Concentration is like a muscle that requires regular exercise to strengthen. Some kids are born “stronger” in this area than others, but all kids can learn strategies and engage in practices that help improve their ability to focus and sustain their attention. This is, after all, a very important skill for kids to acquire—school demands that students concentrate for long stretches of time, and as kids get older they have extracurricular activities after school that require even more concentration. Most children are able to concentrate on activities that are fun and intrinsically enjoyable. It’s the ones that are more boring, difficult or just less enjoyable that really challenge their focus. Yet this ability to concentrate and sustain attention on all kinds of tasks is crucially important, because it helps kids learn and improve, which leads to self-confidence and positive self-esteem.
Concentration is a lot like mindfulness, a concept that has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately in psychology and in popular culture. Mindfulness is basically the ability to pay attention to one thing in the moment, and it has been shown to have innumerable mental health benefits, from increased happiness and stress management to improved academic and test performance. For mindfulness to work, you have to focus.
Here are some tips to help your kids build their concentration muscles:
- Set aside a reasonable amount of time for your child to practice focusing on a specific task. Young children (age 4-5) can usually concentrate for somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes, depending on the task—less time with novel and challenging tasks, and more time with those intrinsically enjoyable activities.
- Do one thing at a time. We may praise the ability to multitask in our adult lives, but the research is clear: multitasking reduces concentration and diminishes our performance. In line with the concept of mindfulness, do one thing at a time in this one moment. For very young children, you might simply sing the alphabet together while looking at the letters. For children who are a little older, say 4th grade, you can complete one long division problem at a time together. Don’t look ahead at all the other problems, just focus on one at a time.
- Set aside homework time and space. Because multitasking impairs concentration, it’s important to reduce extraneous distractions. For example, do homework at a designated desk or table in a quiet room with the TV off, the phone in another room, and the laptop shut unless it’s needed to complete a homework assignment. Parental monitoring programs can automatically shut down Internet access after a set amount of use. As kids get older, parents can shift to using self-monitoring software so teens can independently manage their time. This way kids don’t get sucked into a time vortex on Instagram or Snapchat.
- Build in planned breaks. Kids need to get up, move around, and do something different and not too taxing after spending some time concentrating. They will benefit from taking some time to rest and recharge, especially during after-school homework time. Younger children can take a snack or play break, and teens can take the opportunity to check out their friends’ posts or text with peers.
- Practice belly breathing. Steady, diaphragmatic breathing slows our heart rate and clears our mind so we can concentrate. This is an important skill for kids to have when they’re confronted with challenging tasks, which can make them anxious and spike their heart rate. Anxiety leads to avoidance, the opposite of concentration. So finding ways to make tasks more approachable is important, and calming the body is one of those strategies.
- Break big tasks down into smaller, more manageable pieces. This is another strategy for helping children to approach a challenging task. If your child is learning to tie her shoes, make the first goal to master the initial knot, then move on to making two loops with the strings until she knows exactly how to do that, and so forth. Another “piecemeal” strategy for building concentration is to use a timer to help kids organize themselves, e.g., “Here’s a book about horses. I’m going to set this timer for 15 minutes, and I want you to write down as many facts about horses as you can in this time.”
- Practice observing things in the moment. Kids can be distracted by “internal stimuli,” like physical sensations or entertaining memories. While a child’s imagination is a wonderful thing, we also want them to be able to clear away distractions and build the ability to concentrate. You can play “I spy with my little eye…” and take turns making observations of various objects in the room, listen closely to the lyrics of a song together, or do some yoga poses and pay attention to how it feels in the body.
I hate homework day.
Five minutes into my daughter starting it, she’s asked 4 irrelevant questions and walked across the room twice – for no reason.
She had a break when she first got in from school, and had a snack. Then we agreed to a little outside time before starting homework.
She’s got the book open and a pencil in her hand, but that’s the sum total of her achievement so far.
Her mind doesn’t seem to want to sit still – preferring to bounce all around the place. It’s like her mind is a magnet, and when it’s put near homework, it repels away from it.
When she was 5 I thought she would grow out of it, but at 8 years old I was beginning to worry.
As someone who likes to get in and get things done, it drives me nuts.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter dearly. But the way she gets distracted every 5 minutes during homework time is enough to make anyone go crazy.
She’s highly intelligent, has loads of positive energy and is warm and engaging. She can focus long and hard on anything she is interested in. But getting her to focus on homework she isn’t keen on? Damn near impossible.
I just couldn’t sustain parenting positively unless I got this under control. I wanted to take some action.
At one point when her distraction was driving me nuts, I had started to wonder if I should get her tested for attention deficit disorder (ADD). My research on this topic led me to discover some behavioral techniques used with ADD kids, that are also applicable to any child having difficulty focusing.
I decided to try them for teaching my daughter how to focus on homework. Some worked better than others but overall it has been a great success. Here are the ones that worked for us –
#1 Keep It Short
When it came to doing homework, we kept it short and broke it down. Generally, that meant one ten-minute stint a day, instead of one 30-40 minute block each week.
Each time she wandered off task (mentally or physically), I would gently guide her back to the homework.
I kept the focus light and pointed out the fun parts of her work. And I bit down hard on my tongue every time I felt like screaming “If you just stuck to the task and focused you could be done already!”
#2 Use A Timer
We looked for fun and novel ways to get homework done and one was to race the timer. The trick to this was to set her up for success.
So, if I estimated a task could be completed in about 2 minutes, I’d set the timer for 5 minutes. Each time she started chatting about something, I’d say something like “I hope you beat the timer!” or “Don’t forget – you want to beat the timer!”
