how to help a 5 yr old boy stay focused

February 21, 2019, 6:28 PM · I have a 5 yr old son who has just learned violin for 3 months. Before going further, I want to say that he is the one who wants to learn a musical instrument and chooses the violin. It's not me to push him. He picks up the notes and rhythms quickly. BUT he has a hard time focusing and especially when it comes to practice again and again one piece to master it.

His routine is like: he practices one tiny piece, then gets distracted by something else, then gets back. He feels hard to focus straight 5 mins. This makes the practice section last twice longer although his real practice time is only 30-50% of it.

I hope to look for some advices for how to deal with kid's distraction and improve my son's concentratio, from teachers and parents.

Replies (29)

February 21, 2019, 6:44 PM · I wouldn't concern yourself. Let him enjoy music/art/building blocks when it suits him, leave a cheap violin lying around and notice what he attends to. Offer gentle encouragement towards whatever seems positive. Maybe the best thing we cam do is to help our kids find their way, not what we think should be their way- even if it means buying him an accordian.
Edited: February 21, 2019, 7:09 PM · 50% duty cycle? At age 5? Picks up the notes and rhythms? Wants to learn violin? I'd say you're ahead of the curve.

If you don't have a piano, get one. He'll learn that too.

Edited: February 21, 2019, 8:57 PM · Young children have shorter attention span, make sense. There are 4 principles I try to observe: low, small, many, and quick:

A low starting point, smaller portion of tasks, many activities and pieces, and a quicker pace and feedback.

This would keep their mind occupied, constantly giving him enough amount of challenge and stimulation. Sustaining their engagement in smaller, achievable sub-tasks is more conducive to learning than drilling on longer pieces and polishing them in early stage imo.

The pun: "Occupation therapy". Busy is a cure for short attention. Teachers have the responsibility to teach students how to practice making reference to those principles too, if it works for him.

Just my opinion.

February 21, 2019, 7:37 PM · Vy, are you musical? If you learn/play with him, he will be super motivated :)
February 21, 2019, 7:58 PM · Oh! I have a 5 yo who started in September.. same scenario here. Practice is a sort of a play time with Mommy(I really enjoy it!) for about 10-15 min (something that would litterally take 2 min...). I have to be a little creative to make the assignment fun. So yeah... 5 yo, especially after a day of school, my goal is for her to have fun and enjoy the instrument. Sometimes she picks it up and decides to practice by herself (with a music stand, random sheer music and the metronome... it really falls into « mimic the adult » games kid that age still do). Teacher has the same vision (and she also is the mom of a 5 yo), which is perfect. She is progressing and is happy.
February 21, 2019, 7:59 PM · @Horace Kiang: "There are 4 principles I try to observe: low, small, many, and quick"

This is the best advice I have ever read about educating a kid. I am printing and framing it.

February 21, 2019, 9:35 PM · Why would 5 years old stay focused? There so much to explore. Emotional well-being of your child comes before the queen of all instruments.
February 21, 2019, 10:03 PM · I second Paul's idea about having a piano. When the boy has trouble getting the idea of the melody on the violin he can work it out on the piano too. Worked for me when I was little - and it is another outlet to help musical focus.
February 21, 2019, 10:21 PM · Thank you Carlos!
February 22, 2019, 12:27 AM · 30%-50% focus for a 5 year old boy is actually very good.
February 22, 2019, 3:26 AM · vary the subject matter all the time - and mostly OFF the violin. Thus: listen to a bit of a recording, do some rhythmic drumming, look at the parts of the violin (or piano, open the lid, talk about the bits); sing some violin music; dance while playing/listening/laughing; talk about other instruments; etc etc Just DON"T make him hold the instrument for more than he wishes to.

A 5 year old has little to no context for music and we grossly underestimate how much this has to be built in order for instrument training to mean anything.

