18 min read

Helping Children Focus: a Holistic Approach

August 19, 2019

Table of Contents

Introduction

1. General Tips to Help Your Child Build Concentration Skills

2. How to Help Your Child Focus in the Classroom

3. How to Focus on Homework

4. The Impact of Diet and Nutrition on Your Child’s Attention Span and Concentration

5. Natural Remedies for Better Focus

6. Therapies, Exercises, and Games to Improve Your Child’s Focus

Conclusion

 


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Introduction

It’s a myth that some kids are born with the ability to focus while others aren’t. 

All children have the ability – some are just naturally more apt than others at sitting still, listening, and paying attention. 

If your child is on the opposite end of the spectrum, they’re not a hopeless case. That holds true even if you’re constantly getting notes from school about your student’s disruptive behavior, even if your child is failing classes due to poor concentration, and even if he or she can’t seem to sit still for two seconds at a time. 

Concentration, attention, and focus are skills your child can learn and strengthen. 

Don’t get me wrong—it takes time, patience, practice, and cooperation with the right people. However, in the end, doing the work ensures your child has all the tools they need to succeed at school and in life.

Consider this comprehensive guide your starter kit to improve your child’s focus. In it, I’ll discuss:

  • General tips to help with focus and attention
  • How you can help your child focus in the classroom
  • How to help them concentrate on that dreaded homework so it’s not torture
  • How diet and nutrition can impact your child’s focus
  • Natural remedies to try
  • Therapies, exercises, and games you can play to build your child’s focus “muscle

Ready to learn? Let’s dive into the first section, which includes general tips to help your child focus during their day-to-day activities.

 

1. General Tips

Thinking of concentration as a skill that can be built up over time is a growth-focused approach to solving the problem of your child’s inattention. 

Stay positive, patient, and don’t give up. Your child looks to you to set the tone for any challenge they face. Be a model for them and implement some of these tips to start building focus:

Break into Small Chunks

Facing a huge task can seem insurmountable when you look at it all at once. Presenting your child with a giant project (i.e. complete these 30 math problems, clean your entire room, set the table with all the place settings) is a good way to set them up for failure.

More than likely, your child will start the task with good intentions, get distracted or lose focus, and then fail to complete it.

Instead, break big tasks into bite-sized jobs. Put all the focus on the smaller tasks, and when each is completed, take a break before diving into the next one.

For example, instead of saying “do your homework,” say “let’s finish three math problems before dinner.”

Practice Deep Breathing

Research has shown that a group of nerves in the brain that regulate breathing are connected to the brain’s arousal center. When you keep your breath calm and slow, your brain is signaled to keep at an even keel, as well.

That’s why, when your child starts losing focus, taking deep breaths can help calm them, reduce anxiety, and re-center their attention.

Use a technique like deep belly breathing to help your child learn to slow down and concentrate when it gets tough. For best results, practice when they’re calm so they get the hang of the technique.

Encourage Breaks

Concentrating is naturally harder for kids than adults. That’s why it’s important to let them take breaks between focus sessions – especially for those kids who are fidgety. Encourage them to get up, move around, and play during breaks so they can sit down again later feeling refreshed and revived.

Make Time for Play

Exercise is an important player for any healthy lifestyle, but your unfocused child will benefit even more from daily movement and exertion.

Exercising causes stress hormones to drop, encourages the growth of brain cells, and creates new connections between them. On top of that, a study has found that exercise encourages the growth of brain cells in the region called the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning.

In short, daily exercise primes your child’s brain for learning how to focus. It helps them release excess energy, too.

However, while exercise is a big deal, team sports aren’t the only way to get your child moving. Children may also get their daily exercise through unstructured play – so let them loose in the backyard or on the playground, too.

 

2. How to Focus in the Classroom

According to research published in the peer-reviewed journal, Learning and Instruction, the average elementary school student is distracted 25% of the time. The study also found that attention spans generally decreased during long spans of instruction and when the teacher was engaging the whole classroom of students.

For kids who have trouble focusing in school, situations like these represent more mountains to climb. Unfortunately, your child is going to run into these scenarios time and time again during their schooling – and you won’t be there to help. 

Luckily, there are some ways you can help your child at home that will make it easier for them to focus at school.

Stick to a Routine

A good home routine, including a consistent sleep schedule and meals at roughly the same time each day, can do a lot to improve a child’s focus at school.

When your child gets in a sleep routine, especially, they’ll go to school well-rested and ready to face the day. 

