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After years spent in different sectors of the education system, one thing I know for sure is that concentration in children doesn’t always come easy. Lack of focus and concentration is one of the issues most teachers struggle with; It is also one of the issues many parents struggle with.
Before I begin, here’s an outline of what this article will cover:
- Signs of poor concentration in children
- How to help your child learn to focus and concentrate better
- Some of the common causes of children’s inattention
- 18 easy tips to improve your child’s focus, concentration and self-regulation skills
- Toys and games that can help improve your child’s attentiveness
- Alternative natural options to increase your child’s focus and concentration
You’ll also get a free downloadable copy of 40 memory cards you can use to help your child work on their focus.
What does poor concentration look like in children
If you are dealing with a child who is unable to concentrate, then you know what lack of focus and concentration looks like. Your child may:
- Be unable to or struggle to follow through on things (homework, tasks, etc.). A child who lacks concentration is also likely to have mastered the art of procrastination.
- Quickly lose interest in games and activities
- Rarely finish or take too long to finish assignments (you may hear frequent complaints from their teacher about their inattentiveness)
- Constantly need to be stimulated. For example, a child with low focus and concentration may be unable to stay concentrated on one activity for even brief moments and may keep changing activities at dizzying speeds.
- Be a daydreamer
- Be disorganized and unable to find their things
- Be easily distracted. The may set off to do something then end up doing something completely different because they forgot what they were supposed to be doing
- Appear to suffer from memory-loss
- Appear to never put in any effort
- Be unable to remember even the simplest instructions
- Have learning difficulties due to their inability to adapt to the school setting
Starting school is a major transition and although it can be an exciting moment for both children and their parents, it is also a moment that has its fair share of challenges. We now know that how well your child can navigate this transition largely depends on self-regulation. Several studies have found that a child’s ability to develop self-regulation skills determines their ability to create successful social interactions. Self-regulated learners:
- are better able to resist distractions and remain focused on the task at hand
- demonstrate a higher sense of self-efficacy
- are more likely to be school ready
- have a greater sense of well-being
- encounter greater academic achievement even beyond the childhood years.
Teaching kids to listen, focus, follow instructions, keep rules in mind and practice self-control
Adele Diamond, a well-known Professor whose studies have focused on self-regulation, argues that children should be taught to:
1. Develop self-control, i.e., they should learn to do what is appropriate rather than what they want to do.
2. Develop the working memory, i.e., they should be helped to hold information in memory while mentally incorporating new information.
3. Develop cognitive flexibility, i.e., they should learn to think outside the box.
Diamond believes that teaching self-regulation skills can help improve children’s concentration and focus. These skills can help your child learn to follow instructions and persist even when they encounter enormous challenges. Other studies have found that self-regulated children are able to listen, pay attention, think, then act.
Everything you need to know to help your child focus and concentrate better
“My child won’t concentrate on anything” is a rather common parenting complaint. While a child’s inability to focus is usually a common cause of concern, all children are easily distracted and generally have shorter attention spans than adults. They are more curious and more easily distracted when they feel little interest for the tasks and activities they are asked to do.
Children’s concentration tends to improve as they grow older and develop their self-control skills. That said, some children struggle more with focusing and resisting distractions. The problem with children’s lack of attention is that it contributes to their learning and to their day to day lives.
So first let’s look at what may be behind your child’s inability to pay attention.
Some of the common causes of children’s lack of focus and concentration
1) Anxiety may be the reason your child can’t concentrate
Anxiety is a common but often ignored cause of inattention among children described as “unfocused”, and this actually makes perfect sense. It is not uncommon for anxiety to “block” your child, meaning that listening to and following instructions may be more complicated for such a child. Your child’s separation anxiety or worry about doing something wrong at school or even embarrassing or humiliating themselves may mean that they are more likely to have difficulty paying attention.
2) Insufficient sleep has an impact on your child’s ability to concentrate
It is a well-known fact that poor sleeping habits have a negative impact on children’s focus and concentration. If you think that your child’s lack of sleep may be behind their inability to focus, ensure that they are getting the appropriate number of hours of sleep every night or taking a mid-day rest if they need to.
