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How parents can help kids pay attention

A new study finds young children pay attention to a toy longer if their parent shows interest in it.

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Getting a child to pay attention starts as early as infancy, when they begin to focus on toys and other objects in their surroundings. Research shows that it is also important for parents to start paying attention then, too.

In a study published in Current Biology, researchers found that a parent who shows interest in a toy their infant is playing with extends the child's visual attention to that object, which may aid in their development.

Drs. Chen Yu and Linda Smith of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University used head-mounted eye-tracking devices to record moment-to-moment gaze data while 36 parents played with their 1-year-old children. They found that when a parent focused on a toy, their child paid attention to the toy for longer, continuing even after the parent had looked away. The researchers said that the results were "dose dependent," meaning that the longer both parent and child focused on the object, the longer the child engaged with it on their own.

"This effect, day in and day out in an infant's life, may be the source of strong skills in sustained attention and concentration," Smith said in a press release.

Past research shows that early infancy marks the beginning of attention span development. A child's ability to sustain attention during this period is linked to later developmental outcomes such as object exploration, language development and problem solving.

The researchers said the findings were surprising because it was believed that a child's attention span was dependent on the individual's brain. The research shows, however, that social interactions may play a part in the development of sustained attention. "The surprising finding here is that child sustained attention is a social thing (but not just a child's own cognitive property). It can be changed/expanded by real-time behaviors from parents," Yu told CBS News in an email.

Although the current study was done with 1-year-olds, Yu said that he and Smith replicated the study with 18-month-olds and 2-year-olds and reached the same conclusion.

Yu believes that the findings could have a positive effect on children with attention disorders. He hopes to expand on the research by exploring long-term effects of how parents' behaviors may influence their children's attention development, as well as the effect this type of interaction may have on children with autism.

"The general aim in our research is to understand how parent behaviors can impact child's attention, and in what ways parents can provide better learning environments for early development," Yu said.