Expectations for Preschool Attention Spans

expectations for attention spans
A messy playroom…is this a sign of a child with attention problems? How long should they be able to attend when they’re two to five years old?

There’s so much talk about “attention deficits” even in daycares and early childhood programs. When your preschool child flits from toy to toy, have you wondered if their attention span is something you need to worry about? How long should they be able to focus anyway?


At a 12 months, a child will only attend for about a minute at a time. At 18 months, they will have worked up to 2-3 minutes. After that, a rough estimate is that a child will have an attention span that is 2-4 times their chronological age.

2 years 4-8 min
3 years 6-12 min
4 years 8-16 min
5 years 10-20 min

However, there are a lot of other considerations that may impact their ability to attend.


  • Sleep/Illness: It’s easy to overlook, especially when our children aren’t able to report on their own health, but poor sleep or illness can dramatically decrease a child’s ability to attend.
  • Interest in the task: Just like with adults, a child will attend to something they like much longer than one that’s imposed on them.
  • Challenges: Whether the challenge is cognitive, fine or gross motor skills, the added “load” will cause attention to fatigue more easily. This is something to consider in particular for kids with sensory differences who might have an “invisible” load that is impacting focus. Remember that for little ones “sitting still” would be a gross motor challenge. Those bodies are designed for movement!


The truth is little ones have very limited focus and often our daycare/school, and even home, settings have expectations for attention spans beyond what is developmentally appropriate. This is why formal “teaching” doesn’t work well with our young ones. They need to be engaged in fun, play activities that incorporate learning.


Screen time is very different from attending to toys or other activities. Many children can “attend” to television programs and video games for a much longer time because television is passive and doesn’t require active attention. In fact, too much screen time can decrease a child’s attention span over time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding screen time for children under 2 years and no more than one hour/day of high-quality programming for children 2- 5 years.  Video calls with family and friends don’t count!

The good news is we can influence their ability to stick with tasks by selecting specific activities and adjusting our day slightly. Click here for ways to build your preschooler’s attention span and be sure to join us for an on-demand webinar with specific toy recommendations.

Do these attention span averages surprise you? Let me know in the comments below!



The views expressed in this blog are my own and are intended to inspire other speech-language pathologists in their own practice. If you are a parent, teacher or other educator, these ideas are not intended to take the place of treatment by a certified clinician. Read full disclaimer here.