The sleep foundation recommends that:
- 1 to 2 year olds need 11 to 14 hours of sleep
- 3 to 5 year olds need 10 to 13 hours of sleep
- 6 to 13 year olds need 9 to 11 hours of sleep
- 14 to 17 year olds need 8 to 10 hours of sleep
3) Lack of routines
Routines are very important in childhood because they provide your child with “a certain way of doing things”. A lack of routine brings uncertainty, and this may be responsible for their lack of concentration. Adopting even a simple routine such as “as soon as you get home, you take your snack, do your homework for 20 minutes, then watch TV for 20 minutes” helps give your child a framework than can help reduce their lack of focus.
4) Inappropriate diet
While it is impossible to accurately determine how sugar (candy, sodas, cereals, snacks, etc.) impacts your child’s behavior, we now know that a moderate consumption of sugar is better for children. This means paying attention to what your child eats and privileging the most natural diets possible and those that are high in fiber and low in sugar.
5) Excessive screen usage may lead to attention problems in children
Although the studies about screen time are inconclusive about “the right amount” and the “real impact” of screens on children, most screen-use researchers agree that too much screen time can have a negative impact on your child’s development. There have been suggestions that screens overstimulate your child and therefore reduce their ability to focus. Monitoring your child’s screen use and setting screen-use rules, establishing screen-free zones and forbidding screen use just before bedtime are easy ways that may help reduce their distraction.
It is not uncommon for children who have experienced traumatizing experiences to have a harder time paying attention. Stressors may include issues such as bullying or peer pressure, major changes affecting the family (divorce, homelessness, changing schools) or even negative thoughts. Age-appropriate resources can help your child learn to deal with strong emotions and reduce their lack of focus.
The good news is that many self-regulation strategies can be easily applied at home. In other words, each parent has the tools to help increase her child’s focus and concentration. Here’s how you can get started.
18 easy tips to improve your child’s focus, concentration and self-regulation skills
1 | Play Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders
Everyone knows the Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes song. Turns out it’s a great resource for teaching kids to learn about focus and concentration.
The natural tendency with the Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes song is to touch the part of the body mentioned. However, research has shown that asking children to do the opposite of what they are told (for example touch their toes when they are asked to touch their head) helps develop their concentration.
2 | Play Simon says
Having trouble with your child’s concentration? Play Simon says. Simon says helps kids concentrate and follow directions and is thus a perfect game to develop self-regulation and concentration skills.
3 | Help your child train their mind to concentrate
The most effective way to improve your child’s concentration is to help them practice. We now know that the mental process of focusing one’s mind on a single activity can be learned. Games and activities such as puzzles, mazes, find the missing number/object, pattern games, and so on have been proven to boost focus and concentration in children. Resources such as the “Nurturing Constructive Boredom: Over 101 fun activities to boost your child’s concentration and autonomy” are specially designed to help your child practice fun activities that can help improve their focus and concentration.
4 | Try the day-night task
The day-night task involves showing a child a card (or picture) and asking them to say the opposite of what is on the card. For example, a child is expected to say “day” when shown a dark card with stars. This tool has been used for years by researchers to improve children’s concentration.
5 | Color a Mandala
A mandala is a circular abstract design with evenly distributed patterns that create a feeling of balance and harmony. Mandalas are an excellent art therapy to calm stressed kids and increase concentration. You can make your own mandalas or get books here (for younger kids) or here (from age 4 and above).
6 | Make your child play a more active role
The more your child feels involved in choosing their activities, the more likely they are to focus and concentrate. Several researchers have found that asking kids to plan their activities in advance helps increase their interest, concentration and creative skills because it makes them feel personally responsible for managing their time and activities.
7 | Reducing distractions can help increase your child’s concentration
One of the main reasons that explains children’s lack of focus is their inability to resist distractions. Even the most disciplined adults struggle with distractions sometimes, so it is logical that dealing with distractions can be difficult for your child. Setting aside a specific space without distractions (no screens, silent) can make it easier for them to concentrate.
