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How to Get Kids to Focus

Judy Willis | Aug 8, 2016

Thinking Girl

Expert: Judy Willis

Judy
Willis
Aug 8, 2016

The ability to focus attention is a powerful brain attribute for school and life success. Children who can focus have a greater likelihood of achieving self-reliance, gaining self-motivation, building reading skills, establishing strong interpersonal relationships, and persevering in the face of difficulties.

The great news is that you can boost this skill in your children as part of their daily lives. And the even better news – it’s free and easy. You don’t have to add extra tasks, assignments, or purchase products. And you can do it while having fun with the whole family.

How the brain builds attention focus

The ability to focus and sustain attention resides in the brain’s highest cognitive powers called executive functions, Neuroscience shows. Executive functions are skills directed by the region of the brain just below the forehead, called the prefrontal cortex. In addition to being the control centers for attention focus, these networks manage human’s highest levels of thinking, remembering, reasoning, planning, organizing, evaluating, regulating emotions, communicating, problem solving, and creative innovation.

Children aren’t born with developed executive functions, but they are born with the potential to develop them. During childhood and adolescence the brain goes through a developmental spurt during which these networks grow at a profoundly rapid rate. What’s more, during these years of rapid construction, these neural networks are at their stage of greatest responsiveness. That means that the things you do to boost them will be particularly effective.

Here’s how it works. Information and skills are held in the brain in networks or circuits of connected neurons. Each neuronal cell holds a tiny bit of the information.  Communication through and stimulation amongst a circuit of neurons becomes a memory or directs a physical action. What makes a memory or skill circuit strong is not an individual neuron, but rather the strength and efficiency of the connections joining each neuron to the next.

Neuroplasticity is the process that progressively strengthens these neuronal communication networks. Through harnessing this power of neuroplasticity you can help your children build their strong attention focus and other executive functions. The way neuroplasticity works is similar to how exercise builds your muscle bulk. Each time a brain network is activated, such as recalling a memory or practicing a procedure, its communicating connections become stronger, thicker, faster and more powerful.

You help boost your children’s brainpowers of attention focus by simply providing them with opportunities to use them!

Follow their Interests to Build Attention Power

As early as preschool, many of the skills that allow children to control their attention focus and demonstrate classroom success are evident in the happiest and most engaged children. These skills include the ability to listen, follow directions, wait their turns, concentrate on tasks, and resist distractions. Following your children’s lead and interests can boost the development of these powerful skills.

A 2016 study reported by C. Yu and colleagues in Current Biology revealed that babies are influenced by their parents’ attention behaviors. Babies (11-13 months) maintained attention focus longer on objects when their parents followed their leads and stayed attentive to the object the babies chose.

Not surprisingly, attention skills especially increase when children use them in motivated learning activities – things or skills they want to learn. A study by M. Rueda and colleagues published in Developmental Neuropsychology in 2005, evaluated children ages 4-6. The children who participated in learning experiences both of personal interest and requiring sustained attention, displayed enhanced brain activity in the region of their brain’s developing executive function networks. Along with the increase in brain activity, the children who had the attention-building and technique learning experiences, scored higher on general cognition.

Although the study was small, the researchers suggested that experiences engaging children’s high interest and requiring their attention focus for enjoyable and desirable skill-building, could help strengthen their attentional networks.

Build Interests as Pathways for attention focus to follow

You don’t have to enroll your four-year old in formal art classes to provide opportunities that captivate interest and sustain attention. Start early and continue to provide your children with exposure and experiences that expand their imaginations and interests. Engaging with your children in different ways of exploring and learning provides the gift to discover things of personal interest.

Although children can be attentive to passive screen time, experiences that do not activate their thinking will not build attention focus. Watch carefully as you share books on a variety of topics, take them to different parks, model your variety of friends and help them enjoy a diversity of friendships and play activities, to be alert for evidence of their high interest. Particularly note that which holds their attention the longest in situations where they display building skills, talents, interpersonal collaboration, problem solving, and creative innovation.

Provide opportunities for your children to build a variety of interests and pursue them through enjoyable learning-related experiences. These experiences build their attention focus through intrinsic motivation by building skills or understanding they want to have. Prime their attentive interest in new learning or a new type of experience (puzzle, walking trail, meal preparation, museum, etc.) with expectations from the beginning about how it connects to the interests or activities they have enjoyed before. Motivated attention focus will follow their interests and the curiosity you ignite.

When your children are in school you can increase their attentive focus to topics of new learning by tapping into your prior knowledge of their interests and enjoyable past experiences. Use these to build positive emotional connections to the topic. Read aloud something curious or interesting about the subject or relate personal or family stories to prime their interest and boost their subsequent attentive focus to the topic or learning activity.

RELATED: Eight Ways to Bring Mindfullness into Your Family

Activities to Build Their Attention Focus

Even the games and activities you share regularly with your children are powerful opportunities to help build focus. Engage with your children in slow observations – like following the clouds moving in the wind, jet contrails, or a snail slowly moving in the yard.

Instead of regular ball catch games, share slower paced balloon tossing. Draw a windy chalk trail with two lines that they can walk between if they are focused. They can make marks along the trail each time they make it further “between the lines” surpassing times before. Follow the leader with subtle or precise movements mixed in with the grander ones mix fun and focus.

Concentration and focus build when children like Find Waldo, or the 5 differences between the two pictures, find mommy in the photo of her school graduation, find someone wearing green shoes on a walking trail, or watch out the window to find two birds or butterflies together.

Play games where children need to think or wait before following their first response like Simon Says or Red Light-Green Light build their skills of delaying immediate responses. These prepare them for the attentive skillsets they will need to wait for their turns or share objects and adult attention.

Joyful Learning

Providing opportunities for your children to build attention through activated interest in wanting to learn or build a skill is a precious gift. When you set the stage for them to want the knowledge or skills, they are then in the ideal state for motivated, attentive learning. Now they have the boost to their executive function brainpowers to succeed in school and far beyond.

 

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Expert: Judy Willis

About the Author

Judy Willis
University of California, Santa Barbara

Dr. Judy Willis combined her 15 years as a board-certified practicing neurologist with ten subsequent years as a classroom teacher to become a leading authority in the neuroscience of learning. Dr. Willis has written seven books and more than 100 articles for professional journals applying neuroscience research to successful teaching strategies and travels nationally and internationally giving presentations, workshops, and consulting while continuing to write books and staff expert blogs for NBC News Education Nation, Edutopia, Psychology Today, and The Guardian.