How can I improve my child’s concentration?

All children are different and change according to their age and what is going on in their lives. Periods of emotional stress, discouragement and a busy lifestyle can leave them demotivated and unable to concentrate. At the same time, children naturally vary in their ability to concentrate and keep motivated. Your child’s ability to focus and do well is therefore a complex interplay of many factors.

Children’s attention span naturally increases with age. According to educational psychologists, a child’s attention span increases between 2 and 5 minutes every year. This means that a 5 year old should be able to stay focussed for between 10 and 25 minutes, and a ten year old twice that. If your child sometimes cannot concentrate for this long it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong, but that they may need some extra attention. If you child consistently cannot focus, no matter the task, they may be suffering from more serious concentration difficulties and should see an educational psychologist. In general, however, children can become easily distracted and ill-motivated, whether just for a specific subject, like maths, or school in general.

So how can you help make sure your child is able to stay motivated and concentrate on the tasks which matter?

Set a daily routine

Children who have difficulty concentrating or starting work do better if they know when it is expected of them. Learning to live according to a schedule will also help them cope with an increasingly busy life as they grow up. How this schedule is laid out will depend on your child and the activities that they take part in. Perhaps they work better as soon as they get home or later on after some recreation or sport. Try out different study routines to see which they are best able to cope with, and make sure it remains consistent.

Give your child choices in their daily lives

Allowing your child to choose increases motivation to stick with decisions and complete tasks because they are invested in how and why they are achieving a goal. This includes setting up their schedule and routine, what they would like to eat for breakfast and what clothes they would like to wear. Children are also more aware of when they can study best or what environment or learning styles suit them, and so may come up with solutions to problems which may not have been obvious to their parents or teachers. Play an active role in steering these decisions to keep you children productive, and they will learn independence in making the right choices in life.

Find out when your child is best able to complete certain tasks

Some people can concentrate better in the morning, others at night or after a meal. Monitor your child’s activity and concentration levels and try to fit their schedule to take this into account.

Use a clock or timer during study time

This will improve your child’s awareness of how long they have worked for and how much longer they need to go until they can have a break, helping them stick to a schedule and be more conscious of their attention span.

Try to discover which style of learning best suits your child

Not everyone learns in the same way, and this can be frustrating, discouraging and boring if not taken into account. Some people do better with different learning styles depending on the subject their mood or may prefer a combination of learning styles. Try to incorporate a range of these but focus on those with which your child does best. The major learning styles are:

  1. Visual (spatial): Uses pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  2. Aural (auditory-musical): Incorporates sound and music.
  3. Verbal (linguistic): Spoken and written words are more easily understood.
  4. Physical (kinesthetic): Prefer to use body, hands and sense of touch.
  5. Logical (mathematical): Learn best with logic, reasoning and systems.
  6. Social (interpersonal): Learn in groups or with other people.
  7. Solitary (intrapersonal): Work alone and use self-study.

Identify and incorporate your child’s interests into their work

The key to motivation and focus is interest in a task. Try and align subjects that a child is not interested in to projects and goals that do. This will help them see the practical relevance of a particular subject, and keep them motivated to complete their work. For example, if your child likes cars, explain to them how maths and science help us make cars, or if they like movies, how English will help them write scripts one day. It is also important that you put at least as much effort into helping them develop their interests and hobbies as you do subjects that they may not be showing particular zest for. Their interests are the tasks and subjects that they will always perform better in, will carry through to adulthood, and that will allow them to attain a happy, productive and successful career and life.

Praise effort, not just achievement

Praising your children when they behave well and focus, rather than scolding them when they don’t, is extremely important. People are much quicker to respond to positive than negative stimuli, and children are easily discouraged if they feel they are incapable of achieving results. At the same time, praising only achievement can lead children to become discouraged when they fail to reach their goal. Instead, encouragement and praise for effort appears to be the most important factor in teaching them to work hard and be resilient. Verbal praise and reward is often more important than gifts as they will start to believe that if there is no physical incentive for them to perform it is not worth it.

Teach them that failure is a part of learning

If children see failure as only a bad thing, reflecting on them as a person, they will quickly become discouraged, lose interest and motivation, and start to believe they are not good enough. This goes hand-in-hand with encouraging effort. If they are able to see that they did well on something because they worked hard, or didn’t because they procrastinated, they are more likely to correct the problem than just believe they aren’t good enough. Teach them an optimistic mind-set, focussing on solutions rather than worrying about setbacks.