8 | Adopt a routine
Routines can help increase your child’s concentration by helping them get on a schedule. A predictable routine can help them feel secure, reinforce consistency, and give them a sense of comfort and control over their environment. For example, scheduling homework for a set time each day and being consistent can help improve their focus. If your child is struggling with attentiveness, starting homework early and privileging short homework sessions every day, at a set time, can be more effective in helping tackle inattentiveness.
9 | Encourage make-believe play
Many researchers and educationists argue that intentional make-believe play is an important aspect of learning. It is a central element in children’s cognitive development
Charles Schaefer, the play therapy expert, argues that role-playing helps a child learn to think ahead and reflect on appropriate responses to frustrating situations. When kids engage in role-playing, they are more thoughtful, flexible and creative in the face of everyday problems.
10 | Encouraging your child to participate in household chores can help increase concentration
Science says doing chores is good for your kids. Some of the benefits associated with chores include:
- Better social, emotional and academic outcomes
- An increase in your child’s sense of worth and confidence
- Increased autonomy and self-reliance
- The development of important skills such as responsibility, self-reliance and accountability
Simple tasks that show your child that they are capable of success reinforce their ability to concentrate. The more your child feels confident in their ability to achieve expectations, the easier it will be for them to focus. Letting them choose the tasks to perform also makes it more likely for them to follow through. Here are 70 age-appropriate chore cards to encourage your child to begin or continue doing household chores.
11 | Encourage your child to read
Reading can help develop your child’s focus and concentration skills because it requires their brain to focus on both the words and the story line. Good children’s books captivate them, open up their world, and are presented in an age-appropriate manner (number of difficult words, use of colors and illustrations, etc.).
Talk to your local librarian if you are unsure about a great book that would suit your child. Or subscribe to a book box (this is a great gift idea) and let your child receive age-appropriate books according to a schedule that you feel is right for you. The award-winning Bookroo Box and The Reading Bug Box are great subscriptions if this is something you want to try out.
12 | Try play planning
Play planning involves asking kids to determine what they would like to do (or will do) during a specific moment (for instance when they are bored). This can be achieved by asking them to draw a picture or write about what they will do at that particular moment. This tool gives you the tools and resources you need to help even the youngest kids practise play planning.
13 | Play the freeze game
The freeze game was successfully used by McClelland and Tominey in a study to develop children’s concentration. The freeze game involves asking everyone to dance to music and then freeze when the music stops.
You can also ask your child to dance slowly to slow songs and quickly to fast songs. When this is mastered, ask them to dance slowly when fast songs are played, and quickly when slow songs are played.
The Freeze game teaches your child to listen attentively and follow instructions.
14 | Focus on positive behavior
The more you focus on your child’s positive behavior, the more likely they are to repeat that behavior. Setting simple concentration goals that they can achieve and then reinforcing positive behavior can help improve their focus and concentration. That said, positive reinforcement used the wrong way can cause more harm than good. The Positive Behavior Kit gives you a step-by-step approach to using positive reinforcement appropriately in order to reduce specific negative behavior. It outlines the pitfalls to avoid and gives you practical tips to avoid turning this discipline strategy into some form of “bribery”.
15 | Avoiding multiple instructions can reduce your child’s difficulty with concentration
Kids struggling with concentration often have a harder time processing information. The more your child receives multiple instructions, the harder it will be for them to follow through. Breaking down instructions can therefore make it easier for them to understand expectations. Asking them to repeat what they have understood can also make it easier to keep focused. Simple questions such as “What will you do first? And then? What will you do next?” can also help them get a good mental picture of what they are expected to do.
16 | Use a timer
A timer is a great tool to help your child keep track of how long they can stay focused. You can use it for homework or for any other tasks, and slightly increase the time set as they get better with focus and concentration.
17 | Help your child practice mindfulness
Several studies have shown that mindfulness can help children learn to keep still and focused. For instance, one study found that teaching seven- to eight-year-olds breathing exercises greatly reduced their anxiety levels and increased their focus. Some easy ways to get started include encouraging your child to practice deep breathing, practicing walking meditation, or even using safe and age-appropriate essential oils.