#3 Wear Them Out
My daughter has loads of physical energy, so I made sure she got lots of exercise. Even now she needs to do lots of running around, or physical activity to wear her out a bit.
I’m not talking about making her run a marathon every day. Just encouraging and supporting her to move her body.
I worked with her natural rhythms as much as possible. I realized she had more energy in the afternoon, so we often went on outings in the morning.
If she’d been to school for the day and we were going to spend a few minutes on homework, I’d encourage her to go and jump her jiggles out on the trampoline before we sat down to focus.
#4 Kept It Positive
I focused on her positive outcomes as much as possible. Whenever she breezed through an activity I would give her positive feedback.
“Look how quickly you finished writing out your words! You stayed focused and you finished that in no time. Well done!”
We’d always start homework early and allow extra time to get things done, so I had to be organized and plan ahead. This meant I could sometimes say, “Wow! You finished your homework the day before it’s due. Great effort!”
#5 Give Up
There were times when I just gave up. Now, I’m not usually a quitter (our family motto is “persevere”!) but there are times when it’s clearly not the best course of action.
If we’d been working on a homework task for a long time and she was just getting less and less focused, I’d call a stop to it. When a five-minute task is only half done after 25 minutes, and there’s no momentum, there really isn’t any point continuing.
This is a tricky one, and I didn’t use it often. She’s a bright girl and she knew she hadn’t finished what she set out to do that day. But if we kept trying and getting nowhere, we would both become very frustrated and dejected – no good ever comes out of that.
So I’d suggest we leave it for now, and come back to the task when we were fresher. This way she wasn’t failing, it just wasn’t the right time.
#6 Eat More Fish
Crazy as it might sound, eating more fish or taking fish oil supplements, is apparently helpful.
Now, I’m not a nutritionist and I understand that the fish oil theory is unproven. But there seems to be research to support the fact that fish oil high in EPA (rather than DHA) can help improve focus.
I figured it was something that couldn’t hurt, so I did it. It seemed to me that each time her fish oil consumption dipped, she became less focused.
I’ve no real evidence to support that – it may just be in my head. 😉
#7 Encourage Self-Management
This is something I’ve only just discovered through reading the book Nurture Shock which discusses a preschool program called Tools of the Mind.
The Tools of the Mind program produces brighter children who are classified as gifted more often, but more importantly, it also produces kids with better behavior, greater focus and control.
Classes involve role play and each child creates their own detailed plan of their part. If a child gets off track, the teacher refers them back to their plan.
One of the ways the program helps is through encouraging planning and time management by setting weekly goals. This helps to wire up the part of the brain responsible for maintaining concentration and setting goals.
The Tools of the Mind philosophy is that every child can become a successful learner, with the right support. Children learn by using the skills they currently have – such as drawing and play. They think through their play plan, then draw a detailed record of it, then carry it out.
Using their skills in this way teaches children to set achievable goals, work out how to reach them, and stay on track. They learn they can be responsible for their own outcomes. We’ve been using this to teach my daughter self-management.
#8 Work Together
My daughter is nearly eleven now and has matured a lot over the last year. And I’ve just started using self-management techniques to help her set goals and plan how she’ll achieve them.
Earlier this year she said she really wanted to improve her grades, which I said was a great goal. Then she said she wanted to be involved in band, which means taking some band lessons in class time.
I asked her to plan how she intended to achieve both goals, given she has other extra-curricular activities she wants to keep up.
She created a plan to practice her instrument regularly and do more homework than she has previously. We’re at week 7 of our school year here in Australia, and so far she’s on track.
She dives into homework without being reminded and gets it done early. She’s also completing homework tasks to a higher standard, rather than madly (and messily) rushing through them.
Since starting band she’s been practicing twice a day, every day – without being asked. I know that if she loses momentum, or strays off track, I can direct her back to her own plan.
#9 Understand The Scale
At the end of the day, these traits are all a scale. Many of us can be inattentive and unfocused at times.
We all have different strengths and weaknesses. And attention and focus can vary wildly, particularly in the early years.
It partly depends on the environment, and partly the child.
Try and take the pressure off, and work with your child’s strengths.
Break tasks down and keep them fun.
Aim for a balance between physical and mental focus, and remember it’s OK to give up if the timing isn’t right.
Have realistic expectations, and know that your child’s focus will improve with age.
Don’t be scared to quit when things really are not working. Not doing a perfect job on the homework once in a while is not the end of the world. If it comes to a choice between quitting for the moment or screaming and yelling at your kids through the task, choose love and call it quits.
And finally, hang in there. It’s all going to be OK.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a moment to consider your child’s behavior.
- How does it compare to other children? Either their siblings or a number of other kids of a similar age? (Try to compare them with a range of other kids – rather than one or two)
- Does your child seem to have age-appropriate behavior and focus? If you’re concerned, do you need to seek help?
- How can you start breaking down big tasks into manageable (snack-sized) sections?
- Is your child able to focus on things they like doing? Can you use that in your favor?
- Are your kids distracted by things that could be controlled?
- What strategies can you put in place to keep your kids focus?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Brainstorm some roles that you can use to elicit certain behavior. If you need your child to be quiet and still for a few minutes, what can they pretend to be? A King or Queen on a throne? A soldier on guard? Good posture during homework is a good idea, but if the only way to get your child to do it without a fuss is to let them pretend to sit on a throne or stand in attention, go for it!
- Think back over the things that your child struggles to focus on. How can you get them to use self-management techniques to improve?
- If it seems impossible to get your child to focus and pay attention ask yourself this: “If it were possible, how would it be achieved?” Make some notes.
- Take a moment to check out why Tools of the Mind works so well and think about how you might use their strategies at home.