10 Ways to Help Children Improve Focus & Concentration
Whether your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or another behavioral or mental health disorder, they have likely struggled to focus on homework or to show interest in multiple subjects.
Focus, in this context, refers to the ability to be alert and to orient a child to specific tasks or stimuli (such as a teacher or a parent talking) that will help the child accomplish their goal.
This can be frustrating for parents and caregivers who want the child to succeed. For neurodivergent children, the concept of focus is different from that of neurotypical children. A child with ADHD, for example, experiences multiple sights, sounds, and sensations all at once and is driven to the point of chronic distraction. A child with ASD, however, has similar sensory experiences but may react with distress and isolation.
Signs of Concentration & Focus Issues in Children
While focus issues can happen in anyone at any age, they are common in children with ADHD and ASD. If your child is having trouble focusing, it does not necessarily mean they have ADHD or ASD, but it can be helpful to look for signs.
There are many different signs of ADHD based on how old the child is, but they typically include the following:
- Constant restlessness
- Inability to sit still
- A compulsive need to talk, including interrupting others
- The inability to wait their turn at playtime or in conversation
- Easily distracted
- Not following through on instructions
- Acting and behaving impulsively
Furthermore, children with ADHD particularly struggle with the thought processes that typically control paying attention. This usually manifests in the form of learning difficulties at school, such as:
- Not picking up essential details about homework or classwork.
- Starting tasks before understanding (or even receiving) all the necessary instructions.
- Inability to organize themselves.
- Difficulty preparing for and sitting for tests and quizzes.
Signs of autism in children can be similar to those of ADHD, but the following key differences can be evident:
- The inability to communicate openly and clearly with others (not responding to their name, not making eye contact, not returning smiles)
- Being distressed at any change in their environment or routine
- Being troubled by certain stimuli
- Repetitive movements when distressed
- Taking a long time to talk
- Showing obsessive interest in one subject and no interest in others
How Brain Development Impacts Focus
To understand how to improve focus in a neurodivergent child, it is crucial to understand the concept of neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain grows additional cells, or updates the functions of existing cells. This is akin to training the brain to build new muscles to carry out tasks it had previously been unable to do. In this case, it refers to building up mental endurance and focus, planting the seeds to develop the ability to concentrate on homework or other tasks.
All children, neurodivergent and neurotypical alike, will experience different degrees of distraction, hyperfocus on a preferred subject, or hyperactivity as they grow and develop. What can make it a particular issue with neurodivergent children is that the signs are persistent and severe, to the disruption of others and to the child’s academic, social, and developmental detriment.
How to Improve Focus in Children
Like any skill, concentration is a muscle that needs to be regularly exercised for it to develop. Regardless of developmental status or ability, every child can learn different practices to improve their ability to focus and pay attention. This is a vital skill for school that will remain important for the rest of a child’s life.
The ability to concentrate and maintain attention on different tasks at school or at home is essential because it is how children learn and grow. It leads to positive self-esteem and self-confidence. Without developing focus, it becomes increasingly difficult for a child to learn about themselves and how to engage with the world around them.
What are some ways you can help improve focus in your child? These methods will apply to children who are both neurodivergent and neurotypical. But if you have children who have either ADHD or ASD (or both), you should work with their therapists and caregivers to develop these methods according to their developmental disorder.
Improve Their Environment
For any child, regardless of their developmental status, it is vital to create an environment of control and calm for them to focus. They should be in a space where they can control their actions, their emotions, and their bodies. This is a skill that can be learned and applied to whatever topic or task they are presented with. Observation (either by parents, by caregivers, or by therapists) will identify what methods help children calm and ground themselves; you can then encourage your child to use those methods when needed, like in situations when your child becomes distracted or frustrated.
Gamify the Process
Sometimes, the best way to train a child to focus is by making them think they’re doing something fun instead. “I spy,” “red light-green light,” musical chairs, and guessing games are very effective ways of helping children learn self-control and train their attention on a topic or an idea.
A variation of this idea is to play games that subvert expectations; this could mean playing games where the rules change, or the games themselves don’t play out as expected. The idea behind this is that the child will have to pay attention to the rules to win the game, to a greater degree than they would for a game where they knew what would happen next.