18 | Be receptive to your child’s needs
Different people need different environments to concentrate. Some require calm and others can only concentrate if they can hear some background noise. Identifying what works best for your child can help reduce their inattentiveness.
Using toys to help improve your child’s focus and concentration
Some toys can prove helpful if your child is struggling with attention problems. Here are two categories of toys that may help increase their concentration. Remember that not all kids will respond to the same strategies, and not all toys or tools will have the same impact on your child. The best strategy is to test different tools and see which one is best able to help your child focus and concentrate.
Category 1: Fidget toys
Fidget toys help children concentrate by keeping their hands busy and therefore allowing them to focus on something else. It is important to avoid trends and to choose appropriate fidget toys to increase your child’s concentration. Here are ten examples of good (and classroom-friendly) fidget toys for your child.
Many positive things and many negative things have been said about fidgets. The truth is, fidgets are good at helping kids focus, but only if those kids need them. In other words, if your child is not struggling with issues such as lack of concentration or anxiety, then a fidget toy may actually distract them.
The good news is that fidgets can help your child become more focused, but the bad news is that there are so may fidgets out there, it may be difficult choosing a quality fidget toy that doesn’t actually distract your child (for example too visually stimulating). Below are a few popular options you may want to check out:
- A fidget spinner
This Metal Fidget Spinner is a solidly built and attractive spinner that will help occupy your child’s hands. If you prefer a different fidget spinner, Innoplus has several other designs that might catch your eye or you can get a pack of a few fidget spinners to keep on hand.
2) A fidget band
If your child finds it difficult to keep their feet still, a fidget band that you can attach to their chair or desk can help keep their feet busy and therefore allow them to concentrate on the task at hand.
3) Focusing putty
Focusing putty is great for kids who need to squeeze things to reduce their stress.
4) Bubble pop fidgets
I bet you’ve already noticed these latest fidgets that are great for keeping your child’s hands busy!
5) Marble Fidgets
I love Marble Fidgets because of their size which means your child can take them absolutely everywhere!
6) Infinity cube
The infinity cube has eight small cubes that your child can rotate from any direction and any angle. It’s small, not too heavy, and is suitable for kids from age eight. The JOEYANK Fidget Cube is more durable, but plastic models also exist.
7) Tangle toys
Tangle toys are simple but effective fidget toys that will keep your child’s hands busy and help them focus on the task at hand.
8) Monkey noodles
Your child can do absolutely anything with Monkey Noodles – stretch them, pull them, squeeze them, wrap them… What’s more, they are strong, safe and durable!
9) The smiley stretchy men
If you’re looking for a small fidget toy your child can take anywhere, then the smiley stretchy men are for you, and your child can use them from age three.
10) Squishy balls
Squishy balls are great for reducing stress and keeping your child hands busy. They can also take them everywhere!
Category 2 – Focus games
Certain games can help your child improve their focus and concentration skills. Any game that can help them pay attention to small details, spot hidden objects, think, plan and use their memory are great options to help them become more attentive.
There’s no need to worry if they seem to struggle when you first begin – they more you play, the more accurate they should get!
Here are a few good games that may help with your child’s focus
This activity book will provide your child with hours of fun and help them work on their concentration as they try to spot hidden objects.
2) Jigsaw puzzles
Puzzles are good toys for helping children learn to focus and concentrate, but not if they are too difficult for your child. Start will small puzzles or large puzzles, and don’t hesitate to help if your child is looking frustrated.
3) Memory card games
Memory games can help improve your child’s attentiveness by teaching them about focus and concentration.
How the game works
- Get memory cards and ensure that there are only matching pairs. You can download 40 FREE PRINTABLE MEMORY CARDS below.
- Shuffle the cards and place them face down.
- Each player picks any two cards. If the cards match, they keep them and take another turn. If the cards don’t match, they place them back exactly where they were.
- The person who matched the most pairs wins.
Memory card games are great for developing your child’s focus and concentration because they force them to pay attention to remember where they last saw the images.
