How to help improve concentration levels in children

How to help improve concentration levels in children

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.

Reduce noise

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.

Physical environment

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.

How to help improve concentration levels in children

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.

Go mental

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:

  • Chess
  • Draughts
  • Crossword puzzles
  • Cryptograms
  • Word jumbles
  • Scrabble
  • Mathematical puzzles.

For younger children, building blocks, jigsaws, and picture books are all excellent ways of helping them to focus and concentrate.

Sequence it

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.

Get active

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.

Just breathe

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.”

Sleepy time

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.

Be positive

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

Mum’s tip

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.

More like this:

Good homework habits
No more homework hassles
Benefits of multivitamins

Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.

why vitamin d is important

Why vitamin D is important

Studies have shown that here in Ireland many people have a deficiency of vitamin D in Irish children so it’s likely that many Irish children have less than healthy levels.



Q. I’m would like to start an exercise programme that will benefit my emotional health as much as my physical health, but I don’t know which type of class would be best. Should I consider choosing from yoga, pilates, tai chi, or could you recommend a class, please?

A It’s great that you have decided to get into exercise. The benefits to you are going to be great. You’ll sleep better, have more energy, better skin, reduced stressed, not to mention all the amazing physical benefits of your clothes fitting better, and looking healthy, trim and toned! My advice to you would be to try them all. Even if some don’t offer pay-as-you-go sessions, if you get in touch directly with the instructor, they will almost always let you try it out first to see if it’s for you. All of the above things that you mentioned are great for mental health, so it really will be a personal preference as to which you go for. On top of the classes you mention, all forms of exercise will give you great mental rewards so consider the not so obvious interval training sessions, bootcamp, and circuits too, as you will also feel on top of the world after a class like that.