When your child is lacking sleep, that could equal more trouble paying attention plus more irritability and frustration, according to a study published in Pediatrics. That means firm rules about bedtime (no ifs, ands, or buts) can actually help a child focus better in school.

Give an Outlet for Excess Energy

For antsy, hyper kids, a long day at school is akin to torture. Recess might not be enough to help them shake out their excess energy.

That’s why having an outlet for your child is a great idea. This can include team sports, gymnastics, or some other activity, but don’t rule out a good playground session or a game of tag with their siblings, either.

Today, scientists understand that play lights up the neocortex in the brain, which is responsible for higher-order functions like cognition, sensory perception, and language. Giving your kids free time to play and run around after school (without electronic devices) may help them perform better when it’s time to focus.

Limit Screen Time

Kids who spend too much time in front of screens may be at a disadvantage at school. 

Research has shown that kids who spend more than seven hours in front of an electronic screen incurred physical changes to their brains, including premature thinning of the cortex (which usually doesn’t happen until middle age). The same study showed that kids who spent over two hours per day in front of screens scored lower on thinking and language tests.

Bottom line? Limit your kids’ screen time, especially if they have attention and focus issues at school. Encourage non-screen activities and hobbies, like participating in sports, playing outside, or playing with toys, board games, or puzzles.

Set an Example

Like it or not, your child notices your actions and models your behavior. If you’re constantly multi-tasking, not focusing on one activity, and gluing yourself to a screen at every opportunity, your child will have a harder time improving, themselves.

As they say, monkey see, monkey do.

Set an example of focus for your child. Practice giving one task your full attention. When you have a conversation, put down your phone and turn off the TV. During homework times and family mealtimes, limit distractions and encourage a focused environment (TV off!). 

Keep Track of Goals

Tracking focus goals is a fantastic way to follow your child’s progress and celebrate their victories with them. Each day, set an attainable goal to shoot for, ideally a task that requires your child’s focus and concentration.

For example, set a goal of sitting down for 5-10 minutes of quiet time daily. Or, give them a few small chores weekly that need focus to complete, like making their bed or putting away their clothes. When they achieve their daily or weekly goals, record them. At the end of the week, tally up the goals they met and celebrate them.

This way, you’ll help your child build skills they’ll take with them to school – not to mention build their confidence.

Collaborate With Teachers

Your child spends much of their weekday with their teachers. They will have a better idea of your child’s specific focus issues, including their gains and setbacks.

As such, make a point to meet with teachers for updates, and work on a plan together to ensure your child builds their attention and concentration skills in a positive way.

 

3. How to Focus on Homework

For most kids, school doesn’t end when the last bell rings. They often have homework they must complete by a deadline, too. 

For a child who has trouble focusing, sitting still, or concentrating, homework is the last thing they want to do after a day full of focused activities they probably found very difficult.

However, there are ways to help them focus and get it done. Here’s how to help your child concentrate on homework.

Eliminate Distractions

The more peaceful and distraction-free the environment, the better the chance your child has at zeroing in on their homework.

For starters, make sure the TV is turned off and phones are out of reach. Even if your child can hear the TV from where they’re working, that will more than likely make them lose focus.

Use a “Homework Station”

With the above tip in mind, it may be a good idea to set aside a special “homework station” in your home – a particular place where your child can sit down comfortably, spread out, and focus on getting their schoolwork done.

Ideally, this area should have a desk or table, a good source of light, and be located away from busy areas of the house. No tasks other than study and homework should happen here, so when your child sits down in the homework station, they’ll know it’s time to buckle down.

Tackle One Small Task at a Time

One mistake many parents make when helping their kids with their homework is spending too much time on a big task. 

Instead, break homework time into smaller pieces. For example, instead of doing one 30-40-minute homework session per week, try 10-minute sessions 3-4 times per week. You’ll accomplish much more in the shorter sessions, especially if your child is usually antsy, distracted, and procrastinating for much of the longer session.

This strategy is called chunking, or micro productivity.

Take Breaks

If you must do a longer homework session, remember to take breaks throughout. Implement 10-minute sessions of focus with 5-minute breaks between them. During this time, your child can get up, move around, have a snack, and relax. 

Adding breaks to homework time helps your child refresh and “get out the wiggles” so they can sit down and focus when needed.

Give Positive Feedback

When your child successfully focuses and completes their homework session, remember to offer praise and words of encouragement. A simple “good job!” will go a long way toward helping your child understand the importance of being able to sit down, focus, and complete what they set out to do.

 

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4. The Impact of Diet and Nutrition

Along with your child’s habits and environment, of equal importance for improving focus and attention are their diet and nutrition.

