Making dinner while talking on the phone. Grocery shopping while telling Baby an epic adventure story. Changing a diaper while auditioning for a starring role on The Toddler-Distraction Variety Show. Making new playground friends while mediating between two (toddler) sworn enemies disputing their territory. Sleeping with one eye open. There’s no question that parents of young children end up doing a lot of multitasking. But when do toddlers start to be able to take on a little bit of that ability?
The development of divided attention
The cognitive ability that allows people to focus on more than one task at a time (or, more accurately, to switch their attention back and forth between more than one area of focus quickly enough that it seems like focusing on more than one thing at once) is called divided attention.
The ability for divided attention grows slowly, so there isn’t a clear dividing line between before toddlers know how to multitask and after. One of the first signs of Baby’s developing divided attention may have already happened, though. Sometime between a toddler’s second and third birthday, they start to be able to follow two- and three-step instructions – for example, put a toy away and start getting ready for bed. This isn’t quite multitasking, but it does mean that a toddler’s sense of attention has grown enough that they can keep the second or third step of the directions in their mind as they complete the first step or steps.
When multitasking goes too far
Multitasking is an unavoidable part of adult life, but there’s no reason for Baby to rush into it too fast. Their capacity for divided attention will grow naturally on its own, and doesn’t need to be encouraged. More than that, though, even once Baby can split some of their attention, that doesn’t mean they always should.
Recent studies focused on how multitasking by using technology impacts learning suggests that dividing attention between the classroom and laptops, phones, or other devices can make learning less efficient. Splitting attention gets in the way of retention of new information. As Baby grows, and their ability to multitask grows with them, it’s important to give them plenty of chances to focus on one set of stimuli at a time. This might mean avoiding eating in front of a movie, or it might mean modeling giving undivided attention to them by making a point to stay off your phone when you’re interacting with them, or any number of other ways of dedicating some energy to switching off the urge to multitask.
- Elizabeth L. Glisky. “Changes in Cognitive Function in Human Ageing.” Brain Ageing: Models, Methods, and Mechanisms. 2007. Retrieved July 19 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK3885/.
- Helene Hembrooke, Geri Gay. “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments.” The Journal of Computing in Higher Education. 15(1). Fall 2003. Retrieved July 19 2017. http://www.ugr.es/~victorhs/gbd/docs/10.1.1.9.9018.pdf.
- Susan A. Miller, Ellen Booth Church, Carla Poole. “Ages & Stages: Learning to Follow Directions.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc, January 2000. Retrieved July 19 2017.https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/ages-stages-learning-follow-directions/.
- “Multitasking: Why It’s Bad for You and Your Kids.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic, October 2 2012. Retrieved July 19 2017. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2012/10/multitasking-why-its-bad-for-you-and-your-kids/.
- “Toddlers (2-3 Years Old): Developmental Milestones.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, February 1 2017. Retrieved July 19 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/positiveparenting/toddlers2.html.