February 22, 2019, 3:51 AM · I assume that at that age the thing that works in any activity is producing results. They explore. If they find nothing, they explore somewhere else.
Maybe it will work if he is persuaded by someone that he is producing results.
February 22, 2019, 3:50 PM · Do 5 minutes 3x a day. Once he masters that, go to 6 minutes 3x a day. And keep pushing it slowly. 5 minutes of sustained focus is actually good for a 5yo. Also, alternate playing with games -- singing games, theory games, etc. And definitely play with him!
February 23, 2019, 5:56 PM · The best piece of advice I have ever gotten in regards to teaching is that "A child can only focus on something for as many minutes as they are old". Changing gears constantly is a necessity. Also always start with review and questions and go through the easier pieces. Gradually I build up to more challenging things at the end of the practice session. I find these things will keep their attention for the full 30 min of a lesson

I recorded a video of one of my 4 year old students in class last week to help her parents be more effective at home. Notice that I am very involved, asking "how many counts for this" "what is this note named, and how do we know this?" "did you want to do it by yourself, or together?" and I repeat everything often, but I break it up. Another important thing is knowing when to let certain mistakes slide. Always look for the progress, not perfection (that is a big one most parents have to learn)

side note- If we are working on four things: A, B C and D (A being easiest and D being most difficult) I structure it like so in 2-4 min intervals. ABCABCDBDCD

February 24, 2019, 7:20 PM · Excellent, Mr. Kiang.

Mr. Nelson, most any child can focus one minute per year of age, if he or she wants to do so. Many children are lucky to see half that time at any particular age, but they expend a significant amount of energy trying not to break other children's focus. Other children can and choose to do more.

Remember, children are different from one another. But 5 minutes for a 5-year old is about average. 5 lessons a day, plus free play with the instrument, is more time on task than most 5-year olds achieve in an hour of conventional lesson. Time on task is the key to learning. Time sitting in a chair focused on anything other than the toy in hand is not. To 5-year olds, all things in hand are toys. They have no concept of price-based value.

What? Don't you remember thinking like a child when you were a child?

February 26, 2019, 9:37 AM · I second Paul's suggestion about learning piano.
My Russian piano teacher told me everyone had to learn and play piano to a certain level (in Russia) no matter what major they had. Her brother, for example, was a violinist, but played piano because of the requirements.
February 26, 2019, 9:57 AM · Don't expect a 5-year old to focus more than 5 minutes. All young beings are so full of energy and inquisitiveness, they want to explore everything immediately. They are not programmed to focus like a nuclear scientist on an invisible particle for years on end!!! Be happy your son is enthusiastic about music, reward him for any and all practice, and thank your lucky stars for this wonderful child!
February 26, 2019, 5:09 PM · I agree with all my colleagues that small chunks of work are the best, and really only route for young children. 15 min chunk of practice is an amazing feat and should have plenty of variety in it. The only thing that I can add is that gamifying things really helps and makes it more fun. Some examples:

Dice - kids can roll the dice to determine how many times they should repeat a particularly trouble some spot, or a whole line, or tricky bow grip etc. Just go with what it says, if it says 1, laugh and go with that and tell him he got lucky. If it says six, laugh and say "oh no" etc.

Light a candle when starting to practice and let the child blow out the end of the end of the session - my kid you used to live for that.

Egg shakers and percussion instruments - you play along with him (instead of a metronome), then let him play along with you as you sing or play or whatever. He can make up any crazy stuff as long as it's rhythmic.

Simon says games - get him to do do patient difficult things by playing simon says with him and then of course occasionally leaving out simon says.

Allow him to pick out a tune by ear completely by himself for fun and to feel the joy in the middle of a practice session. Or you start a song, and then he has to finish it where you left off. Or you can trade bars (give him the ones that need more work)

Listening and singing with a song should count as practice, plus its fun.

Messing around while getting good work done: For example ask him to hold the bow backwards at the tip while learning a tricky fingering. Ask him to purposely mess something up and you have to guess what he is doing wrong or visa versa.

ask him to practice some pizzicato, just to vary it up.

Practice beads: take him to a bead store and let him pick out 5 beads (one for each of his age years) to put on a small leather string. Everytime he repeats something he moves one bead across left to right. This provides a sense of accomplishment.

Pick a Card – Create a set of cards that have your planned activities for the practice session on it. Shuffle the deck and have the student pick a card. The card chosen will determine the order of the material covered in the lesson. Same can be done with intentions (get to the frog, great bow grip etc).

Suzuki teachers usually have a host of ideas for gamifying, they are a great resource. Sounds like you are already doing quite well I think.

Edited: February 26, 2019, 6:45 PM · This is brilliant. Thanks, Horace.

