"Pay Attention!" "Please focus!" "You need to concentrate!" Ask just about any parent if these phrases sound familiar when talking to their kids and you'll get lots of agreement.
What is Attention?
The ability to focus, or pay attention, is a core executive function skill - a collection of interrelated cognitive skills used to achieve goals. These develop as children mature and how well this goes is influenced by their experiences.
Attention is made up of both what to focus on and what to ignore. It allows us to select what we attend to. To maintain concentration, we also have to ignore lots of other competing and sometimes more interesting 'stimuli'.
This turns out to be particularly challenging for humans, especially children.
Why? Because our brains are hardwired to pay attention to the novel, meaning things and experiences new to us, so we can keep learning. Since so much is novel to kids, they’re regularly faced with their attention being drawn away and on to something else.
They also have under-developed self-control to stay on task and to persevere to finish and achieve a goal. Coinciding with brain development, there’s a notable improvement in attention at about age 7, but it can take well into the late teens to be fully robust.
Strategies to Improve Focus
Your child is doing homework, but keeps getting distracted. They talk about what happened at lunch, spin their pencil, check their phone. The evening stretches on and homework still isn’t done.
This scenario can play out in many areas from homework to chores to practicing for an upcoming game or performance. When kids have difficulty focusing, they have difficulty achieving goals.
The good news is you can help their focus improve. Just keep in mind the younger the child the shorter their attention span and pushing them too hard is not effective.
1. Talk about Attention
Ask your child about a time they were doing something and were so involved they didn’t notice anything else. It might be playing a game, reading a book, practicing a skill. Ask what it felt like, how they got so focused, how it helped them do that activity. They will come to know what focus feels like so they can be cued to when they are and are not paying attention.
2. Remove Distractions
TV off. Phone put away. Toys out of site. Quiet place with little to no traffic. Clutter removed. Conversation on hold. The first to-do for improving focus is getting competing stimuli out of the way. Watch your individual child for what distracts them and then remove the distraction.
3. Build in breaks
Expecting kids to focus as long as adults can cause conflict and undermine their productivity. There is ample evidence taking short breaks improves focus. Run in place. Do a Yoga pose. Stretch. Play Rock-Paper-Scissors. Give tickles. Pet the dog or cat. Try a few things and see what your child responds to best.
Focus improves if kids know what to do and in what order. Write the steps down. Keep refining if they aren’t getting done-they might be too large.
4. Make a plan
Focus improves if kids know what to do and in what order. Write the steps down. Keep refining if they aren't getting done-they might be too large. For learning a new song on the piano for instance, the steps for a single session might be a. listen to a recording, b. read the notes, c. play the song through twice, d. do 10 jumping jacks, e. play the song through twice more.
Staying focused is hard work. Giving your child a small reward shows you acknowledge this. This can be a small treat, a star on a chart, the chance to do something they really like, verbal praise, or your attention. If your child really wants to talk about what happened at lunch, when he finishes his spelling assignment tell him you’re proud of him for learning so many new words, and then let him tell you about his day!
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.
Klimkeit, E. I., Mattingley, J. B., Sheppard, D. M., Farrow, M., & Bradshaw, J. L. (2004). Examining the development of attention and executive functions in children with a novel paradigm. Child Neuropsychology, 10(3), 201-211.
About The Author
Lilla Dale McManis, MEd., PhD., is President & Founder of Parent in the Know and uses her training and experience to help parents and educators promote optimal child outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.