What Impacts Young Children’s Attention and Engagement In Early Childhood Education Settings?

What Impacts Young Children’s Attention and Engagement In Early Childhood Education Settings?

The brain does not have an endless capacity for attention and engagement. As a pre-k teacher, I have always been fascinated about children’s attention. Particularly, I have been interested in how to help children boost and sustain their attention and engagement in the classroom. One of the things that I have noticed is that children’s attention capacity varies based on what activity areas they may be in. For instance, a child who might be able to sit and focus while building with blocks for an hour may not be able to sit for more than a minute listening to a teacher read a story and vice versa. I found a study that investigated children sustained attention (described as engagement) in different parts of a typical preschool day including child choice time activities, adult choice time activities, and adult presentation time. Jumping off from this point, I found other research articles that looked into different factors that influenced young children’s attention and engagement in a preschool setting. In the following paragraphs, I will briefly summarize and compare and contrast the ideas presented in the research.

Literature Review

Typical early education classrooms have different units of time during the day. Free choice play is when children can choose any activity in a classroom. Limited choice time is whenan adult puts out a few activities the children can choose from. Finally, there are adult orientated activities where the adult is directing the activity and there is no choice given to the children. The first study(DiCarlo, C. F., Baumgartner, J. J., Ota, C., & Geary, K. ,2016)reviewed investigated preschool aged children’s engagement with different toys when the children were given free, limited, or no choice in which toy they were able to engage with. The study had 63 children participate in 17 different classrooms and all the children were considered to be typically developing based on The Ages and Stages Questionnaire assessment tool. Students who have issues related to attention and other disabilities that could possibly affect attention were excluded from the study. Five of the schools the data was collected in were private while four were public. All the classrooms were assessed using the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised (ECERS-R) and only classrooms that scored a 5 on the ECERS-R 7 point scale were allowed to participate in the study.  The researchers used a stop watch to see how long children engaged with a toy in the three different circumstances with toy engagement being defined as the child using the toy in the intended manner, looking at the toy, or talking about the toy. The stop watch was started when a child was observed engaging with the top and only stopped when the child had ceased to engage with the toy for more than ten seconds. Data collectors who were graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in education assessment courses were trained 80% reliability and to stand in a neutral unobtrusive area of the classroom in order to avoid distracting the children at play. The research found that children who were given free choice of what toy to play with engaged with the toy on average for six minutes, children who got to choose between two toy options engaged with the toy for an average of a little over three minutes, and children who were presented with a toy to engage in by an adult engaged with the toy on average for two and a half minutes. An ANOVA was run to determine if the different schools could possibly be a variable that affected student’sattention, but no differences were found between the schools on child’s attention. (DiCarlo et al., 2016).

The amount of choice offered is not the only potential factor related to engagement. Social factors like the presence of peers and teachers when engaged in activity and or the amount of talked with peers and teachers during an activity can also effect preschool children’s engagement levels. In the second study reviewed(Test, J. E., & Cornelius-White, J. H. D., 2013),the focus was on children during free choice time whichreviewed in the previous paragraph found to be the time when children had the longest engagement. In the study, 12 children (six boys and six girls) were observed in a single preschool classroom during free choice play. The preschool which was accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was located at a university in a Midwestern city. The classroom had an age range of students who were 30 to 60 months old with the average age of the students in the study being 47 months. It is important to note that at this school free choice play comprised the clear majorityof the school schedule so it was a time children were familiar with. Researchers coding both children’s engagement in the activity and the nature of the social interactions during those engagements in a variety of ways. The engagement codes included the amount of time the children were engaged in activity, moved purposely to a new area, followed a peer, wandered, and other time not engaged. The talk codes included how often a child talked to themselves/peer/teacher on the topic of the activity and how often they talked to themselves/peer/teacher on another topic not related to the activity at hand. The children engaged in a variety of different types of activities including blocks, Legos, puzzles, art, play dough, climbers, book reading, puppets and trucks. The study defined engagement as when children engaged in a play activity with active behavioral and cognitive involvement and six codes describing engagement were used to describe engagement. Categories of group sizes were also observed and coded as either alone, pair, small group (three to four children), or large group (five or more children). A second observer coded for four of the twelve children in the study and those observers were found to have good interrater reliability. During the observations, children were engaged in activities in 93% of the time and were engaged in a specific activity for an average of three and a half minutes. The activities where the children showed the longest engagement were blocks/Legos, puzzles, and creative art activities. The study found that teacher talk during the activity was more likely to result in disengagement and a child leaving an activity than staying engaged at an activity. Conversely, peer presence and talk during an activity was found to sustain longer engagement from the children; this was especially true when the formation of a larger group of peers occurred during an activity. Finally, it was found that self talk was not as frequent as teacher talk or peer talk during activities, but it was also associated with longer periods of engagement for students (Test et al., 2013).