4) The Perplexus Rookie
If you’re looking for a great gift idea for a child who need help concentrating, The Perplexus Rookie is the toy for you. It has obstacles that your child must overcome and they must plan ahead and manipulate the sphere with care to achieve the end goal.
Jenga is a classic game that is also a great gift idea for a child struggling with attention. Your child is expected to pull out a block without crashing the stack. This is also a fun game to play as a family but your child can also play by themselves.
6) Hidden Pictures Scratch Art Book
Melissa and Doug’s hidden picture scratch art books are great tools to help boost your child’s concentration power and you have so many options to choose from! They are also great for developing their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.
These educational story cubes provide endless opportunities for your child’s imagination and creativity and would also make a perfect gift. Your child rolls the dice then has to make a story using the pictures from the dice. And the best part is that you have different styles so you’ll be able to find something if your kid is a Harry Potter fan, a “Heroes” fan, a “Mysteries” fan…
8) Pop and catch games
Pop and catch games use movement to help your child focus. They are expected to focus on the ball to catch it before it hits the ground. You can also try this game sitting down if it is too difficult for your child when they first begin.
9) Spot it!
Who doesn’t love Spot It! ? This game is great for helping your child improve their visual attention and learn to disregard distractions. Better still, the entire family will enjoy playing it!
Alternative natural options to increase your child’s focus and concentration
1) Natural supplements
While undertaking the research on improving children’s focus and attention, I came across parents who spoke of amazing improvement in their kids’ attention after using natural focus supplements. Many parents struggling with their children’s inattention spoke of Genius Drops, which are certified organic, gluten and sugar-free and non-GMO herbal supplements made specifically to help boost kids’ attentiveness and focus.
Here are a few supplements you can check out. Don’t forget to read the reviews to see what other parents think:
2) Essential oils
Not all essential oils are safe to use with kids. I have spoken in length about the precautions to take when using these oils with kids. That said, certain essential oils, used the right way, can help your kid calm down and can also boost their focus and attention. If you are already an essential-oil fan or want to try using essential oils to help boost your child’s attentiveness, here are a few ready-made 100% pure blends you can start with:
Remember you can also easily make your own recipes using kid-friendly essential oils.
Should you worry about your child’s inability to focus and concentrate?
Most focus and attention problems in childhood tend to get better as your child grows older and develops their self-control and self-regulation skills. However, for some parents, child inattention issues are more of a long-term than a short-term challenge. Here are a few of the learning difficulties associated with inattention in children:
ADHD – One of the most common symptoms of ADHD is the inability to regulate one’s attention span. If your child has the inattentive type of ADHD, they are more likely to struggle with focus and concentration.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder – If your child has this disorder, they will be focused on other things that prevent them from paying attention to what is going on around them. For example, in a classroom situation, such a child may pay more attention to lining up all their pens and pencils on their desk and therefore will appear as a child unable to pay attention.
Other learning disorders – learning disorders mean that your child’s brain doesn’t process information quite in the same way as other children. They are therefore more likely to have trouble with focus because they feel unable to achieve what other kids can. While they may be viewed as “easily distracted”, their behavior may be an attempt to cover up their frustration and embarrassment at “not being good enough”.
Hearing problems – A child with auditory processing problems may be mistaken for a child lacking focus. If your child cannot hear instructions, it is normal that they will be unable to follow through on those instructions.
Lack of attention and focus has a direct impact on how your child learns and develops. If your child is finding it hard to concentrate, please discuss your concerns with your family doctor who will point you in the right direction. It may also be helpful to consult with your child’s teacher to better understand their attention and concentration level at school.
When your child won’t concentrate in school
Unfortunately, your child’s inability to focus in school has a direct impact on what and how they learn. The first step if you are concerned about their trouble with focus is to have a discussion with their teacher. Teachers can provide solutions such as:
- Reduce distractions within the classroom: For example, the teacher can change their sitting position to ensure that they can keep their eye on your child or keep them away from classmates who are likely to distract them (or even away from windows!)
- Ensure that your child has understood instructions before beginning a task
- Provide assistance.
An earlier version of this post was published on parent.co