Reading, writing, and arithmetic may be headline items in today’s standards-driven kindergartens, but there’s a crucial skill that underlies success in all of them. It’s a child’s capacity for focus, and without enough of it, a young learner can get into big trouble.

At least once a day, for example, a kindergarten class will gather on the rug for stories and learning activities. Teachers plan in 15 or 20 minute increments, expecting that little bodies aren’t going to sit still too long. But while a story is being read, or a calendar explained, they want your child’s full attention. For many children, this comes easily. But with television and electronic games offering so many quick sound-bite stimuli, and the pace of family life moving ever faster, many teachers say that a lot of kids struggle more than ever with the quiet, focused tasks of kindergarten.

So if your child would rather gaze at the fish tank than listen to the story, thinks that walking in a line means grabbing a classmate and splashing in puddles, you may be getting a call from the teacher. And even if your child is settling in fine, you can take some helpful steps at home to make focus a constant, comfortable part of your child’s learning toolkit.

Here are suggestions for nurturing focus in your kindergartener, from Joan Rice, M.A., an experienced kindergarten teacher from South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is also a mother herself and the co-author of What Kindergarten Teachers Know.

  1. Create schedules and routines at home. This may be the single most important step you take, whether it’s for starting the day, doing homework, or going to bed. If your child seems to fade in and out, you might even write up the routine, using little pictures if she can’t yet read. “Having a tangible schedule,” says Rice, “allows a child to focus on the tasks and have a way of gauging completion.”
  2. Consciously practice following directions. In kindergarten, teachers will often give multi-step directions, such as “Please sit at your table and pull out two markers.” Do this at home, says Rice, but then take an important next step: “Children should practice repeating the directions, then following through.”
  3. Be as consistent as possible. If your child dawdles over clothing, for example, “allow a predetermined time to dress: use oven timers when necessary.” And, cautions Rice, beware the old "floating five minutes" trick: “If you say ‘in five minutes,’ mean just that,” she cautions, because otherwise children won’t get an accurate idea of what five minutes really feels like.
  4. With projects, suggest extra challenges. Children this age often whiz through a project when kindergarten teachers hope that they’ll add all the touches. Let’s say, for example, your child is scribbling through a note to grandpa. “Ask,” says Rice, “what they could do with 5 cotton balls and 4 buttons on the card.”

Throughout the fall, almost all kindergarteners settle right down. But if it’s late December and your child still seems to be bouncing off the walls at school and at home, you and your teacher will want to work together to understand what’s up. Since it’s all over the media, you may also hear about Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Beware, however, jumping to conclusions. Andrew Adesman, Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York, warns that “one would not want to rush to judgment. There are many very active—even hyperactive—preschool children who settle right down as they move into elementary school.”

What should you look for? The three “cardinal features” of attention disorders, says Adesman, are hyperactivity, Impulsivity, and distractibility. Some children with ADHD may display all three traits, while others may only be hyperactive and impulsive. Still other children (often just designated “ADD”), are just intensely distractible. In any case, Adesman explains, the disorder can only be diagnosed properly by professionals who must also rule out other possible causes. “Diagnosis of ADHD is most reliable when at least two different teachers over two years have expressed significant concerns.” In other words, even if your child may later turn out to have an attention disorder, what’s important at this stage is to try plenty of what Adesman calls “first line interventions,” or what Rice would call “practical tips.”

So, got that egg timer? Don’t hesitate to give it a try. Adesman adds that it’s also fair game to use positive “behavioral reinforcements” like stickers or stars. And always be sure to observe your child carefully. Chances are, you’ll see big improvements, but if you don’t, you’ll also have invaluable data if you pursue further steps. It may take some time, but it’s worth the wait. After all, for the vast majority of kids, kindergarten will turn out to be one of the best school years ever.