problems or both. (Sen P. & Vasudeva R. 2002)

Zero to one year: Extremely distractible


Your child’s attention is only held by the main stimulus at that particular moment such as the toys in front of him, loud noises or a rattle in his hand. He may be able to concentrate on one thing for up to 5 minutes but would shift his attention from one to another if distractions are present.

One to two years: Rigid concentration


At this age, your child can pay attention to self-chosen tasks. Sometimes, he gets too concentrated to what he is doing to the point where it is very difficult to distract him/her from it. He may appear to be ignoring you but at this age, he can only pay attention to one activity at a time. Sometimes, if he is too immersed in his task, he may not even listen to you at all. This rigidity can make your child seem very stubborn. The important thing to remember is to stop his present activity first and then give him/her an instruction.

Two to three years: Flexible attention


At this age, most children can sit for 20 minutes or so and can switch between listening to you and going back to their activity. They follow instructions more easily and have the capacity to learn new things. At this age, they begin to show interest in books because of the increased concentration skills.

 Three to four years: Controlled attention


At this age, your child is now able to engage in longer periods of meaningful play. He may begin to show interest and be involved in using figurines for role – play. He uses imagination more frequently, that sometimes he confuses fact with fantasy.

Four to six years: Concentrating in school


Children at this stage is expected to learn effectively in school concentrating on more than one thing at a time. They should be able to listen to the teacher while they continue with the activity at hand.

Attention problems and language in later years…

Children with attention issues like those who are diagnosed with Attention Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) may show issues with speech and language in various modalities. Typically, issues are seen in the way they construct their own sentences (syntax).


Photo Credit: http://www.therandomvibez.com/famous-inspiring-yoda-quotes/

This is often observed when a child has difficulty using/forming his sentences using appropriate grammatical rules. Some children also show difficulty in understanding word meanings and organization. These children oftentimes have poor vocabulary, word-finding difficulties (e.g. uses fillers such as “that thing”, “you know”), and have difficulties understanding spoken and written language (semantics).


Photo Credit: http://m.blogs.christianpost.com/guest-views/funny-apologies-from-kids-a-note-flowers-and-a-laugh-25259/

Children with attention issues also find it hard to organise their thoughts and are often observed to say everything that comes to mind. Oftentimes, these children are seen indifferently as they tend to show inappropriate social behaviours (pragmatics) such as difficulty turn taking during conversations, often interrupting other people while they are talking  and difficulty in expressing emotional meaning of words.


They can also have language difficulties relating to their impulsivity and poor organisational skills resulting in:

  1. poor writing skills
  2. tangential narratives and conversations
  3. problems following instructions
  4. talking too loudly
  5. losing track of whats going on in conversations

Thus, a child with attention issues is more likely to have speech-language problems as they grow older.

Key points to remember…

– Children’s attention span develops overtime. Adjust your expectations based from what your child can do

– Attention issues and speech and language problems may co-exist.

– Children with attention issues may affect their social behaviours in various social situations.

– A comprehensive assessment done by a speech and language therapist can help identify if your child has speech-language issues, attention issues or both.


Sen P. & Vasudeva R. 2002. No More Baby Talk. A Parent’s Guide to Speech and Language Development.

Horowitz L. J. & Rost C. 2004. Helping Hyperactive Kids – A Sensory Integration Approach.

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Jona

Jona has a passion in educating and empowering parents and families of children of all abilities to be part of the social community. She has been working with children with special needs for more than 10 years and has special involvement in the intervention of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and apraxia/dyspraxia of speech.

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