Remove distractions during study time

These include TV, radio, video games, cell-phones, tablets, speaking and loud noises. Music can help with concentration, but should not be too loud, and depending on the genre, task and person, can enhance or retard focus. Research suggests that music is best for boring or repetitive tasks (like building a model or doing a collage for school) but silence is best during tasks that need a lot of brain power, like maths. Importantly, music without lyrics is best, as our brains naturally try to listen to any words around us, dividing attention.

Introduce short breaks during study time

Don’t expect study sessions to be too long between breaks. How often and how long will depend on your child, so experiment to see what works best for them. Let them do some physical activity, have a snack or play an educational game during the break. This will help them collect their thoughts, relax and recover some mental energy for the next session. Steer away from activities that can further exhaust concentration like TV and video games.

Keep things interesting

Change regularly between subjects that interest them and ones that don’t. Relate your child’s interests back to what they are working on. Try to incorporate games into their work, and encourage concentration games and exercises during free time.

Break down larger tasks into smaller goals

This will make seemingly impossible tasks easier and quicker to finish. The resulting feeling of accomplishment is key to motivation.

Identify why they are discouraged or not able to concentrate

One of the biggest contributors to poor focus and motivation is discouragement. Positive self-esteem and a ‘can-do’ attitude naturally result in better performance, but feelings of inadequacy or low mood lead to children believing there is no point in trying. Speak to your child and their teachers about why they might dislike a particular subject or even school in general. Once you better understand what is behind their low motivation or poor concentration it will be much easier to take steps to correct it.

Promote a healthy lifestyle

Mental and physical health are often thought of as separate, but they are highly interlinked. Poor health leads to tiredness, difficulty concentrating, stress, demotivation and more serious problems like depression.

  1. Focus on diet

Breakfast is important as it provides the brain with most of the energy it will use during the day. Focus on complex carbohydrates, healthy proteins and as many plant based sources of nutrients as possible. These will keep your child’s energy levels stable until their next meal, improve their immunity, mood and mental function. Contact dietician@mnilifestyle.co.za for healthy diet tips for you and your children

  1. Drink plenty of water

Many people are constantly dehydrated, which has an impact on their ability to concentrate.

  1. Encourage exercise and regular movement

Exercise benefits concentration, motivation and focus in many ways. It increases oxygenation in the brain, and positive neurotransmitters which improve mood and brain function. Exercise also increases energy levels and helps reduce restlessness and hyperactivity. Instead of watching TV or playing video games during study breaks, encourage children to do some physical activity.

  1. Ensure your child is getting enough sleep

Primary school children need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep, while teenagers need between 9 and 10 hours. Ensure regular bed time and wake up time are part of their routine or schedule. Minimize highly stimulating activities like TV or video games an hour before bed. Rather have them read, play with toys or board games, or do art before bed time. Getting enough exercise will also help them go to sleep easier.

  1. Use supplements

A few natural compounds have been shown to improve symptoms associated with ADHD, while causing few side-effects. Of these, two of the most effective are Rhodiola rosea (Roseroot) and inositol. Both of these ingredients are well backed by science are known to have positive effects on a range of factors associated with mental function.

Rhodiola rosea has been used for thousands of years in northen European countries to improve mood and combat stress. Recent research has uncovered its ability, in addition to these uses, to enhance mental function, memory and attention span, in part through increasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine in the brain. This is reflected in its wide use and recognition as an assistive therapy in Russia, Scandinavia, the UK and Sweden.

Inositol is a naturally occurring B vitamin which is present in the body and a number of food sources, especially fruit, beans and nuts. The molecule plays a role in a number of pathways in the brain, especially during the biosynthesis of norepinephrine. Low levels of inositol have been associated with some psychological conditions characterised by low mood, motivation and anxiety, and supplementation of inositol has been shown to alleviate these symptoms.

NeuroVance, a unique blend of the above scientifically endorsed plant-based ingredients, has been developed by The Medical Nutritional Institute to safely and effectively improve mental functioning. The individual ingredients (Rhodiola rosea, inositol, magnesium and zinc) target multiple biological pathways recognised to reduce stress, improve concentration and focus and promote calmness in both children and adults. As an assistive therapy, NeuroVance can therefore help to improve concentration, brain function and focus and assist you or your child in reaching your full potential.