I am completely obsessed with my daughter Claire's inquisitive nature that is typical to most 2-year-olds. She asks about the color of the sky, stops to investigate pebbles on the sidewalk, and repeats the same information over and over again in a way that makes it sound like a question. "Some kitties live outside mommy," raising her voice an octave as she pronounces the "y" in mommy. But there are some days where her curiosity gets the best of her — and me — and I can't help but wonder: "Why is my toddler so distracted?"
"There is a lot happening around us all the time — noises, smells and a ton of visual stimulation," Julie Kandall, the educational director at NYC-based Columbus Pre-School tells Romper in an email interview. "As adults, most of us are able to block out background noises, motions we see in our periphery and other distractions, but for toddlers, everything around them can spark their curiosity. They have not yet developed the skills of blocking out the world around them in order to stay focused on what you might be saying to them."
Kandall says she often thinks of the movie Up when she is interacting with her daughter, who is almost 3 years old. "In the movie, there is a dog character who becomes distracted every time he sees a squirrel," she says. "Children's senses work in overdrive as a way to make sense of the world around them and so it's easy for them to become distracted."
And it's all because of the natural wiring of a toddler's brain, says Donna M. Volpitta, founder of The Center for Resilient Leadership and author of The Resilience Formula. "When babies are born, their limbic systems — the 'emotional brain' that is is focused on the short-term threats and rewards — is more developed than the cortex, or the 'thinking brain' that is focused on long-term threats and rewards."
Kandall says strategies for helping your child to stay focused include "the good old 'I need your eyes and ears on me.'
"[It's] always a good one to try," Kandall adds. But if you are trying to get their attention and it's not an emergency, then she suggests waiting a moment or two and taking interest in whatever the child is focusing their attention on. "For example, you can say, 'Oh, I notice that you saw these sparkly stickers, they're pretty cool and really colorful. Do you want to use them later? OK, I'm going to hold them for a minute so that I can tell you something. Please turn on your listening ears.'"
Kandall says parents can also model turning on listening ears by pretending to turn a switch on your ears while making a clicking sound. You can also try changing the volume or intonation of your voice.
"[For example,] start speaking really softly, but loud enough for the child to hear you," Kandall says. "They will most likely find this interesting and be curious to find out what you are saying. Once you have their attention, you can again try telling the child what it is you were trying to tell them before."
Tanya Thibodeau, parenting blogger at Seeme & Liz, wrote in an article that parents may also consider limiting screen time, which can lead to a child's inability to focus. "Screens provide constant input and are very stimulating, so a young child's brain doesn't learn how to be still," she wrote. "Make sure they have plenty of time to explore outside and are free to play independently inside as well."
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children ages 2 to 5 years should limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. The AAP also suggested parents "co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them."
And if your toddler is anything like mine, chances are likely they think the world around them is pretty freaking cool.
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