School: Sit. Study. Sit. Study. After school: Scheduled organized activity. Sit. Study. It is no wonder our children and teens have difficulty focusing when nearly their entire day is centered around sitting and staring at chalk boards, computers, phones and televisions. And when they aren’t being occupied by screens they are scheduled from morning until evening. What I can tell you is this – no healthy child will be able to focus and concentrate for an extended amount of time when their growing brain is not allowed downtime necessary for normal development.
What stimulates creativity? Boredom. But children are no longer given the opportunity to be bored. What stimulates concentration? Relaxation. But children are no longer given the opportunity to be relaxed. In my article, You Set The Pace For Life I write about the need for unstructured time. What does this have to do with focus? It is the board from which concentration springs. Regardless if your child is diagnosed with ADHD or not all children need to learn to flex the muscle of concentration. It takes practice and it takes work and it takes the right environment. So let me share with you what you can do to feed an atmosphere of focus.
Eat For Focus: Many studies point to diets low in Omega-3 fatty acids as a reason for the inability to focus. Diets high in sugar also contribute to a lack of attentiveness. Why? Omega-3’s calm the nervous system. A calm nervous system allows for a calm mind – one that is not easily distracted by extraneous stimuli. As for sugar it gives an output of extra energy and then sends us on a sharp crash. When your blood sugar is uneven so is your mood and ability to focus. What can you eat? Wild caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, ground flax seeds, walnuts, and pastured eggs. Do your child a favor and steer clear of refined sugar, caffeine (you know the reason for this – a child who has extra mental and physical energy does not need a stimulant) and processed foods.
Move For Focus: Exercise is a natural antidepressant. Depressed and anxious individuals have difficulty focusing because they are consumed by worries and intrusive thoughts. When your teen exercises his/her body releases endorphins, which act like a natural morphine that make him/her feel energized, relaxed and happy. When you feel this way you are able to stay in the present which is the antithesis of anxiety. A relaxed mind is a focused mind and there is no better route than getting the body moving. Let it be yoga, running or dancing. Whatever works for your family. And you don’t have to commit a ton of time. At least 20 minutes a day should do the trick.
Sleep For Focus: There is a school of thought out there that says children should lead themselves into their sleep routine. There is also a school of thought that says you should allow children to cry it out and not attend to their needs. I adamantly disagree with both. Children need a responsive sleep routine. It is up to the parent to set the bedtime and the routine that works best for their family and then be consistent in laying the foundation night after night after night. Rather than let a child cry it out, which only releases cortisol throughout the body and makes your little one less likely to fall asleep; go to their room to comfort and ease them. The idea is you are helping your children feel relaxed in their room versus your room. Sleep is essential to sound mental health. In fact, a significant symptom in anxiety, depression and ADHD is too much sleep, too little sleep or a fractured sleep schedule. Think about how you feel after a poor night’s sleep. Now imagine a small child or growing teen who biologically requires more sleep – how well will they be able to keep their behavior, emotions and focus together when working on very little sleep? If you are concerned about your child’s sleep routine, please check out this article: 5 Natural Ways To Establish Healthy Sleep Routines For Your Child.
Reduce Tech For Focus: Many adults understand the concept of “popcorn brain.” We are constantly distracted by social media, emails, and our ever present cell phones so much so that we check repeatedly all. day. long. First, if we want our children to focus we need to role model concentration. Multitasking while sometimes necessary is the opposite of focus. We have to show children how to accomplish one task and one task only at a time. We do this in part by removing technology. We show the child what are acceptable boundaries for tech use in our homes, which for most means none at family dinners, during homework time and two hours before bedtime. Tech not only distracts but it keeps our brain wired for fast pace movement. An article in Psychology Today highlights a perfect example: “Technology conditions the brain to pay attention to information very differently than reading. The metaphor that Nicholas Carr uses is the difference between scuba diving and jet skiing. Book reading is like scuba diving in which the diver is submerged in a quiet, visually restricted, slow-paced setting with few distractions and, as a result, is required to focus narrowly and think deeply on the limited information that is available to them. In contrast, using the Internet is like jet skiing, in which the jet skier is skimming along the surface of the water at high speed, exposed to a broad vista, surrounded by many distractions, and only able to focus fleetingly on any one thing.”
Play For Focus: Study after study points to unstructured play time as the answer to so many of American children’s ills. The January 2005 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine explains it best. Burdette and Whitaker wrote on the importance of free play and they argue “that free play promotes intellectual and cognitive growth, emotional intelligence, and benefits social interactions. They describe how play involves problem solving which is one of the highest executive functions.” They go on to report “children plan, organize, sequence, and make decisions.” In addition, “play requires attention to the game and, especially in the case of very young children, frequent physical activity. Unstructured play frequently comes from or results in exposure to the outdoors. Surveys of parents and teachers report that children’s focus and attention are improved after outdoor physical activity and free play and some small studies suggest that time spent outdoors improves focus in children with ADHD.”
Pressure is off parents. Do less and your child will focus more. Less scheduled activities, less sugar and processed foods, and less technology. The more is easy because it is more of what we all want: more exercise, more family dinners, more healthy food and more quality sleep. In the middle of less and more your children will find their focus.