Friday, 15 November 2013

How to help your child's concentration!

Firstly, how is your concentration? 

A vital part of how we live is through interacting with others and with applying our own skills and mental ability to problems. Behind every action to which we commit ourselves are virtues that are often mentioned by teachers and parents but often without any consideration as to how to learn and develop them. These are patience and perseverance, and behind them a core virtue called discipline. They come together in what we call concentration.

When we exercise, we push ourselves to the limits of our ability. One of the best ways of doing this (under proper guidance) is through strength training. When pushing or pulling weights, we are often taken to our body's limits, because then the muscles and the nerves know to repair the stretched tissues and make them stronger for next time. Gradually, we can improve our strength by pushing our body beyond its normal abilities and with appropriate rest and diet, it will get stronger.

It's the same with our virtues. The virtues, as the as ancient philosopher Aristotle taught, are the product of habit and training. The best place to begin such training is at an early age, but what is fascinating here is that children have an immense ability to concentrate - given their ages and, more importantly, given the freedom to do so. Observe them when no adults are around to disrupt them! Then watch what happens when an adult interferes. What normally happens is that the child is distracted from his or her natural inclination to concentrate by adult interference and a host of electronic stimuli that do not help the mind settle to learn.

Imagine that you're at work and that you're working on a project that involves a great deal of focus. It may be preparing a report or writing a key email or resolving an engineering issue. You settle down to get the work done and you begin to zone into the work. You know you're zoned in when time passes without you realising it and the minor distractions of life around you fade away. You're now concentrating.

Then a colleague bursts in and demands  that you come and speak to someone on the phone. Your attention is shattered but you get up and deal with the problem. You return and settle down again and after a few minutes you're back in the creative zone, then another colleague bursts in and demands that you sign for an important document. This time it takes longer to get back into focus as your mind is expecting an interruption. And her it comes--the gaggle of staff burst in and demand that you come to lunch with them all as it's so-and-so's birthday. Three interruptions is enough to kill the focus. It's gone, probably for the day.

Now think what a child goes through. They mostly are pushed from pillar to post on someone else's agenda. They just get down to playing when mum demands that they sit in the back of a car for an hour while she picks up things. Or they've just got back from school and begin to focus on their own project of building a model or playing with friends and them dad calls them in to go to their music lessons. Or it's school and the kid is just beginning to get a maths problem when the bell goes and they're dragged off to art, and when they're just getting into art they're called away to learn French.

The impositions begin to affect their ability to concentrate in more than short bursts, but more importantly there is always the expectation of a disruption.

Then the youngsters go home and the tv is blaring, the young sibling is running around, and the mindlessness of playing a computer game beckons. Now the distractions are unimportant, because the brain's activity had collapsed to just above sleep, and in this hypnotic state our young person can zone out rather than zone in. Drink a can of sugar with added water and the game's over when it comes to extorting any mental effort!

And don't think that multi-tasking is the way forward. Studies tend to show that multitasking people do a lot of tasks poorly. Much more effective is to remove the distractions when you want to learn. Turn the tv off - either watch it or shut it off; I've never seen any good work done with the idiot box on; turn down any music to background, "white noise" levels - that is, if your drumming along to a track, it's too loud; ask other people in the house to respect your work time. And then set yourself short bursts of concentrated mental effort to get things done. Start with ten minutes, then fifteen, then twenty...

The key is to build up mental habits just as a strength trainer helps build up your muscles gradually but surely. And like a sportsperson, stretch your concentration level beyond the allotted time. 

Focus for short bursts at a time. Then extend the time you concentrate. It'll work. But don't forget - no sugar!

It's the same with our children. They need to be able to concentrate on what they're doing. 

Now, we can't change the school environment - and you get the message that sometimes it's not the most conducive place to concentrate - but we can change the environment in which we do our homework or settle down as adults to do that important project.

We can also change their diet to help them concentrate better - 


Shut the TV off. Better still, throw it away. Or put it in a place that makes it uncomfortable to watch. For many families TV is the line of least resistance - you just go home and press a button and hey! thirty thousands channel of rubbish to fill your brain with!!  TV is sugar for the brain: no nutrition and plenty of mindless junk to change the brain into mush. 


If you're butting in on your kids' lives all the time with requests and demands and then you hear that they're not concentrating at school...cut distracting them!

Respect your child's play. Help them negotiate their timetable so they get the homework done first and then play - teach them how you're improving your productivity.

Allow the children to free wheel - they need to play and have fun and just chill: as long as what they're doing is not toxic (mindless tv, drinking fizzy drinks...) 

I watch my two boys who are being home educated. They're always busy in their own worlds. It's amazing watching them build up a huge bank of patience and focus - they concentrate on their chosen tasks for hours. Now imagine that translating into a profession or skill...

Get out of the way and let the children show you their true colours. Do they need entertaining? Usually a symptom of way too much tv. Or do they just go and get into the things that they like doing? Great value there (as long as it's not a toxic occupation like online gaming or mindless tv....)

Give the kids some space to grow healthily and naturally. Simply really. But so hard for many because they fill their house with distracting junk like a tv in every room, computer games in front of comfortable chairs...If you've not got into that mess yet, don't go there. If you have ... have a garage sale.

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