Nobody can honestly claim that they’ve never experienced difficulty focusing; it’s a highly relatable problem that can turn even the smallest task into an excruciating affair, which is precisely why everyone should have an arsenal of skills and strategies at their disposal for when the beast of distraction rears its head. As a parent, you probably have a few such tricks up your sleeve already (after all, the laundry doesn’t wash itself), but they might be hard to pinpoint and harder still to teach to your easily-distracted offspring. Fortunately, we asked Dr. Bethany Cook, clinical psychologist and author of For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting, to share some actionable advice on how to help kids focus, and you can read it all below. (You’re welcome.)
How to Help Kids Focus, According to a Clinical Psychologist
1. Burn The Energy Off
Kids have a lot of energy, so there’s a good chance they will feel too antsy to focus if they haven’t burned some of it off before being asked to do something less fun. “If you know your kid hates doing [insert non-preferred task] and it’s a struggle to keep their focus, wear them out before said activity,” says Dr. Cook. What this looks like will depend on the age of your child and the situation, but any form of exercise—whether it’s dancing to a favorite song, doing a set of jumping jacks or racing around the playground—will result in a more concentrated (and cooperative) kid when it comes time to have them tackle a chore. How does this work? For starters, they won’t be bouncing off the walls anymore—but besides that, the endorphins released during exercise are also shown to have a calming effect that directly increases mindfulness and focus.
2. Get Comfy
Sometimes the solution to problems with focus is more straightforward than you’d expect. Though it might sound silly, the issue might simply be that your kid is uncomfortable. (Think about it—would you be able to focus if your shoes were too tight and the room was too cold?) As such, Dr. Cook says it’s important to make sure your kid is physically comfortable before asking her to engage in an activity that requires focus. So suggest your child swap her jeans for some comfy sweats, serve up a satisfying snack—you know, check all the boxes. Discomfort might not be the only reason your kid is struggling to concentrate, but if it’s even a small factor, you’ll be swimming upstream until it’s fixed.
3. Let Your Child Fidget
Sit still and concentrate! Stop fidgeting! Do yourself a favor and banish these phrases from your parenting vocabulary, because there’s nothing wrong with fidgeting, provided the task at hand doesn’t actually require your kid to be completely still. (Like if you’re trying to remove a splinter, for example.) In fact, Dr. Cook tells us that fidgeting is often beneficial: “Focusing on specific tasks can illicit all types of feelings for kids and having something in their pocket or hand to mess with allows them to expel this ‘negative energy,’ freeing up space in their brain to increase focus.” As such, fidget toys might have the calming, concentration-boosting effect that your kid needs to complete a non-preferred task, so feel free to give them a try. That said, no solution is foolproof: “Obviously if the child is distracted with the device, it’s not working,” cautions Dr. Cook. In other words, you can giveth and you can taketh away.
4. Talk It Out
Let’s be honest, having an undesirable activity sprung on you is a real drag. For this reason, Dr. Cook recommends parents give kids a heads up when they know that there’s a situation on the horizon (i.e., a plane ride, church service, a younger sibling’s dance recital) in which the child might struggle to focus. More often than not, when there’s a problem with focus, it’s basically because the brain is staging a protest over having to do something undesirable, but “talking about it ahead of time and mentally preparing for the situation helps prime the brain for success when the time comes,” says Dr. Cook. Of course, advance warning isn’t always possible or practical (there’s no need to give your kid two weeks’ notice when it’s time for him to clean his room), but when it does make sense, a little communication can make a big difference.
5. Get The Timing Right
As parents, we naturally look for patterns in our kid’s behavior because, well, knowledge is power. In this case, that knowledge can help inform your scheduling decisions, thereby improving the outcome for both you and your child. Per the expert: “When your child has a difficult task coming up that will require focus and attention, try to time said task for when your child is at their peak performance. This means well fed, not tired and hopefully not emotionally triggered.” In other words, if you know your grade schooler often comes home from school hungry, grumpy and worn out, that’s probably not the best time to arrange a FaceTime with grandma. To this end, Dr. Cook says that “having [your child] help determine the best time is also useful because it engages them in the process, teaches them how to do this on their own when needed and increases the likelihood of non-combative compliance (i.e., doing it without complaining).” Makes sense, right?
6. Listen To Music
According to Dr. Cook, pairing a non-preferred task with a little background music can “keep the energy flowing in the right direction,” which in turn boosts focus. That said, some types of music are decidedly better than others when it comes to encouraging concentration. Specifically, Dr. Cook tells us that music without words (think: jazz, classical or trance) is the best option here, because it eliminates the risk that the wandering mind will focus on the lyrics of the song instead of the task at hand.
7. Set Realistic Expectations
It can be exasperating when your kid is seemingly unwilling to focus on something you’ve asked him to do. Still, as soon as you feel your blood starting to boil, it’s important to take a step back and try to objectively assess the situation—and your expectations in particular. As parents, we have our patience tested every day, but if you’ve fallen into the trap of asking the impossible of your child, life will be infinitely harder for both of you. Dr. Cook advises parents to keep in mind that the frontal lobes of the brain—the area responsible for reason, judgement, control and focus—don’t fully develop until a person is around 25. Yep, you can use threats, pleas, and bribes to try to make a 5-year-old sit respectfully and “focus on his food” at dinnertime, but it won’t get you very far. The takeaway? “Don’t have unrealistic expectations about your child’s ability to focus, especially if it’s something you also struggle to do.”
8. Provide The Right Environment
Everyone finds it hard to focus sometimes, particularly on things we don’t want to do. However, when kids are having consistent problems with focus, Dr. Cook says it can indicate that “things aren’t running smoothly at home.” Food or shelter instability and neglect are among the more obvious and troubling examples of this, but other things like frequent arguing between parents, a recent move or divorce (to name a few) can also contribute to a child feeling that their environment is chaotic or unstable—an experience that’s decidedly not conducive to concentration. Other times, the problem might simply be that the parents lack the skill set required to “implement and enforce loving and kind boundaries.” Bottom line: If there have been some disruptions in your homelife as of late or you find that frustration is getting the better of you and you’re struggling to communicate with your child in a positive way, it’s a good idea to turn your attention to your child’s unmet emotional needs, as the problem with focus will likely take care of itself once the family dynamic is improved.
9. Get Help When Needed
Ultimately, if you think your child’s difficulty focusing falls outside the realm of what most people experience to varying degrees on a day-to-day basis (i.e., if the problem is particularly debilitating or creating conflict in your homelife), it’s best to speak with a professional—a therapist or social worker—who can help you determine whether ADHD or environmental factors might be at the root of the problem and offer treatment options to that end.