The food your kid eats fuels their body and mind, and may directly impact their behavior. 

Eat Breakfast Daily

According to a study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, eating a good breakfast each morning before school correlated with a positive effect on children's academic performance, particularly their math and arithmetic grades.

Nix Artificial Colors and Preservatives

In another study published in The Lancet, researchers found that artificial colors and specific preservatives in food (like sodium benzoate) increased hyperactivity in both 3-year-olds and 8-9-year-olds.

Reduce Sugar for Better Health Overall

Many parents point to sugar as a culprit for their kids’ unfocused, hyper behavior, but generally, studies don’t back that up.

A study published in Nutrition Bytes in the late ‘90s concluded the “available data” – past studies that observed the effects of sugar on children after they consumed it – were “unable to link sugar to either behavioral or cognitive dysfunction.”

In other words, sugar didn’t cause hyperactivity or inattention after children ate it. 

That said, sugar or sucrose is a high-calorie sweetener that has little to no nutritional value. Studies have shown a link between excess sugar consumption and cell aging as well as deficiencies in memory and cognitive functioning.

Finally, let’s not forget that another risk stemming from a high-sugar diet: diabetes, both type 1 and type 2. Diabetes can affect the brain in many ways, including decreased functional connectivity, which is how different brain areas that share functions communicate.

Too much sugar as a regular part of a child’s diet is dangerous. For better health, which can contribute to better focus, cut back on sugary snacks, drinks, and processed foods in your child’s diet.

 

5. Natural Remedies

Natural remedies may play a supporting role alongside other strategies for improving your child’s attention and focus.

These aren’t miracle cures, but rather additional ways to help center your child, promote good health, and improve their well-being. All of these things will make it easier for them to focus when they need to.

Natural remedies for better focus may include:

Let’s explore.

Vitamins and Supplements

The nutrients that are critical for a healthy brain in any person include vitamins and minerals like zinc, vitamin B, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, and magnesium. If your child has trouble focusing, try incorporating more foods into their diet that are rich in these nutrients, including:

  • Broccoli
  • Dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale
  • Oranges
  • Red peppers
  • Bananas
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Beef
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds (like pumpkin seeds)

If the foods they eat aren’t enough, supplements can help your kids get the nutrients they need, too. A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Look for trusted brands with the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) seal on the label – it’s a marker of a quality product made to certain high standards. 
  • Don’t forget to note the percentage of DV (daily value) for each nutrient in the supplement. If a brand promises more than 100% DV for a nutrient, skip it. Any nutrient in large doses can be toxic.

Meditation/Mindfulness

Mindful meditation isn’t just for adults. It turns out kids can benefit from the practice, especially if they have trouble with focus and concentration.

The deep belly breathing I recommended in section 1 is a great place to start. Calming the breath also helps calm the body and mind, and gives your child a chance to have a moment of stillness. This can help their thoughts settle and sharpen their focus.

There are lots of apps out there that can provide guidance on meditation for kids, too. Just a few include:

Yoga

Yoga is a practice that combines mindfulness and meditation with bodily movement. Many studies have found yoga to be effective at helping kids gain greater calm and focus, and even increased their self-esteem.

To get your child started with yoga, check to see if there are any kids’ yoga classes at your local fitness or rec center. You can also find beginner yoga videos on YouTube and follow along with them as a family.

Essential Oils

While there is little scientific evidence to back up the efficacy of essential oils for improving focus, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence in their favor.

Plants and their oils have been used for thousands of years for healing, health, and wellness. Besides, having another natural remedy in your toolkit for calming and centering your child isn’t a bad idea.

The most common way to use essential oils is to dilute them with water and diffuse them into the air. Breathing in the scent of certain oils (aromatherapy) can help your child feel calmer and more focused by activating smell receptors in the nose, which may trigger certain areas of the brain, including the emotional center (the limbic system).

Some essential oils that are known to help with focus include:

  • Lavender
  • Roman chamomile
  • Lemon or orange
  • Ylang ylang
  • Vetiver

You can buy essential oils at your local health food store. They’re also available online from various retailers.

 

6. Therapies, Exercises, and Games

If you’re looking for a concrete way to practice focus and concentration with your child, you’ve come to the right place.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Older kids with problems like lack of focus, impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity may benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of talk therapy helps kids examine their thoughts, behaviors, and feelings and encourages them to replace negative ones with positive connotations.

CBT is especially good at uncovering thought biases your child may have about themselves that contribute to low focus. This therapy helps your child change those negative patterns of thinking for the long term.

