Paying Attention: What does it mean for infants and toddlers?

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— California Childcare Health Program

Updated on Feb 25, 2011

What is “paying attention?”

Paying attention is the child’s ability to focus on a person or object while ignoring other interesting things in the environment that are competing for his awareness. It is related to the child’s developing abilities to learn and remember. In order to remember something, the child has to learn about it in the first place and in order to learn about the world, the child has to stop and pay attention. The development of a child’s ability to pay attention is very important for her later success in school and it is part of the ability to self-regulate. Self regulating means that the child actively behaves in a way that allows him to

achieve a goal, without direction or motivation from someone else like a parent or a teacher; for instance, when he leaves his friends, who are teasing each other and horsing around at story time, to go sit quietly at circle because he really wants to hear the story.

Problems with paying attention are increasing in young children so it is important for care givers to understand how to help children learn this important skill.

How does a child learn to pay attention?

The ability to pay attention develops over time, like other skills that children develop as they grow from infancy to adulthood, and can be nurtured and enhanced by good care giving. Paying attention is actually a pretty complex behavior, involving several mental processes, including:


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