Attention is a precious and yet scarce resource. Moreover, ‘The quality of one’s life depends on the quality of one’s attention. Whatever you pay attention to will grow in your life and the rest withers’, said Deepak Chopra. Therefore, it is vital to learn how to maximise our attention and to use this essential and scarce resource intelligently.
To make an already tough job even more demanding, many children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, ASD, and Dyspraxia, have significantly less attention and are prone to distraction. Attention is critical in maximising children’s learning, their cognitive processes (language, information processing, memory, reasoning, problem-solving, planning, etc.), and their functioning.
Therefore, in this article, I have summarised several strategies that one can put in place to increase a child’s attention and concentration. Whilst there are volumes of books written on theoretical aspects of attention, I have shared here with you several practical strategies, that you can use to increase a child’s attention and focus.
#1. Educational Strategies
- Gain the child’s attention before you speak
- Give one instruction at a time
- Repeat your instruction if needed
- Ideally, give instruction in both written and verbal form
- Ask your child to repeat back your instruction to check their understanding
- Seat the child away from distractions, e.g. doors, windows, noisy radiators etc.
- In class, seat the child in front of the teacher rather than at the back of the class
- Where possible, seat the child at a table with a more focused child
- Keep distractions to a minimum
- Contrary to widely held belief, allowing the child to have a fidget toy or a stress ball, aids attention
- Divide big assignments into smaller chunks
- Schedule 5-10-minute movement breaks between each lesson
- Allow the child to move around or stretch where possible
- Avoid repetitive activities. Give frequent breaks or shift some activities
- Vary the type of activity to maximise attention
- Schedule the most challenging/important concepts earlier in the day
- Have a visual planner/visual schedule
- Write a schedule for the day on a whiteboard, where possible
- Set clear expectations and realistic goals
- Have discrete gestures to remind the child to focus
- Praise their efforts
- Set small achievable targets
- Reward their behaviour with sticker charts or age-appropriate rewards
- Catch them often while they are good
- Celebrate their achievement.
- Provide them with support and encouragement to boost their confidence
- Think creatively about making the activity/learning enjoyable and fun
- Predictable background noise or music might be better than complete silence while doing their homework
#3. Organisational Strategies
- Keep child’s desk/working table uncluttered
- Boost their organisational abilities by providing them with checklists, and to-do lists
- Help them to be organised by having things ready for an activity such as pencils, pens, erasers, calculator etc.
- Give them colour coded folders
- Set reminders for collecting kit, homework or doing project work
- Avoid the need for multitasking. Stick to one task at a time
- Improve their focus with a step-by-step approach
- Involve them in planning and reviewing the above strategies
- Keep practising, as the repeated practice is the key to success
#4.Maximise exercise and sport
Regular movement breaks help improve attention and focus. Maximise the child’s opportunities to get exercise. Encourage participation in sport. Exercise and participation in sport are shown to improve attention and concentration. Intense aerobic exercises have been shown to enhance the brain’s functioning and improve children’s attention and concentration. Activity and exercise may involve, walking to school, involving them in the tasks/chores, a jog around the neighbourhood/playground, trampolining, going to the gym, or participation in a sports activity of their choice.
#5. Ensure adequate sleep
Inadequate sleep and sleep deprivation are well known to impair attention, working memory and vigilance. Chronic sleep deprivation can reduce cognitive performance by increasing distractibility and impairing a child’s ability to focus. Ensuring adequate sleep for a child facilitates their ability to process and retain information. You can read more about addressing sleep difficulties in a child .
#6. Diet and hydration
Eating regularly throughout the day helps in improving attention, possibly by maintaining steady levels of glucose and energy. There are several studies that have shown that artificial colourings and preservatives, such as sodium benzoate can cause a small but significant increase in children’s hyperactivity. Therefore, minimising major sources of artificial colouring and additives would help.
A study published in PLoS One in 2019, showed that increasing the quantity of water drank improved educational outcomes through the effect of hydration on attention, concentration, and short-term memory. Other studies have shown that dehydration of 2% or more body mass loss can increase the perception of fatigue, induce impairment in cognitive functions such as memory and attention. Therefore, eating at regular intervals throughout the day and not skipping meals, and staying well hydrated improve attention and concentration.
