One of the more frequent questions I received from parents concerned how to help their child improve focus. Many were worried about their child’s inability to concentrate; the child could only study for a brief period before becoming restless or succumbing to distractions. Lack of focus is a common problem. I have taught many children who struggled to maintain their focus on a single task for more than 5 to 10 minutes.
Good focus and concentration are critical for children’s success in school and daily life. When children can effectively maintain attention on tasks or activities, they are better equipped to take in new information and make progress in their learning.
Understand that it’s natural for children to lack focus when studying
It is important for parents to recognize that children naturally struggle with maintaining focus while studying. Don’t expect your child to become fully absorbed into doing their homework the moment they sit down; this rarely occurs and is not just due to laziness or disinterest. Several factors contribute to a lack of focus, including the child’s developmental stage, environmental influences, and personal interests.
Consider how adults work. Adults, too, occasionally experience days when they just can’t concentrate. Many adults often find it challenging to focus for 30 minutes to an hour, particularly when dealing with difficult material or competing distractions. This is why there are many apps that promote focus and productivity for adults.
How can I help my child in improving their focus while studying?
Improving focus is possible with the appropriate strategies. Focus is not an ability set in stone; it is not something that a child is either born with or without. Instead, focus, or the lack thereof, depends on various factors such as environment and interest. By employing the right strategy, a child who ordinarily cannot concentrate on a task can learn to do so.
Below, I will list some strategies that I have found useful, which you can use to help your child maintain focus on a task for longer periods.
Set an achievable “focus goal” for your child
Let’s say your child needs to complete their reading or math homework. Observe how long your child can focus before becoming distracted. Can they concentrate for 30 minutes? 20 minutes? Or maybe just 10 minutes? It’s completely fine if your child can only focus for a duration of 5 minutes. Whatever it is, that will be their starting point.
Begin with your child’s most comfortable starting point. If they are only able to focus for 5 minutes, this might equate to reading one page in their book or completing two math problems. When your child is working on their math homework, for example, have them tackle two math problems, then take a short break. Afterward, they can return and work on two more math problems.
Once your child can consistently complete two math problems without getting distracted, encourage them to attempt three math problems in a row. This method will gradually extend your child’s ability to focus.
Get rid of distracting things around your child
Reducing distractors in a child’s environment is vital for maintaining their concentration. When your child is studying, get rid of anything that may compete for your child’s attention.
- Turning off the TV
- Silence their phone or take it away
- Clear their desk of irrelevant items
- Make sure you are not running the dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, laundry machine, or lawn mower
- No background music or sound (with possible exception of classical music, which may be able to increase productivity due to Mozart effect)
- No other children playing or running around
- Computer and iPad are turned off unless they are needed for the task
- No bed, sofa, or food in proximity (this rules out the child’s bedroom, kitchen, and living room as optimal study area) – try to create a study spot away from these “escape-to-comforts”.
In essence, to create an environment that promotes focus, aim to make the surroundings “bland” so that your child’s attention is directed toward the task at hand. Many children concentrate more effectively in a library or a self-study room at school, as these settings tend to be quiet and contain minimal distractions.
Learn to not help
Parents often feel compelled to assist their child when they notice them struggling with their work, and sometimes, even when the child is not struggling. Maintaining a quiet distance and allowing the child to work independently can be challenging; it is a skill parents must develop.
Offering comments, corrections, or encouragement while a child is working independently can interrupt their concentration. They must pause to listen, consider your input, and refocus before returning to their work.
By restraining the impulse to help (or interfere, to put it more bluntly), not only are you fostering your child’s ability to focus, but you are also encouraging their independence. Once they have completed their tasks, there will be opportunities to provide assistance, feedback, or praise.
Change the task to a more engaging one
Your child might struggle to focus if the task at hand is not engaging or interesting. It is also possible that the task is too difficult for them. When children are not interested in the material they are learning, maintaining focus can be challenging.
If this is the case, try finding an alternative activity for your child. For example, if your child is practicing multiplication, make it more interesting by involving a game. You can either find a game online or create one yourself. When creating a game or exercise, try to tap into your child’s interests. Alternatively, find an engaging math app for your child to practice multiplication. Simply changing the approach to practicing can improve their focus.
If the material is too challenging for your child, consider providing a simpler task. For instance, if 2-digit by 2-digit multiplication is too difficult, try reviewing the 9-times-9 chart in a game format. Once your child becomes comfortable with the 9-times-9 chart, gradually transition to 2-digit by 1-digit multiplication, and so on. If your child is doing their school homework, ask them to do the easiest tasks, first, before moving on to the harder ones. Children can focus better on tasks they feel confident in completing their task.
Practicing mindfulness techniques
Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing, and grounding exercises, might be able to help your child focus. Since the early 2000s, the benefits of mindfulness practices have garnered attention in academic circles. Multiple research studies have found that when teachers teach students mindfulness practices in elementary and high school classrooms, their attention, emotional regulation, working memory, academic skills, and social skills increase.
Although mindfulness practices originated from Buddhism, anyone, whether religious or not, can practice techniques such as meditation without incorporating the religious aspects of it. You can use mindfulness apps, like headspace, to teach your child mindfulness practices.
Make sure your child is getting balanced diet and essential nutrients
A balanced, nutritional diet is essential for children’s overall well-being as well as their cognitive development and attention. Parents and educators are increasingly recognizing that the food children consume significantly influences ability to concentrate both at home and school. A diet rich in essential nutrients, such as vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, is known to improve mood and attention in children with autism and ADHD.
Vitamin D can be obtained through fortified dairy products and fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods such as chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseeds, as well as in cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna. When including fish in children’s meals, it is essential to choose low-mercury options to avoid potential health risks. Additionally, fortified foods like milk, yogurt, eggs, and orange juice can also provide a substantial amount of both nutrients. Be creative in incorporating these natural food sources into their children’s meals. For example, you can make smoothies with yogurt and fruits, create fish-based dishes like fish tacos, and add nuts and seeds to salads or oatmeal. Additionally, vitamin D is synthesized when skin is exposed to direct sunlight, so make sure your child is getting enough play time outside.
Dietary fiber can help children with memory and attention. In fact, after having a high-fiber breakfast, children perform better in tests of attention and memory. To include fiber-rich foods in their meals, start by introducing whole grains like whole wheat bread, brown rice, or whole grain pasta. Encourage them to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, either raw or cooked, like apples, bananas, berries, broccoli, and carrots. Legumes, such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas, also offer a great source of fiber, making them a nutritious addition to soups, salads, or even as a snack.
Nurturing your child’s focus and concentration is essential for their academic success and overall well-being. By implementing strategies such as creating a distraction-free learning space, achievable goals, learning to watch over a child’s progress from a distance without helping, giving more engaging tasks, teaching mindfulness, and including vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and dietary fiber in your child’s diet, you can help your child become more focused at every task.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.