By Nancy Hite, educational rehabilitator, movement and pediatric massage therapist for Dr. Bills Learning Center
The health and creativity of any child is based on emotional, functional and mental nourishment. As a parent, you can help provide that for your child. Paying attention and self-regulation (self-control) are two executive function skills necessary for any child to be successful in school and eventually in life. Many parents and teachers today are seeing children experiencing a more difficult time focusing and exercising self-control.
Although your children may face many distractions in their daily life, you as the parent have the power and responsibility to create a home environment that helps your child learn to better pay attention by taking some of the following easy steps.
Create a Study Space
- Set up a quiet space for study
- Organize all materials ahead of time
- Plan a specific time to do homework and consistently attend to it
- Plan and prioritize which assignments to do first: Hardest to easiest? Easiest to hardest? Favorite subject or least subject first? Find the plan that works best for your child.
- Use a timer to help your child self-monitor and evaluate his progress
This organization will help your child get an idea of where to begin and may alleviate the homework “tug-of-war.”
Add Movement to Study Time
Entertain the part of the brain that is fidgety so that your child will be ready to receive knowledge. I suggest using a stress ball to occupy the hands and brain, manipulating objects while reviewing spelling words, throwing a ball while saying the multiplication tables, or taking a walk to discuss a book being read.
Also, be sure to schedule frequent breaks to give your child’s brain an opportunity to integrate the material learned:
- When we’re concentrating, we often breathe more shallowly without realizing it. Have your child use the break to breathe deeply, imagining filling up a balloon inside the belly.
- Choose an object to have children follow with their eyes while not moving their head. This will help with eye contact and preventing eye strain if using a computer or tablet.
- Have your child stand up and do some basic stretches to stimulate the brain: Stand tall and evenly on both feet, then fold forward like a waterfall. Slowly stand back up and bend to the right and the left like a tree swaying in the wind. Finally, have the child sit quietly with eyes closed in the quiet study space to replenish the senses and build connections of learning in the brain.
Many children today have not learned to keep a “quiet brain” in self-directed play, so by limiting the amount of time spent watching TV and playing video games, you build opportunities for self-directed time as well as time with you to create the healthy relationship needed for proper brain growth. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 79% of parents place time limits on video game playing and 70% of parents put time limits on watching TV. Replace screen time with some of these activities:
- Read out loud together: You can read to your child or have him or her read to you or take turns.
- Take a walk, throw a ball, or go for a bike ride.
- Playing board games works on many executive function skills like turn taking, planning ahead, organizing, reasoning, problem solving in a logical way, and learning to be flexible in different tasks.
Eat to Focus
Pay attention to nutrition. With the business of life it is difficult to create home-cooked meals; however, try setting aside one day a week as “Cooking Day.” On this day, you and your child can work together on planning, shopping for, and cooking the upcoming week’s meals. These meals may be saved in plastic ware for the week, to be pulled out as you are running in or out the door.
When considering what foods to feed your child, limit the 3 F words: fried foods, fast foods, and fake food. Instead, choose omega 3 fatty acid-rich foods like salmon or tuna, eggs, nuts and seeds, fresh vegetables, and lean meats. Finally, limit excess sugar and sugar substitutes and replace it with natural sugars in fruits.
Studies have shown that children that eat breakfast improve their attention span. Choose high fiber, whole wheat carbohydrates and fruits for a substantial, brain-feeding meal.
Exercise (at Least) Once a Day
Besides controlling obesity and type 2 diabetes, studies have shown that exercise also benefits working memory, task switching, and focus. Play running games like tag and choose to climb stairs instead of taking the elevator. Go to the park and let kids play on the monkey bars to build strength. Have them join a team and build friendships while playing basketball, football, swimming, or soccer.
Children should be getting at least one hour of exercise a day—it can be broken up in spells of 15 minutes or more. Kids will gladly play a part if they are enjoying the activities they are participating in, so give them a variety to choose from and keep it fun.
Find time to just be together with your child with no other demands on your attention. Color a picture, listen to music, or look at nature. Prepare your child for potentially upsetting situations or changes in family structure or routines, which will create a solid sense of security during major life changes and challenges.
Parents and other caregivers who help children develop good attention and self-management skills prepare those children for success in school, test taking, and eventually life. With firm limits, predictable routines, and attention to movement, touch, and diet, you and your child are on their way to better FOCUS.