"Young children have shorter attention span, make sense. There are 4 principles I try to observe: low, small, many, and quick:

A low starting point, smaller portion of tasks, many activities and pieces, and a quicker pace and feedback.

This would keep their mind occupied, constantly giving him enough amount of challenge and stimulation. Sustaining their engagement in smaller, achievable sub-tasks is more conducive to learning than drilling on longer pieces and polishing them in early stage imo."

Every parent should chant this every day ... and then "do it".

Sure, sure, we all know it, but I have never seen it captured so concisely.

February 27, 2019, 2:51 AM · Thank you. I hope it helps!
Also, be happy and love music! Children like what you teach when they like you!
February 27, 2019, 2:54 AM · Susanna, very inspiring!! I'm buying a shaker, thanks!!
February 27, 2019, 9:43 PM · Thanks, Horace :)
March 2, 2019, 3:34 AM · Most of the kids of age 5 are not able to focus for a long time. You just have to accept it and the practise takes a lot longer than the actual playing time.

For my 5 year old (last piece book 3 suzuki) 5 minutes is still ablut the max time to focus completely. So it takes about 60 mintes to practise 40 minutes.

You have to have a plan with the practising and be able to change that plan too. Like you need to think in advance what are the parts of the pieces that need attention and how many times one measure is repeated ( 3 is the usual amount of repeting we use).

Often we play a game at the same time and before she gets to throw the dice, she does the next excercise. And she gets to watch a half an hour of tv on ipad only after the practising. My opinion is that letting kids watch tv all day long makes them loose the ability to focus and makes then have a really hard time to practise anything difficult.

And she is the one who wanted to start playing the violin at the age of close to 3 and she enjoys the playing and plays her own stuff too, but still being a normal kid, has a short attention span. You just have to work around it. Lots of motivational talk is also needed. Because when things go wrong most kids may become demotivated and alas loose focus. And one gets frustrated oneself sometimes, when the child is tired and really does not want to play but still you have to play every day, otherwise there will be no learning done, just keep a positive set of mind and accept that kids are kids. They can still learn the violin very well, if you have the patience :)

March 2, 2019, 4:15 PM · I have no idea about the pedagogy, but the nervous system works differently for individuals. My observation is that sometimes it's better to just play a little for feeling well (you have to have a good technique for that, but it is an older tradition, but I don't know).

Elise: yes, but I also think that engaging in such trichotomic activities (dichotomic, with multiple variables) requires not an active sustained attention, but something else....


March 2, 2019, 4:23 PM · Sorry, I have been educated here that I should not post things in a different comment, but I also think that a calm concentrational state for a 5 year old heavily depends on bowing technique, and sound production. Which is the Kreisler highway, so perhaps asking the teacher to give more tasks, so that less time is spent on one piece, but then this IS a motivated state, to attain a goal.

I also heard somewhere on the net, that the best bowing technique that reveals how to depend on armweight, is to try to slide, or glissando to a note with more freedom to the left hand, while the bowing is not leading the music, but it is a slave to the left hand.. ? Does that make sense? :)

I used the word slave, because it is metaphoric to how it produces a sound serving the left hand to do it's job ;-)

March 2, 2019, 4:30 PM · Make sure that it is not your ego wrapped up in the way the child is progressing. I know you said you're not pushing him, but, you might be having grand ideas about his future, and not able to make peace with the messy beginnings now.
March 2, 2019, 4:49 PM · David, I agree. :)
March 4, 2019, 11:02 AM · Thank you so much for sharing your experience, thought, advice and tips. I find all super helpful and begin to implement some into his practice.
March 5, 2019, 6:26 PM · Hi Vy,

It's nice that you are so concerned about your kid's emotional life. Of course, later on some bach would be nice, but it does not make any sense. Encouraging your kid to pay attention to music, and forget technique is key. But that can only happen at a later time. A big sound is essential. But it does not make any sense. Your kid might feel ok drawing a nice even bow, but musical recognition patterns can be too much burden on the brain, you can not intellectually grab how bach composed the mirror patterns of the pieces. The motion and technique is key, but that is intuitive, like the recursive patterns that produce patterns in the music, that was not intended originally...... I'm not saying that nobody cares about music nowadays, but it can inspire your kid to be better at math class. Sorry, It's just that society forces you to do something "useful" too......

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