Another part of a typical preschool day that requires some level of attention and engagement in preschool settings is “circle time.” As the name would suggest, during circle time children usually sit in a circle shape where a teacher leads them in going over the calendar, the weather, singing songs, reading stories, and other group orientated learning activities. Researchers(Seifert, A. M., & Metz, A. E. , 2017) looked to study whether children sitting on “wiggle cushions” (circle shaped pillow like chairs) would improve children’s attention during circle time. In the study, two preschool classrooms used the wiggle cushions instead of just sitting on a rug like usual while two other classrooms did not wiggle cushions to sit on during circle timeserving as a control. The study was conducted at a nursery school that had been accredited by NAEYC on the campus of a university in Ohio. The classrooms consisted of children ages three to five years old and each class had two teachers and up to 18 children enrolled. The study was conducted over two weeks that were broken down into two phases. In phase one, children in all four classrooms sat on the rug during circle time like they normally would. In phase two, two of the classrooms in the second week used the wiggle cushions while the children in the control room class did not.  Children in the classroom that used the wiggle cushions were given the choice if they wanted to use them to sit or not. The circle times were videotaped and researchers used the Child Behavior Rating Scale (CBRS) to assess the child’s attention, affect, involvement-distractibility, and persistence. Circle times lasted at least seven minutes and involved of routine children were familiar with including going over the weather, calendar, singing a song, and reading a book.  Teachers were allowed to continue circle time as long as they saw fit and to decide if they were going to include additional curriculum items to the normal routine. Before the data was collected, researchers set up cameras that were not recording for a few weeks; this was done in order to normalize cameras being in the classroom before the study actually took place so that cameras would not be a factor that led to distractions during circle time.Using the CBRS scale after video taping circle times for four weeks, researchers found that students who sat on the Wiggle Cushions were more likely to actively participate in circle time as demonstrated by singing song and answering questions and were less likely to be engaged in off task interactions and side conversations with their peers (Seifert, et al., 2017).

For children who do struggle with being able to focus attention on task during large group activities like circle time, another often used approach is to somehow incorporate exercise and physical movement during or preceding the large group time. A study (Chazin, K. T., Ledford, J. R., Barton, E. E., & Osborne, K. C., 2018) inquired whether having preschool aged children engage in outdoor exercise prior to a large group indoor activity increased engagement. In the study, a small sample of two students were used in a preschool classroom of 15 students. The students were selected because both were reported by teachers as having struggles with attention during large group time activities. The two students had to be able to run, climb up and down play equipment, and be able to choose a preferred item between two items. These skills were deemed necessary for the students to be able to participate in the intervention. Researchers observed the two students to get a baseline measure of their typical behavior during group time. Both students were white and 67 months old at the time of the study. The male student was not receiving any special education services, but his teachers identified him as someone who had more challenging behaviors relative to his peers. The female participant did receive special education services for developmental delays. Both of the students had exhibited difficult behavior during circle time such as hitting, refusing to participate, and doing other off tasks behaviors. The preschool was inclusive and based out of a university and the physical activity took place at a large playground that was near their classroom. An alternating treatment design was used with the two students either engaging in exercise, typical classroom activities, or sitting before having to go to circle time. The first 10-12 minutes of circle time were recorded by researchers and only circle times that lasted at least 10 minutes were kept to use in the data. The researchers measured how often the child was on task, how often they were out of their seat during group times, and how often they engaged in challenging behaviors like hitting that disrupted the circle time. Early childhood professionals who were graduate students at the university were brought in to be blind raters and agreement between the raters was found to be between 80% and 90% on all measures. In the experimental exercise condition, children were shown pictures of two potential exercises to engage in before circle time and wore Fitbit devices to measure the amount of physical activity they were engaged in. Exercise activities including playing sports like soccer, playing tag, and using the trampoline. Seated activities prior to circle included sidewalk chalk drawing and matching games. The baseline was based on students participating in whatever normal classroom activities they would be doing before circle time without researchers presenting any other options. In the case of the male students in the study, there were slight improvements on all measures with the exercise treatment before circle time. For the female student, no significant differences were found between the three pre-circle time conditions (Chazin, et. al., 2018).