Use Your Child’s Interests
Like adults, children have an expanded capacity for focus and self-control when presented with a task that they have some investment in. And like adults, children will be challenged to pay attention for any amount of time if they are presented with a task that bores them.
Pay attention to what draws your child in and help them invest their energy in exploring that topic. You can even use that topic as a reward for them getting through a homework assignment in a subject that does not interest them.
Reading is a universal strategy to help improve focus in children. Read stories to young children to encourage them to stop other tasks, pay attention to you, and focus on the story. When you have finished the story (or even the chapter), ask them questions about what just happened.
When they have the right answer (that is, they remained focused enough to understand what was going on, and retained that information), treat them with a playtime activity they enjoy. When they get the answer wrong, model the correct behavior (that is, show them what the correct answer is and explain how you got it). Even when children read on their own, there are significant benefits to reading their material out loud.
Engage in Make-Believe
Playtime is vital for various reasons, including helping children learn how to focus. A vital component of this is “pretend play,” where they simply make up characters and stories for those characters.
You can help by supporting them in these make-believe scenarios. It encourages kids to use their working memory to remember who their characters are and what they do. This then trains the brain to apply working memory to real-world situations.
Planning is an essential part of teaching children how to focus. Work with your child on making plans and sticking to them. Following through on plans imparts a sense of responsibility and accountability, which will help your child academically and socially.
As important as it is to focus, it is equally — if not more so — important to move and take breaks. These can be both fun and structured so your child will enjoy the respite from their homework or task. Stretching routines are a good way to sustain the momentum of the task at hand while allowing their minds to rest. Fidgets and similar items can be both a reward for completing a task, giving them something physical to do to let out their pent-up energy.
Stick to a Routine
Introduce consistent routines and structures. Homework starts and finishes at the same time. Breaks are scheduled regularly. Dinner starts at a specific time. Bedtime is always at the same time. And so on.
This helps your child with time management (a vital skill that they can take into adulthood). It trains your child’s brain to pay attention to the patterns of the day and to be present in them.
For added effectiveness, create colorful and visual charts and lists that break down what happens when. Your child can help you create these materials, so they feel a sense of accomplishment in their creation and investment in the overall process.
Add flexibility into the schedule to give yourself a break and show your child that it’s okay when things don’t always go according to schedule, but that it’s still important to stay on top of things.
Divide & Conquer
Dividing bigger tasks into smaller tasks can help your child maintain their focus. This can mean breaking down an entire chapter into a page or two, or even a few paragraphs at a time so that your child will still feel accomplished at having made progress.
Smaller accomplishments can be used as motivators to tackle more significant challenges. This can apply equally to homework and household chores.
Honor Different Learning Methods
All children learn differently, especially neurodivergent children. Some kids have an easier time processing visual information; others work better with spoken commands and prompts. Some need tactile stimulation of their work or tasks, whereas others will have some combination of styles. It is essential to know a child’s learning style, which you can understand from observation and through trial and error.
Children who learn visually will benefit from written instructions and visual cues (such as flashcards), preferably colorful ones that incorporate pictures and designs. These children might like to draw what they are studying, which will help keep them on task and develop their fine motor skills.
Children who learn better when they hear information might do better with homework if they can read their material aloud or follow along when someone else is reading. Children who struggle to read paper books might process and retain information better if they hear it in an audiobook format.
Children who are kinaesthetically inclined need to touch their subject matter to understand what they are being taught. A child who learns kinaesthetically should have as much hands-on experience as possible, perhaps even incorporating toys into homework time if it helps drive the lesson home.
Regardless of your child’s developmental status and abilities, there are many ways you can work with them on improving their focus. It will take a lot of effort and time, but what they learn in paying attention and staying on task will be skills they can carry for the rest of their lives.
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7 Tips to Help a Distracted Child. (April 2011). Psychology Today.
Engaging Children With Educational Content Via Gamification. (2019.) Smart Learning Environments.
Why You Should Read This Out Loud. (September 2020). BBC.
Playtime May Bolster Kids’ Mental Health. (August 2018). The Atlantic.