Usually, CBT is done with a licensed therapist, counselor, social worker, or psychiatrist. It’s also effective at treating mental disorders like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), ADHD, and sleep disorders.

To find a therapist who uses CBT as a treatment, consult with your doctor for recommendations. You can also search for therapists online on the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies website.

Art, Music, and Play Therapies

For children of all ages, therapies that use a hands-on approach can help improve issues like distraction, hyperactivity, inattention, and lack of focus. The most common include art, music, and play therapies.

  • Art therapy – Art therapy teaches children to focus on artistic techniques like painting, drawing and sculpting to help them learn to hone their concentration, clear their mind, and express themselves.
  • Music therapy – The rhythm and structure of music provide a solid framework for improving focus, attention, and clarity in a scattered and distracted mind. During music therapy, your child will learn to play music, but also play in collaboration with others and write songs – all activities that are beneficial to the brain in more than one way.
  • Play therapy – Play is an essential part of growing up for all children. For kids who struggle with focus, play is also a good way to explore their feelings and connect with others. During play therapy, play is used to redirect uncomfortable emotions and gives an outlet for others that would otherwise lead to bad behavior.

Biofeedback/Neurofeedback

Biofeedback is a therapy that teaches you to monitor and change physiological activity such as your breathing rate, heart rate, and muscle function. With this ability, you can return your body to a calm, optimal state even in stressful situations.

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that focuses on your brain waves. During a training session, your brainwaves are monitored using scalp sensors. A therapist uses this information to help you recognize when your brain is operating at the optimal level.

While it sounds complicated, kids as young as six have seen improvements in focus, attention, and memory after they completed neurofeedback therapy. Granted, this isn’t a one-and-done cure, but rather a supplementary treatment that should be used alongside other treatments.

Focus Games for Kids

Beyond therapies, there are additional games you can play with your child to promote focus, attention, and concentration. It’s a fun way to practice these skills without your child being any wiser.

A few simple ones you can do anywhere include:

  • I spy – Playing this game can teach your child to slow down and appreciate the world around them. The goal is to pinpoint one small element of the environment – for instance, a small yellow flower, a stop sign, or a puffy cloud in the sky – while the other person asks questions to guess what it is.
  • Safari walk – Go on a walk around your neighborhood or at the park. The goal of the game is to find as many bugs, birds, animals, and living things as they can. Anything that moves, flies, crawls, or swims is fair game.
  • Turn to stone – Ask your child to lay on their back and close their eyes. Tell them to squeeze and scrunch every single muscle in their body as hard as they can: eyes, face, arms, hands, legs, feet, etc. Tell them to imagine they’re turning to stone. Hold for a few seconds, then have them relax. This exercise is especially useful for when your child is feeling frustrated or angry, as it gives them an awareness of their body and where they might be holding tension physically.

Parent Training

Parents, don’t forget that you can train yourself to encourage focused behavior in your child and improve your bond with them.

Parent training helps you recognize and praise positive behaviors when you see them, ignore mildly negative behaviors, and address major misbehaviors constructively.

You can usually find parent training resources in your community. Check the local library, search online for parent training classes in your area, or ask your child’s counselor or teacher for recommendations.

 

Conclusion

Focus and concentration aren’t totally inherent qualities. Even if your child is constantly distracted, unfocused, and hyperactive, they still can build skills and gear their brains for better focus.

Every parent’s approach will look different because every child is unique. The strategies you use, therapies and exercises you try, and routines you implement are dependent on your home life, your child’s needs, and what will work best for your family. 

Finally, remember that no single technique is a cure-all. However, if you use a combination of strategies, you might find you have better luck and bigger improvements than relying on one alone.

Time, patience, and dedication are essential to improve your child’s attention and focus in any environment. If you don’t see changes at first, don’t lose heart. You’ve taken the first few steps to ensure your child has the skills to succeed no matter what life throws at them – keep going!

 


 

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Topics: focus
Morgan Koder

Written by Morgan Koder

Morgan graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013 with degrees in Economics and Political Science, and gradually realized her love for marketing during her extended pit stop in corporate sales. She joined Team Revibe in the Fall of 2018 because she knew it would feed her soul, not just her tummy. A wordsmith at heart, she loves communicating with Revibe’s customers through the marketing content that she produces. Outside of work, her love for writing and designing extends to making funny memes to keep her friends (and herself) laughing. She enjoys taking in the sights of the beautimous Mother Nature, dancing around at concerts, and just laying in a cuddle puddle on the couch with her pups during self-mandated Netflix marathons.

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