All four studies measured different potential factors that influence young children’s engagement during different parts of early childhood education settings. There were some commonalities in the research. Three of the studies were conducted at preschools based out of universities.  All four studies used measures such as either being NAEYC accredited or scoring at least a 5 on ECERS-R as an indicator of the quality of the program. Having an objective measure of a quality early childhood education program before conducting a study that measures attention could mitigate possible factors related low quality classrooms which could have impacts on individual students engagement. This gives guidance to factors future researchers should consider when preparing to choose a potential location to study young children’s engagement in early childhood settings.

A running theme in the studies is that giving children choice and freedom can lead to better engagement. Children who were given free choice of what to play with had the longest amount of engagement in one study (Dicarlo et al., 2016). Teacher talk and presence during an activity was found to decrease engagement in children (Test et al., 2013). While teacher presence does not automatically mean children’s choices are limited, it is possible that a teacher being present during play could limit what the children believe will be acceptable ways to use the toys and thus restrict their freedom of play. When children were given the ability to choose an exercise before circle time (Chazin et al. 2018) or when where given the option to sit on wiggle cushions or not during circle time (Seifert, et al., 2017), both interventions either led to positive or equal levels engagement. While choice was not central to both of the two circle time interventions as they were measuring exercise and wiggle cushions impact on engagement, both instances did add more choice for the children throughout the day. These is a variable that could be looked at in further research along with continued research into the effects of exercise and wiggle cushions. 

The studies had similarities and differences in how they choose to measure engagement. In one instance, a stop watch was used to measure how long children interacted with a toy (DiCarlo et al., 2016). Time was also used in the study (Test et al, 2013) that looked at peer and teacher interactions. Time could be a future objective method to measure engagement in early education settings that would allow future researchers and early educators to have an easy to understand and agreed upon metric. On the hand, when using time as a metric, researchers must define what exactly is being timed. For instance, are researchers measuring how long a child is sitting? How long a child is; looking at the instructor or toy? How long the child is playing with a toy? Et cetera

In two cases of this literature review the term “on task” was used to define what was being measured (Chazin et al., 2018)(Dicarlo et al., 2016). There were slight differences how on task was defined. In one study (Chazin et al., 2018) on task during group instruction was defined as following classroom rules, following any teacher directed instruction, and child being orientated towards the teacher or person speaking. In another study, on task toy play was defined as looking at the toy, talking about the toy, or manipulating it in its attended manner. While the exact term on task was not used the other studies, similar constructs were measured. The term engagement was used (Test et al., 2013) in a manner other researchers used the phrase on task and were defined as active behavioral or cognitive involvement in a play activity with objects and or peers.  In all these cases, the definition of “on task” and or “engaged” in an activity takes into account adult interest and goals. For instance, following class rules, paying attention to a teacher, and using a toy in an intended matter are all adult constructs; a child may throw a car in the art violating a rule and or it being looked at as using the toy in a non-intended manner but the child themselves might be engaged at this time pretending the car is being launched into space. Future researchers might use these studies to consider if they want to measure engagement in a similar manner or if they potentially want to change the definition of what they are measuring from engagement to compliance with classroom rules and norms.


Chazin, K. T., Ledford, J. R., Barton, E. E., & Osborne, K. C. (2018). the effects of antecedent exercise on engagement during large group activities for young children. remedial and special education, 39(3), 158–170. Retrieved from http://ezproxyles.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1179724&site=ehost-live&scope=site

DiCarlo, C. F., Baumgartner, J. J., Ota, C., & Geary, K. (2016). child sustained attention in preschool-age children. journal of research in childhood cducation, 30(2), 143-152. doi: 10.1080/02568543.2016.1143416

Seifert, A. M., & Metz, A. E. (2017). the effects of inflated seating cushions on engagement in preschool circle time. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45(3), 411–418. Retrieved from http://ezproxyles.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1134939&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Test, J. E., & Cornelius-White, J. H. D. (2013). relationships between the timing of social interactions and preschoolers’ engagement in preschool classrooms. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 11(2), 165–183. Retrieved from http://ezproxyles.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1009057&site=ehost-live&scope=site

An Early Education Challenge For The Cato Institute

An Early Education Challenge For The Cato Institute

5 New Year’s Resolutions For Early Childhood Education and Care

5 New Year’s Resolutions For Early Childhood Education and Care