Long before I ever served as a school principal and mindfulness/SEL instructor I was an English teacher and soccer coach. When teaching and coaching my students I would often implore them to “pay attention” in the classroom and to “focus” on the soccer pitch. Whenever I saw a child in my English class drifting off with a blank look on his face during a test, I would say, “Johnny, you need to pay attention.” Similarly, when Suzie wasn’t paying attention during a soccer match and an opponent dribbled the ball right past her towards our goal, I would yell, “Come on, Suzie, I really need you to focus.”
In retrospect, I was naive doing this. We often tell the children in our lives to “focus” or “pay attention,” but they often do not know how to do so.
We mistakenly assume that they know how to pay attention on command. Similar to a my recent blog post on calming down, I would suspect that never in the history of paying attention has a child ever paid attention by being simply told to "pay attention."
The ability to focus on something or someone is an acquired skill. It is unrealistic for us to think that kids should be able to hone in on something without being taught. Furthermore, simply teaching them is not enough. They need constant practice on strengthening their ability to pay attention. It is one of those things “if you don’t use it, you will lose it.”
Our reliance on modern technology and our collective obsession with instant gratification pretty must assures that we live in a world of constant distraction. As a result, our attention spans have been shrinking exponentially. There have been countless amounts of studies over recent years that substantiate this.
The subjects of attention and sustained focus are highly subjective, as everyone has a different baseline. Individuals with attention deficit challenges are obviously going to require more interventions, practice, and patience (and possibly help from health professionals).
Below I offer a few ways to work on improving your child's attention span and focus skills. As always, experiment with it. Use what works. Throw out was doesn't. Not every suggestion works for everyone.
Ways for Improving Your Child's Attention Span and Focus Skills
1. Model for them. Show them what paying attention looks like. Some ways to do this: don't always have your smartphone out; look them in the eyes when you speak to them; don't multitask when engaging with them; teach them that the greatest gift they can give someone is their full attention.
2. Make sure they are getting adequate sleep. It is difficult for them to pay attention if they are tired. Make sure that they not only get enough sleep, but they also have a set routine for sleep. It is also beneficial to have them power down their devices at least one hour before bedtime. I's not a bad idea to have their bedrooms free of electronic devices during bedtime.
3. Feed them well. Having good "fuel for the tank" will improve their ability to focus. Stock up on nutrient-rich foods. These types of quality foods, as opposed to cheap processed foods, will enhance their ability to sustain attention longer.
4. Exercise. Physical activity can not be underestimated for the way in which it builds focus. Exercise triggers endorphins which improves prioritizing functions of the brain, allowing us to block distractions and concentrate on the task at hand. Get them moving.
5. Meditation. Meditation, by teaching us to fixate on one point at a time (breath, mantra, or object), teaches us how to focus and then how to refocus when our mind wanders. Over time, this skill helps us to increase our ability to pay attention for longer stretches of time. Essentially, it is cognitive control.
6. Organization. Teach them ways in which to get organized and to stay organized. Physical clutter leads to mental clutter, because a cluttered environment is conducive for multiple visual stimuli competing for our attention. Streamline their attention by getting rid of the clutter they don't need.
7. Reward them when they pay attention. Positive reinforcement works. No, you don't need to buy them a gift every time they pay attention! A simple but sincere, "I'm proud of you for focusing on this so well" goes along way.
8. Limit their screen time. A study by the American Heart Association in 2018 estimated that 8 to 18 year-olds spend more than seven hours a day looking at screens. I would suspect that number is even higher now. Not only does excessive screen time expose children to the increased likelihood of diminished physical and psychological wellness, it also can negatively effect their ability to sustain focus. As a result, the AHA recommends limiting their screen time to two hours per day. For younger children (ages 2 to 5), the AHA recommends one hour per day.
9. Teach them to plan ahead. It is difficult for any of us to pay attention well if we are in a hurry. Planning ahead cuts down on us having to rush around mindlessly. Teach them to be prioritize and plan by showing them how to use planners for their school work and calendars for their social activities. Showing them how to do little things like laying out their school clothes the night before or packing their basketball practice bag the night before will free up a lot of needless last minute hurry-up time, thus freeing up more of their mental energy to focus on the important tasks at hand.
10. Reading. In our accelerated culture, it seems we have largely gone from reading books for depth and breadth to surface skimming and scrolling on our devices. Research shows that reading improves our working memory and our concentration skills. Improve your child's focus skills by getting him or her to read more. I highly recommend "real books" over over ebooks or other electronic devices.
11. Listen to Understand. As Stephen Covey says, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Teach your child the important skill of mindful listening. Emphasize that it is difficult to fully pay attention to what someone is saying if we are always thinking about what our reply to them will be. Let your child know that communication is more effective if they listen to hear what the other person is saying before formulating a response. Learning to listen and then thinking before speaking in this manner will cultivate better sustained attention skills over time.
Please note, these practices are great for us adults, too! Please do not hesitate to contact me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.