How Do I Get My Kids to Concentrate?

How do I get my child to complete activities? How do I get them to finish this puzzle? How do I get them to focus for just a little longer? You asked, so today we’re breaking down scientific studies and expert opinions on getting children to concentrate.

A four-year-old’s ability to concentrate on a task is one of the predictors for future academic attainment, but Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses in children have been steadily rising for years. This can be concerning for parents who, of course, want nothing but future success and happiness for their little ones. It can be worrying (and frustrating) when it seems like your child is incapable of maintaining focus on the wonderful, educational activity you’ve prepared for them.

But before we start sharing tips, we should consider: how long should a child be able to concentrate for, and why does lack-of-focus appear to be on the rise?

According to professor of early childhood and primary education, Dominic Wyse, a child of 6 should only be concentrating on homework-style activity - such as actively learning to read, write, add or subtract - for around 10 minutes per day - so not very much at all! 

Interestingly, a recent study compared two classes of 5-6 year old children - one in a classic, lecture-style class, the other in a Montessori setting - to understand the effect of teaching style on attention span.

The study found that those attending the lecture-style class had an average attention span of around 5 to 6 minutes, while the Montessori students averaged at between 7 and 12 minutes. Not only did the Montessori students have up to double the attention span, but their test scores tended to be higher, too.

So why might this be?

Montessori schools take a number of approaches to learning that differ greatly from the norm. One of these is ‘child-led’ learning, where lessons are based upon children’s interests and unique developmental stages. For example, if a young child keeps throwing and dropping things, their teacher may support them in exploring the trajectory schema with appropriate toys and experiments; or, if they are very interested in sea creatures, anything from maths to creative expression may be taught through the medium of fish.

This technique is praised by experts as a fantastic way to get children interested in (and focused on) learning. Dominic Wyse suggests taking your child’s interests into account when choosing reading materials - even if that means reading road signs because your child finds them interesting! Similarly, Professor Kristiina Kumpulainen from the University of Helsinki’s Department of Education suggests using your child’s interests to run research projects, capturing your child’s imagination and providing a point of connection between all kinds of learning.

Another key element of Montessori education is the use of play - that is, learning is achieved through play, rather than lectures and worksheets. This is incredibly important.

A few years ago, academics at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research created the BESSI (Brief Early Skills & Support Index): a series of statements designed to assess children’s school readiness. One of the key findings was that one statement was, by far, the most reliable predictor for school readiness: This child ‘talks about fun, shared activities at home’. That is, whether or not a child played at home was the greatest predictor for school preparedness.

Indeed, developmental psychologist, Dr David Whitebread, when asked what one tip he would give to parents, said ‘play with them’. Play is the key learning mode for children in the early years.

However, one study conducted between 1981 and 1997 found that, over the span of 16 years, the amount of time children spent playing had decreased by 25%, and time spent talking with others at home had decreased by 55%. In their place, time spent doing schoolwork had increased by a staggering 145%. Children’s playtime has been in decline for the past century, while schoolwork and extra curricular activities take centre stage.

Now, this is understandable. In a world with increasing importance placed upon exam results and an ever-more competitive job market, ensuring our little ones have the skills and competencies to get them ahead seems pretty vital - but swapping play for writing lessons may not be the answer.

Free play teaches children ‘to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control... follow rules... regulate their emotions, make friends and learn to get along with others as equals’ (Peter Gray). Through play, children learn to solve both real-world (Benny’s cut his knee) and imagined (Aisha is about to be eaten by a dinosaur) problems. They learn to restrain themselves in rough and tumble play, they learn that sometimes things won’t go their way and that, if they are not kind, the fun will stop and their playmates will leave.

But how does this relate to school preparedness and future success? Surely a basic understanding of literacy and numeracy are more important!

Well, according to Dr David Whitebread, the children who struggle most at school are those who have not yet developed self-regulation skills (which are largely developed through play). In fact, starting school before these skills are in place can lead to struggles throughout the entirety of one’s school life and decreased chances of attending university. This is for a number of reasons, including the ability to concentrate on tasks rather than bodily functions or overwhelming emotions and being able to get on with classmates. Getting an early start at literacy and numeracy, however, will not have nearly as large an impact on school performance. 

There is even a correlation between lack of play and learning difficulties, and several studies have suggested that there may be a link between decreased play opportunities and increased chances of developing ADHD, as fundamental lessons in impulse control are missed out.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, leaving the learning of reading and writing a little later does not appear to have much of an impact. In a study conducted in New Zealand, two groups of children began structured lessons in reading at different ages: one at 5 years old, the other at 7. By the age of 11, the group who started learning later had already caught up. Even further down the line, this group’s reading comprehension had surpassed the other’s, and the children were more likely to read for pleasure. As Whitebread puts it, “Pushing children to do things too soon is the worst possible thing to do. Leaving it too late never really seems to do any damage”.

Now, of course, we’re not saying that children don’t need to learn language or mathematical concepts before the age of 7 (you can read back over our blog for a wide range of information on early literacy). Rather, it may be worth reconsidering how learning happens in the early years, and which lessons to prioritise.

And, of course, sometimes your little ones really do need some help developing their concentration. So, with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at a few ways you can help your child develop focus.

  • Spend time outside.
    If you’ve read our blog on the benefits of outdoor play, you’ll already know that playing outdoors can help children’s working memory. Well, taking some time to run around in the sun can help children concentrate afterwards, too. One study even found that children diagnosed with ADHD were able to focus better after a walk in the park.

  • Read together and make sure books are available.
    Stories are powerful! The ‘what next?’ of a good book can be great for teaching children that, sometimes, a little perseverance can provide us with the most entertainment. Having books on topics that interest your child will be particularly effective for this - and make sure they’re available for your little one, even when you’re not there to read with them! Their own exploration of the pages - even if they cannot read - is still fantastic.

  • Follow your child.
    What are they interested in right now? You could count trucks, paint dinosaurs, learn the names of different animals or discover the life cycle of flowers. Learning isn’t just more fun when you incorporate your child’s interests - it will be easier, too, as they will be more engaged!

  • If you are doing homework-style activities, keep them little and often.
    You may want to teach your little one basic arithmetic or spelling - and that’s cool! Just remember to try and keep these kinds of rote-learning activities to under 10 minutes per day. Playtime is more important at this age!

  • Try mindfulness.
    Studies have shown that engaging in mindfulness practices can aid concentration in children. Here we have a blog on mindfulness in the early years, and make sure you follow us on Instagram for regular ideas for mindfulness practices!

  • Follow instructions.
    Following a recipe or playing a game of Simon Says can help children see the value of sticking to a task. The one-step-at-a-time nature of recipes in particular is really helpful for small children, as it breaks big tasks down into manageable chunks. So get baking!

  • Play, play, play!
    Play together, encourage your little one to play alone, and organise play dates. Play is incredibly important for your child - so have some fun!

Parents are frequently encouraged to push their young children to do ‘academic’ activities, such as learn to read, write, add or subtract. We know that the pressure to be a ‘good’ parent can cause a lot of anxiety and stress, especially when your children aren’t interested in these activities. But, we’ve heard from the experts and examined the studies, and it really does seem that play is far more important - in fact, pushing children into academics rather than play can be counterproductive! And, if you really do want your children to gain better focus, remember to use their interests to guide you.

So, I hope this blog has helped relieve some of that parent pressure, and given you a few handy pointers. And that one friend who keeps asking you why you haven’t started doing crosswords with your 6-month-old yet? You can share this with them.

Content Creator at MEplace
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