The ability to concentrate is a critical life skill, but it’s common for kids to have trouble focusing, particularly on schoolwork. Bernice Barrington zones in on how to help improve concentration levels in children.
‘Research shows that controlled breathing techniques can be very beneficial to children’s concentration levels, with the increased oxygen to the brain helping to boost memory, focus and problem solving.
The ability to concentrate is one of the most important skills children can learn: allowing them not only to become literate and retain information but to socialise, communicate and make their way in the world as confident human beings.
However, unlike instinctive responses like breathing or suckling, concentration is a skill that must be learned and, much like a muscle, the more a child practises, the better they will become. As a rule of thumb, experts suggest that a four to five-year-old child should be able to stay focused on a task for two to five minutes multiplied by their age in years. So, young kids should be able to focus between four and 20 minutes, depending on what it is they’re doing. However, just like any rule of thumb, this will vary hugely, depending on the child and the situation.
The good news is that parents can do lots of things to help, and our top tips below cover the physical, mental and nutritional aspects of aiding your child’s concentration. Combined, they should really help boost your little one’s focus, helping them to deal, not just with the ever-increasing demands of school and learning, but with the varied and fascinating wonders of the world itself.
It (almost) goes without saying that your child must have a calm space in which to concentrate and work. If outside noise is a problem, hang curtains or wall hangings to absorb sound. Other good ways to mask noise include fish tanks, soothing background music and desktop waterfalls.
Remember that concentration is not just in the head. Make sure your child’s chair is the right size: it should allow your child’s shoulders to stay back, and for their feet to comfortably touch the floor. (Poorly supporting chairs restrict blow flow, leading to poor concentration and fatigue.) Light is also very important. Reduce artificial lighting in favour of natural – the latter activates the production of vitamin D and the manufacture of melatonin which, in turn, regulates body rhythms.
Choose manageable tasks
Children respond to challenging tasks, not to tasks that are too hard or too easy. Choose one that is suited to your child’s concentration and skill level, so that they don’t lose focus and give up. If the original task seems too big, break it down into small, achievable chunks.
Playing ‘mind’ games with your child, particularly those that make use of strategy, will develop verbal skills, and improve powers of concentration, perception and reasoning. Some good ones to try out include:
- Crossword puzzles
- Word jumbles
- Mathematical puzzles.
For younger children, building blocks, jigsaws, and picture books are all excellent ways of helping them to focus and concentrate.
Studies have shown that there is a strong link between sequencing and concentration, and luckily it’s really easy to instil in the home.
Following recipes, setting the table and putting things in alphabetical order are all great ways for kids to improve their concentration.
Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US in 2010 revealed that children who took breaks from classwork to be active during the day could concentrate better on schoolwork.
Outside school, it needn’t be hard to build exercise into your life as a family. A nice, rambling nature walk, where you point out various plants and animals to your child, will serve the dual role of working on your child’s concentration levels, while also getting in some vital exercise.
Research shows that controlled breathing techniques can be very beneficial to children’s concentration levels, with the increased oxygen to the brain helping to boost memory, focus and problem-solving abilities. There is also evidence to suggest that practising deep breathing prior to tests or assignments can increase grades and reduce test anxiety.
Even Dr Phil (of Oprah fame) is a fan. “Teach your child to count to five when breathing in, and then to five again when breathing out. Repeat this breathing cycle about six times; the entire routine will take only a minute. Remember – matching inhalation and exhalation time is the key.”
It is absolutely crucial that children get enough sleep in order to concentrate. Most kids function best after nine hours’ sleep so make sure they get to bed in plenty of time at night and that there are no distractions in their bedroom such as a TV, computer or electronic media devices, which research has shown can lead to reduced sleep levels.
Children can only concentrate when they are happy and calm. In such a state, the brain releases dopamine, which travels to the front of the brain and influences skills essential for learning. Conversely, fear and threat inhibit intelligent behaviour and impair memory. Make sure to praise your child regularly in relation to their learning and try to stay focused on their strengths.
Concentration and diet
Research has indicated that diet can have a major impact on a child’s concentration levels throughout the day.
Make sure your child always eats breakfast – a nourishing bowl of porridge and berries is a great option as it will release energy gradually; eggs are also excellent as they’re high in choline, a substance that helps create memory cells.
For lunch, make sure to feature plenty of wholegrains (linked to memory function) as well as iron-rich foods – lean red meats, poultry and dried fruits – which have been shown to increase mental alertness. Oil-rich fish, such as salmon, sardines and fresh tuna, are another must. That’s because they’re a powerful source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are strongly linked to increased learning ability and concentration. (For further healthy lunchbox ideas, see www.safefood.eu)
One thing I’ve learned with four boys is that young kids are not known for their attention spans! Mine respond really well to exercise. It burns off excess energy and helps them to focus a bit more. Moving the body motivates the brain. They all love a few minutes of madness with their friends before school starts; it helps them concentrate. When they come in all they want to do is veg out in front of the television for 20 minutes. Once their batteries are recharged and they get some fuel into their tummies it is much easier to get them to tackle homework.
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