As I write I’m very aware of my drifting concentration. Urgent thoughts pop into my head – did I return that letter to Kate’s school, I need to buy flights for Christmas before they rocket in price, will I get soaked on the way home . . . I swipe these distractions aside and try to maintain my focus – but it’s not easy. Concentration is the raw ingredient that gets stuff done, but being able to concentrate is far from straight forward – it’s an illusive quality that’s hard to conjure at will – even for adults who are more self-aware and have access to fresh coffee!
Now consider our young children, they need to concentrate too but they’re not as self-aware and have little control over their environment. In this article I’ll be discussing concentration in children – why it’s important and some things we as parents can do to promote it.
What’s the Big Deal about Concentration?
The education system has its cycles of what’s in or out of fashion - it always has and probably always will. Surprisingly concentration rarely surfaces as a skill or quality that warrants fostering alongside the likes of communication, imagination, confidence, creativity, group work . . (all important too!) . . This is surprising because although classroom teaching styles have evolved a lot over the past thirty years – less of the chalk and talk we suffered – the exam system hasn’t changed one bit – and here concentration is everything. And if, like us, you live in an area that has academic selection for grammar schools you will be more aware than most of the importance of concentration in preparing your child for a crucial hour long exam.
How Parents Can Help
We sometimes forget that our children spend all day in a class of thirty other kids where individual attention is in short supply. This means your child will probably get more one-to-one attention from you at home during homework time than all day at school. We can have a big impact at home on education and we can do much to ensure better concentration. Here are some aspects of your child’s life that influence their ability to concentrate:
An obvious easy-win in the concentration battle is getting enough sleep. As this BBC article suggest we’re talking about 10 to 12 hours per night for a child of 5 for 11. Establishing a bed-time routine always helps and makes an early bedtime easier to implement.
I mentioned earlier that as adults we’re more “self-aware”. Of course this is wishful thinking – adult or child, we’re all emotional beings and more often than not we’re completely unaware of being driven by our emotions. When it comes to concentration nothing gets in the way more than worry – so if your child is worried about something find time to talk it through with them. It may be pretty trivial and easy to resolve but if it’s persistent and happening in school consider talking to the teacher.
Diet and Water
I think we all agree that a balanced diet helps maintain concentration – after all if your child is hungry or fizzing with sugar they’re unlikely to be thinking straight. There are a few foods that are worthy of a special mention:
- Oat Cereals, such as porridge, release their energy slowly – so breakfast keeps children going through to lunch. The opposite is true for sugary cereals – so ditch the sugar puffs and coco pops! Confession here – my kids recently rejected their porridge for weetabix but it worked while it lasted!
- Omega Fish Oils – If your child has issues concentrating or is coming up to an important exam I’d consider this supplement simply because it’s cheap, harmless and there’s growing evidence supporting the benefit to concentration and learning.
Water is very important to the brain and dehydration has a clear impact on concentration. This is something we often consider only in summer time but it’s really worth ensuring your child is hydrated in winter too. Most schools are on top of this, but if not a tap-filled water bottle is an easy answer – annoyingly my son’s new secondary school believes drinking water is best delivered via the caterer’s vending machines!
Several research studies point to exercise being beneficial to school children’s concentration. This study from Denmark even suggests walking to school – as opposed to driving - improves concentration and the effect last all morning. Aside from the obvious health benefits of exercise it’s useful to know that it’s good for concentration too. Sending the children outside to play for 15 minutes during a long homework could be a win-win situation.
Rest and relaxation is of course important for concentration – so balance home learning with down-time. Personally I’m a little concerned that some forms of down-time such as console games are actually exhausting in terms of concentration. I’m thinking particularly of my son’s post-gaming lull in attention which usually takes thirty minutes or more to shake off. I’ll come back to this in another article.
Distraction and Focus
For younger children the kitchen table is the ideal place to do homework - because you are are likely to be around to help - but it’s worth remembering that TV, radio and even telephone conversations can be distracting. As learners reach ten or older and become more independent consider a desk in their bedroom or another room and best not to allow devices during homework time. Also try asking them to set a target time to complete the work - this can help them focus.
Concentration as a Good Habit
By setting up the environment and conditions for learning at home and instilling the idea that learning is important we can improve concentration. If we do this consistently then it becomes a good habit - and perhaps even a lifelong one.
By Ged McBreen co-founder of Komodo & mathematics teacher
Komodo’s little-and-often approach to learning maths uses short regular practice sessions ( 10 minutes 3 to 5 times per week ) that fit into the busy home routine. It’s designed to develop fluency in maths in a way that’s effective and rewarding – without keeping children at the screen.