#7. Meditation and mindfulness
Mindfulness is a mental mode where attention is paid to the present moment without emotional reactivity or judgement. A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2018, showed that even brief mindfulness meditation improved attention. Research has also shown that mindfulness training improves executive functioning of the brain. In children, mindfulness activities may involve helping them to focus on their breathing or colouring a picture mindfully in a peaceful environment.
#8. Planned and conscious use of technology
New technologies can provide excellent learning opportunities. However, prolonged, indiscriminate use of technology and screen time have been shown to affect memory, attention, and sleep cycles. Some studies have suggested that prolonged use of the Internet is contributing to short attention spans and poor memory.
On the other hand, one can harness the potential of technology to improve attention and memory by giving access to memory games, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, and brain training games. Mobile phones and computers can also be used to set reminders, alert usage, and monitor a child’s screen time to their benefit.
#9. Behavioural Management
Managing a child’s behaviour through behaviour modification strategies will help in increasing their desired behaviours, such as paying attention and task completion. There is always a reason for every behaviour. And every behaviour is a function of an unmet need. Therefore, using the ‘ABC Model’ to understand a child’s behaviour can help you in addressing any undesired behaviours. You can find out more about the top 10 strategies for managing behavioural problems.
Identifying children’s stressors and dealing with their worries and emotions would prevent these issues from contributing to a child’s inattention and distraction. Tackling these root causes of behaviour can help build a child’s confidence and make them feel supported and understood. Doing so will also boost their sense of belonging and improve their self-esteem.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3 or not synthesised in human beings and are required in our diet. There are studies to show evidence of some benefit of omega-3 supplementation in reducing ADHD behaviours. However, I would discourage prolonged use of these supplements. There is also some evidence to show that Iron and Zinc supplementation may help reduce ADHD symptoms in children who are deficient in these minerals or are at high risk of deficiency. However, there was no evidence to show the effectiveness of Iron, Zinc and Magnesium supplements in reducing ADHD symptoms in children who were not deficient.
There is evidence to show that caffeine acts as a mild stimulant to the central nervous system and consequently, helps improve alertness and attention. I am not suggesting that young children should be given caffeine to promote their attention. Nevertheless, some adolescents may feel helped by a cup of green tea, black tea, a piece of dark chocolate or a cup of coffee. It is claimed that foods such as eggs, spinach, and blueberries boost attention span. In summary, there are several supplements that are sold and used to improve attention. However, there is no evidence of the efficacy of many of these supplements.
#11. Seek professional help
All the above strategies should help address attention difficulties and reduce easy distractibility in a child. However, should the above-mentioned non-medical measures fail to address your child’s attention difficulties fully, then you should seek professional help. Medical conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disability, developmental delays, vision, or hearing impairment can be the underlying cause of the child’s attention difficulties. A neurodevelopmental paediatrician will be able to assess and manage these conditions.
Medical conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disability, developmental delays, vision, or hearing impairment can be the underlying cause of the child’s attention difficulties. These difficulties and much more can be found out after undertaking a detailed neurodevelopmental assessment. You can find out more about neurodevelopmental assessments in my blog 10 aspects of a neurodevelopmental assessment.
As you can see from the above, attention is the first and crucial step in a child’s learning, memory, and cognition. Therefore, we do not have the luxury not to pay our attention to addressing inattention in children. The above mentioned non-medical, but well-proven strategies can be effective in promoting attention and concentration in any given child. Having correct focus and attention can help a child to realise their potential and achieve fulfilment and happiness.
Further reading & references
- Emerging support for the role of exercise in attention deficit hyperactivity. Berwid OG et al. Curr Psychiatry Rep Oct 2012; 14(5): 543-551
- Nutritional supplements for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Bloch MH et al. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Clin N Amer Oct 2014.
- The impact of water consumption on hydration and cognition school children. Chard AN et al. PLoS One. 2019.
- Gada S. Community Paediatrics. Oxford Specialist Handbook in Paediatrics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978 0 19 969695 6. Published Sept 2012.
- Behavioural Management: https://www.drsrigada.co.uk/top-10-strategies-to-manage-behaviour-problems-in-children-with-autism-and-adhd/
- Sleep Difficulties: https://www.drsrigada.co.uk/sleep-difficulties-in-children-with-autism-and-adhd-how-to-address-them-effectively/