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Five Tips to Increase Attention Spans in Young Adults

When I recently asked a teacher if her students read very much, she asked if I could explain what I meant.  Hmmm. I felt like it was a fairly straightforward question. So, I proceeded to repeat my words.

She later explained the reason she asked her question is that most of her students actually read quite a bit. They read posts on social media platforms, they read text messages, they read headlines from Buzzfeed. In terms of volume, today’s teenager reads a lot. If we are asking, however, if kids today read deeply for long periods of time—the answer may be quite different.

Many teachers and parents tell me today:

  • I can’t get my son to sit still to read a book together.
  • My daughter won’t pay attention to a program long enough to follow the plot.
  • My young athletes get distracted when I explain our strategy on the sideline.

The issue here is not intelligence. It is attention span.

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, an “attention span” is the “the length of time during which one is able to concentrate or remain interested.”

What’s Trending in Kids

You’ve probably read the humorous comparison between a teenager today and a goldfish. An adolescent has an attention span one second shorter than the fish. So, good luck with your classroom. Or your lecture at home. The attention span of a teen in the year 2000 was 12 seconds. (This means they can pay attention to something for 12 seconds until they’re diverted by something else more intriguing). Attention spans need to be defined, however, by two common scenarios kids experience:

Transient attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts/distracts attention. Researchers disagree on the exact amount of human transient attention span. Kids pay attention to many items during their day.

Selective sustained attention, also known as focused attention, is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. Estimates of the attention span of healthy teenagers and adults can range from 10 to 20 minutes; however, there isn’t exact evidence for this estimate. People can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to ‘pay attention’ to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as lengthy films.

How Do We Increase Attention Spans?

Pause and consider: attention spans for teens today are 8 seconds—but they binge watch “Game of Thrones” on HBO for hours. It’s not that they can’t pay attention. So what do we learn from this? Our young can, indeed, pay attention to anything they deem captivating. Anything enthralling. The secret is: intrigue.

So, let’s consider “Game of Thrones” or any other interesting television series or movie. What do they contain that parents, teachers and coaches often don’t? Here are five elements in great shows or stories that we do well to apply as we communicate:

1. Problem and Conflict

Every great show or movie contains a significant conflict with high stakes. Even when viewers know it is a fantasy, our minds are enraptured by the great problem that needs to be solved. Teachers can leverage this in our classrooms. We must invite conflict in and then invite students to resolve it. What if a civics teacher interviewed a victim of theft before talking about crime in the city?

2. Unique and Interesting Situations

Just like Game of Thrones, what if we exposed students to unique contexts that introduce them to an entirely new world they’re not accustomed to seeing? How can a field trip or a video or some images introduce them to fresh ideas? Observing or experiencing something different can be absorbing.

3. Story and Imagery

One of the quickest ways to capture and hold the attention of a student is to introduce images and stories from real life. This captivates the right hemisphere of their brain not just the left. And because pictures are worth a thousand words, they engage more quickly.

4. People They Care About (Relationships)

I find it hilarious to read some of the comments about the characters that appear in current television shows. People talk about them as if they’re real. Why? Because those viewers have begun to care about those characters. They have observed an arch to their story and now they desire a certain future. This should be relatively easy for us to do in our communication.

5. Progress and Resolution

Finally, most humans long for a resolution to come to the conflict they’ve witnessed. We stay with a story or a classroom for that matter when we see progress being made toward an answer. This is learned industriousness. If we see no progress, we become tired and quit. When we see progress we stick.

Let’s make our communication more like a great story, full of imagery. We may just collect an audience of young listeners who stay with us.


Order Now: Marching Off the Map
Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World

Leading today’s students often feels like being in a new country with old maps that don’t work. Understanding and connecting with the generation in this land is often times frustrating and draining. We need new strategies on how to march off our old maps and create new ones.

From decades of research and hands-on experience, Dr. Tim Elmore and Andrew McPeak collate their conclusions into one resource that helps adults:

  • Inspire students to own their education and their future
  • Lead students from an attitude of apathy to one of passion through metacognition
  • Enable students to push back from the constant digital distractions and practice mindfulness
  • Raise kids who make healthy progress, both emotionally and mentally, through their teenage years
  • Give students the tools to handle the complexities of an ever-changing world
  • Understand and practically apply the latest research on Generation Z

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Five Tips to Increase Attention Spans in Young Adults