My child can’t sit still! How can I help them channel their energy and focus?
While it’s normal for a toddler to move around and not be able to focus on a game for very long, some children are more active than others and have a very short attention span.
Why are some children more active and distracted than others?
All children are different. Some can only sit quietly for a minute or two, while others have no problem paying attention to a book. Some 3- and 4-year-olds run, jump, and climb in the park while others are content to play quietly with a bucket and shovel.
If your toddler seems more active than others, it may be due to their temperament. Every child has their own distinct character traits and disposition, and these make them unique.
That being said, if yours is an active family that plays sports, it’s very likely that your child will also enjoy activities where they get to move around. On the other hand, if you’re calm by nature and enjoy reading and puzzles, you’re likely to encourage a different level of attention in your child.
Some parents also have a higher level of tolerance for seeing their kids move around, while other parents are quicker to encourage them to calm down.
However, before the age of 4 or 5, most children have a hard time sitting still for long periods of time. As a result, it’s a good idea to focus on short activities or games that require a relatively short attention span.
What if your child is very active and often inattentive?
The following tips will help you live with a toddler who’s very active and often inattentive:
- Play with them a little bit every day, choosing a game they particularly enjoy. Over time, gradually increase how long you play the game. This will strengthen not only their attention span, but the bond between you.
- Limit unnecessary distractions and sources of noise if you want to increase your child’s attention span. For example, do a puzzle with your toddler in a quiet area or request that they turn off the TV before asking them to do a task.
- Give your child one instruction at a time, speaking slowly and clearly. This will help them understand your expectations better. Make sure they understood everything you said afterwards.
- Give your toddler space to move. Go outside together and let them run and jump around. You can also set up a play area in the living room with cushions for added safety. They’ll be more cooperative when you ask them to calm down, since their energy will have already been channeled into physical activities.
- Inform your child of upcoming changes throughout the day by saying, for example: “You have 5 minutes left to play in the park, then it’s dinner time!” This will help them to better manage the transitions between different activities during the day and to fully enjoy their time spent playing.
- Highlight your child’s perseverance efforts (e.g., “Wow, you finished building your block tower!”) to help them see their progress and feel valued.
Identify the times of day that are easier for your child and those that are more challenging. Have them do harder tasks that require more concentration when they’re in a good mood. You should also consider your own energy levels at different times of the day. The end of the day is often more difficult, for parents and children alike.
- Make sure your toddler understands their daily routine. Changes in routine can be a source of anxiety for children who have a hard time concentrating and increasing their activity level.
- Limit their screen time, as this tends to increase their activity level. Screen time also doesn’t encourage them to do activities that will help them succeed in school later on (e.g., playing make-believe or reading).
- Make sure your expectations are consistent. If the messages they receive are confusing or contradictory, they will have a hard time meeting your expectations.
- Have them play with modelling clay. Having fun making things and taking them apart can be a calming activity for a child who has a bit more energy.
- Provide soothing evening activities for your toddler, such as playing in a warm bath or reading a story. This can really help them get ready for bed.
- Compliment them at least once a day, because hearing negative comments about their behaviour is likely to give them low self-esteem.
- Make sure your toddler is getting enough sleep. If they’re very tired, they may have a harder time calming down.
For a list of game ideas to help your child relax, see our Relaxation through play fact sheet.
If you notice that your child’s restlessness and poor attention span are having a negative impact on their daily life, or are interfering with relationships at home or at daycare, you should talk to your child’s doctor to assess whether your child has an attention-deficit disorder (with or without hyperactivity). To learn more about this disorder, take a look at our fact sheet on Attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD)
Things to keep in mind
It’s normal for toddlers to move around and have a short attention span.
You can help your child channel their energy by providing them opportunities to move.
By gradually prolonging the duration of the activities they like, you can foster their ability to concentrate.
Scientific review: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: September 2018
Photo: iStock.com/Irina Behr
Sources and references
Please note that hyperlinks to other websites are not updated regularly, and some may have changed since publication. It is therefore possible that a link may not be found. If a link is no longer valid, use search engines to find the relevant information.
Bideault, Anne. “Psychologie de l’enfant : pourquoi mon enfant est-il agité, comment l’aider à se calmer?” www.notrefamille.com
Centre de réadaptation Marie Enfant du CHU Sainte-Justine. “How to enhance your child’s attention and concentration?” June 2009. readaptation.chusj.org