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Helping Children Focus in an Attention-Deficit World

By: Dr. Mike Hill

The ability to focus and maintain self-control has effects that stretch from infancy to adulthood. Studies have shown that students who exhibit high skill levels of focusing during their pre-kindergarten and elementary years have higher academic performance in their later years (including college) than students who have challenges with focusing. While recent studies highlight the potency of being able to focus, early evidence also suggests that parents can play a large role in shaping this essential skill.

Ellen Galinsky in, Mind in the Making, suggests that focus and self-control are comprised of four components: focus, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control.

Focus can be operationally defined as the ability to remain cognitively engaged on a task while filtering for both internal and external stimuli.

Cognitive flexibility involves the ability to effectively switch attention between different tasks as well as take on the perspectives of others.

Working memory refers to the ability to keep information in mind while manipulating and using it to complete a physical or mental task.

Inhibitory control is simply the ability to resist the desire to do another task at the expense of a more important one. In other words, it’s the skill of being able to properly choose what to give attention to. Inhibitory control is the antidote for procrastination.

Here are seven ways to promote focus and self-control in children.

  1. Be keenly observant. Any practical advice for educators and parents should come with an asterisk. There is no silver bullet or one-size fits all approach to training children. The best way to tell what will work is to be uniquely aware of your child’s likes, dislikes, and natural tendencies. This will help you to make the best decisions regarding the effect of any strategy on your child. Paying attention to children involves more than knowledge of their actions and reactions, but also the situations and contexts of those behaviors. Being present in the moment with our kids (rather than distracted by our own devices) goes a long way toward supporting the mental needs.
  2. Play games with increasingly complex rules. Playing games is as old as civilization itself. Children both want and need to play, even older children will be more engaged in activities that are mentally stimulating and fun than ones that are task-oriented. The games that are most effective for increasing focus are unique in that they usually involve some type of rule or specific action that the player must be paying attention to in order to perform correctly. For example, guessing games require children to receive information, compare it to what they already know, and hold this information in their minds throughout the duration of the game, thus exercising their ability to focus. For younger children additional games may include musical chairs, pretend play, opposite day, or matching games. For older children you can pull out old-fashion board games such as Sorry and monopoly. The idea is to engage them in solid/critical thinking long enough to exercise their mental faculties.
  3. Encourage “out of routine” challenges. While consistent routines can help children be able to predict and make sense of their environments, as parents and educators we must also engage them in experiences beyond the routine. This could involve anything from a home-made science project that is child-centered (meaning the child had a choice in the project) or starting a small-business. Any activity that requires active planning and reflection will help the child practice remaining engaged with a task, which in turn promotes his or her ability to focus.
  4. Encourage both individual and team activities. I intentionally use the word activities here to include both athletic and non-athletic activities. The purpose of extracurricular activities is to provide children with various non-academic experiences. Sports simply have the added benefit of being physically demanding, which has been shown to contribute to a student’s overall health. However, whether a student is engaged in an athletic or non-athletic activity there needs to be a balance between activities that promote teamwork or collaboration (i.e. baseball, basketball, band) and ones that challenge the performance of just the individual such as golf, tennis, violin, piano, etc. Both athletic and non-athletic activities have varying experiences, but they all encourage students to engage in an tasks that require focus, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control.
  5. Use television and computer games wisely. Technology is neither good or bad, how we use it is a better indicator of its usefulness toward promoting focus in our children. While, in general, parents agree that “screen time” for children, especially younger ones, should be limited, an issue of equal importance is the content of the programs and games they engage with. Television programs that are content-rich without being overstimulating are best for children. Many television programs today change imagery and sound a wild number of times over the course of program. Compare a contemporary cartoon to 1980s Sesame street. Many of today’s cartoons and children’s programs are overstimulating, which actually requires less focus and attention on behalf of the child. On the other hand, programs geared specifically for helping children to learn are content-rich and allow students time to process images and actions rather than mindless gazing at a screen. The same is true with computer games. Games that promote logic, skill, and strategy can be beneficial to promoting focus rather than games that are “click and kill” based. Television and technology are not the enemy, how we use them is key.
  6. Praise appropriately. It is important that our children feel and know they are smart, but some studies indicate that over praising our children’s intelligence and abilities can have the opposite effect. When students believe they have won over an adult’s affection because they said or did something smart, it can cause them to only prefer activities or tasks that make them seem smart. This can make children unwilling to try new things, give up on tasks more quickly, or be afraid to risk making mistakes. To an extent children have very little control over their intelligence, but they can control effort. By praising a child’s effort, we give them a component of their behavior they can control, which in turn increases their ability to remain engaged in an activity or task. This in turn promotes focus.
  7. Help them manage stress. We help our children manage stress by first managing our own. Getting rest, eating right, staying active, and keeping priorities straight, are just as good for adults as children. While children may be tenacious little creatures, they often lack the capacity to manage stress, which has been shown to have a negative impact on the cognitive abilities of children. Children need security, predictable environments, acceptance, and atmospheres that are balanced with nurture and challenge. They depend on us as parents and educators to supply those components. When their lives are interrupted by crises, inconsistency, or poor parenting standards it increases their stress levels and makes it harder for them to develop the simple, but highly critical life skill of being able to focus.

References

Bronson, PO., & Merryman, Ashley. (2009). NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. New York: Twelve.

Duckworth, Angela. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Scribner.

Galinsky, Ellen. (2010). Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.