Improve Focus and Attention in Kids
So, first of all, as I share with you this information, I want to be clear. I’m not trying to be clever, nor am I trying to diminish the real struggles that some families have with attention, focus, and anxiety. I am not at all saying you should “drink a glass of water!” and all your worries are gone, if you have debilitating anxiety.
But the fact is, there are many changes we can make to our lifestyle and daily habits, both at home and at school, that will help. That’s not how our society works, though, right? We want the quick fix, the instant gratification.
And, mental health and learning disability coping strategies and mechanisms are not a quick fix. They take practice. Even when they don’t work, we have to remind ourselves to try them again.
It is important for both parents and teachers to be aware of strategies to help with attention. This is one of the most common things I hear from teachers. “If only he could just focus!” or “I don’t know why she can’t pay attention!”
Well, there are many reasons and many disorders that lead to a child not being able to focus. Anxiety is a big one–they’re worried about something else.
There are a number of different techniques that can be used by most families. I strongly encourage you to keep an activity tracker or water drinking tracker in your kitchen, so that you can see if there is a correlation.
And there can be both correlation and causation. For example, we know that for kids with epilepsy, dehydration can trigger seizures. But if he’s having a bad day with seizures, I cannot just give K a glass of water and that will end it.
It’s part of a bigger picture–making sure he is hydrated all the time for fewer seizures. We know that dehydration is a trigger for him.
Activities to Improve Attention and Focus
These ideas can be used both at home and at school.
Providing Sensory Breaks-I always say “A child who needs a sensory break, is going to take a sensory break, whether or not it’s in their IEP.”
As adults, we take sensory breaks while we are working. Conference and workshop organizers regularly schedule breaks during sessions. Because they know people need a break! You can get more ideas below.
Reduce Visual Clutter-Teachers just love, love, love to decorate their classrooms. But studies show that a less decorated classroom actually helps kids focus better.
At the most basic level, it makes sense!
Hydrate-Hydration is much more important than many people realize. And, most of us don’t get in enough water each day. According to the Mayo Clinic, men should drink almost 4 liters a day, and women should drink 3. That’s a lot! That would put a child’s estimate at 1.5 to 2 liters a day, depending on their size, and I bet most are not drinking that much. Water helps with all organs, but especially the liver, kidneys, brain, and digestion.
Limit Screen Time-All parents say they want to limit screen time, but let’s be honest, many of us don’t enforce it the way we should. For most kids under High School age, it should be under 2 hours per day. I know I try “Screen Free Sundays” for myself and I always feel better when I do. Your kids will too.
Multi-Sensory Learning-When teaching a lesson or having the kids work on something involving all the senses. I basically spent all of my junior high and high school years sitting at a desk, being lectured to. Do they even still do that? No wonder we hated it.
Be Flexible-Alternative seating can help all of us. Workplaces now offer standing desks. Some corporate work teams meet for a walk in the park, instead of a conference room. Use a rocking chair, an exercise ball, or standing. It’s really uncomfortable to sit upright in a chair with feet flat on the floor, so why do we demand it? Just for compliance? That seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?
Food and Food Triggers-I decided to put this as one, instead of separating it out. First, kids cannot learn if they are hungry. If you are struggling with food insecurity, please seek help from the school. If your child needs a snack during the day, get it in the IEP or 504.
But then along those lines, some foods will help and some will harm. Processed foods, foods high in salt and sugar…all that stuff, will help decrease focus and attention. You want your kids to develop healthy eating habits. One salad won’t necessary help, but overall a healthy diet contributes to cognitive function.
And let me say, both my kids have ARFID, so I truly get it. It’s hard not to chuckle at the thought of my son eating almonds or spinach. But for the long term, healthy whole clean eating should be the goal. A child who regularly eats whole wheat toast and a hard-boiled egg is going to have better focus than one who eats Pop-Tarts. Again, please know that I am not food shaming and I understand and acknowledge that this stuff doesn’t happen overnight.
Self-Monitoring for Task Completion
Teaching students to self-monitor their behavior can help them stay on task. This means teaching them to recognize when they are off task and what they should do to get back on track.
Your child can also set up their own system of tasks and rewards. Sounds silly, but it can work. If I get X number of things done at my job, I allow myself to watch the Kardashians.
If a task is not done, work with your child to determine why. In IEP land, we often talk about preferred vs non-preferred activities. Ask your child why this particular task is non-preferred. It might be a lack of a skill set.
Technology Tools for Attention and Focus
There are a number of technology options that can be used to help students with disabilities stay focused and on task. These include apps, websites, and software programs. An example may be a timer app or noise-canceling headphones.
Mindfulness Activities for Kids– There are activities you can do like yoga, or just deep breathing, meditating, or counting. But time and again, more and more studies are showing that mindfulness works!
Attention span is a critical skill for students to have in an increasingly digital world. While some students may find it easy to focus and pay attention, others may struggle with staying on task.
There are strategies that both teachers and parents can use to help all students improve their attention span, including those with extra struggles like ADHD. While these techniques are not magic panacea, they will provide a student with a solid foundation for learning.
When you see a list like this, it’s easy to want to implement all the things right away. That is a sure recipe for failure. Try one at a time and implement it for several weeks before introducing another.
Try not to get discouraged if you get off track. I had a series of incidents that resulted in my getting pretty dehydrated and it was hard to get back on track. I could feel the tiredness and fatigue setting in but still couldn’t get out of the rut.
Remember that progress begets more progress.