Concentration is like a muscle that requires regular exercise to strengthen. Some kids are born “stronger” in this area than others, but all kids can learn strategies and engage in practices that help improve their ability to focus and sustain their attention. This is, after all, a very important skill for kids to acquire—school demands that students concentrate for long stretches of time, and as kids get older they have extracurricular activities after school that require even more concentration. Most children are able to concentrate on activities that are fun and intrinsically enjoyable. It’s the ones that are more boring, difficult or just less enjoyable that really challenge their focus. Yet this ability to concentrate and sustain attention on all kinds of tasks is crucially important, because it helps kids learn and improve, which leads to self-confidence and positive self-esteem.
Concentration is a lot like mindfulness, a concept that has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately in psychology and in popular culture. Mindfulness is basically the ability to pay attention to one thing in the moment, and it has been shown to have innumerable mental health benefits, from increased happiness and stress management to improved academic and test performance. For mindfulness to work, you have to focus.
Here are some tips to help your kids build their concentration muscles:
- Set aside a reasonable amount of time for your child to practice focusing on a specific task. Young children (age 4-5) can usually concentrate for somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes, depending on the task—less time with novel and challenging tasks, and more time with those intrinsically enjoyable activities.
- Do one thing at a time. We may praise the ability to multitask in our adult lives, but the research is clear: multitasking reduces concentration and diminishes our performance. In line with the concept of mindfulness, do one thing at a time in this one moment. For very young children, you might simply sing the alphabet together while looking at the letters. For children who are a little older, say 4th grade, you can complete one long division problem at a time together. Don’t look ahead at all the other problems, just focus on one at a time.
- Set aside homework time and space. Because multitasking impairs concentration, it’s important to reduce extraneous distractions. For example, do homework at a designated desk or table in a quiet room with the TV off, the phone in another room, and the laptop shut unless it’s needed to complete a homework assignment. Parental monitoring programs can automatically shut down Internet access after a set amount of use. As kids get older, parents can shift to using self-monitoring software so teens can independently manage their time. This way kids don’t get sucked into a time vortex on Instagram or Snapchat.
- Build in planned breaks. Kids need to get up, move around, and do something different and not too taxing after spending some time concentrating. They will benefit from taking some time to rest and recharge, especially during after-school homework time. Younger children can take a snack or play break, and teens can take the opportunity to check out their friends’ posts or text with peers.
- Practice belly breathing. Steady, diaphragmatic breathing slows our heart rate and clears our mind so we can concentrate. This is an important skill for kids to have when they’re confronted with challenging tasks, which can make them anxious and spike their heart rate. Anxiety leads to avoidance, the opposite of concentration. So finding ways to make tasks more approachable is important, and calming the body is one of those strategies.
- Break big tasks down into smaller, more manageable pieces. This is another strategy for helping children to approach a challenging task. If your child is learning to tie her shoes, make the first goal to master the initial knot, then move on to making two loops with the strings until she knows exactly how to do that, and so forth. Another “piecemeal” strategy for building concentration is to use a timer to help kids organize themselves, e.g., “Here’s a book about horses. I’m going to set this timer for 15 minutes, and I want you to write down as many facts about horses as you can in this time.”
- Practice observing things in the moment. Kids can be distracted by “internal stimuli,” like physical sensations or entertaining memories. While a child’s imagination is a wonderful thing, we also want them to be able to clear away distractions and build the ability to concentrate. You can play “I spy with my little eye…” and take turns making observations of various objects in the room, listen closely to the lyrics of a song together, or do some yoga poses and pay attention to how it feels in the body.