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Assisting children with concentration difficulties

Assisting children with concentration difficulties

claudette picBy Claudette Jordan

Children with poor focus may struggle in several areas of development relative to their peers.  Consequences of their challenges permeate across emotional maturity, social relationships and especially, learning.

Building with the right foundations

Aiding your child’s emotional development needs to be done from the early years in order to facilitate good coping skills for the challenges to come later in childhood. Facilitating a good routine can never be underestimated.  This helps to bring structure and order which is more difficult for children to achieve naturally particularly when they find it challenging to stay on track with things.

In addition, as inattentive children are prone to forgetfulness, a predictable routine helps them achieve a greater sense of security and mastery in their everyday lives.

Teaching age appropriate responsibilities and fostering independence has great implications for the organisational skills and level of responsibility required when formal schooling begins.  These life skills do impact on learning in a significant way and a disorganised child who needs to rely on adult assistance consistently is bound to run into academic trouble too.

I often find that these points above are difficult to achieve with some families as invariably one or both parents have concentration issues too and so themselves have difficulty with planning, organisation and structure.  If this is the case in your family then seeking professional assistance to guide you is useful and necessary.

Teaching a child to delay gratification, wait for and take turns helps with inhibiting impulsivity.  Use every day play opportunities, games and the routines of daily living to build your child’s level of self-control.  This will have a positive spin off for their social interactions.

Although very intellectually capable, most children with attention issues may be immature emotionally and can come across as emotionally intense as well. This can make them socially awkward or cause other children to not readily include them in peer groups. Their impulsivity can sometimes lead them to say or do things on the spur of the moment which can be damaging to friendships as well.

Hyperactive children can also be quite boisterous in their play which may also cause other children to be hesitant to include them.

Assisting a child to build good social skills is therefore crucial.  Use play opportunities to teach lessons about emotions, empathy, actions and consequences etc.  This does not mean being a helicopter parent when your child has a play date but you might need to keep them on your radar to some degree and make note of interactions that you can discuss in your one on one times together.

Assisting with learning

A child with decreased concentration may face many challenges in a traditional mainstream learning environment.

Firstly, most information is taught to children in an auditory way, that means, it is conveyed through words and children are then required to listen and understand.  Instructions are generally also conveyed verbally. Inattentive children are often compromised in this way as they tend to struggle with listening skills and therefore miss information and/or instructions.  Other types of information such as visual (pictures, prompts on the chalkboard or their desk etc.) may be helpful for them to retain and follow information.

Experiential learning, for example, through tactile means can also further aid learning. Many children with concentration difficulties enjoy sensory stimulation so learning through touch is great for them.  Of course there are those who are tactile defensive so be aware of what suits each individual child.

You can also improve your child’s listening skills by practicing these listening activities.  Listening to audio stories(without following in a book), playing listening games, auditory memory games etc. from a young age all enhance attending skills with verbal information.  In this day and age our children are bombarded with visual information (cell phones, computer games, television, Ipads etc.) and parents have to be more purposeful about training the more neglected auditory processing skills.

In the early years of learning, a lot of information is taught in a repetitive pattern, through drills (for example bonds, spelling words etc.) and written tasks.  Children with concentration difficulties become easily bored with repetitive type tasks.  They require novelty and interest in order for the brain to stay engaged. Teachers and parents can assist learning by introducing fun and interesting ways to complete repetitive tasks.  Introducing colourful and textured materials such as magnetic or felt letters and numbers, play dough, coloured/glue pens, writing in a tray of sand or flour etc. can make a repetitive task such as learning for a spelling test interesting and fun if a child is allowed to spell words with a different medium each time.  The use of games is also helpful and Bingo, Scrabble, Dominoes  or a set of dice, for example, can be used for literacy and numeracy tasks.

Correct classroom seating as well as homework location is also important to consider.  Children who are easily distracted may need to be seated closer to the teacher for better supervision and away from doors and windows where external stimuli can distract them. At home, ensure that homework is done in a quiet space with no other distractions such as television, noise from other siblings etc.

For those children who have difficulty persevering with long tasks, consideration may need to be given to shortening both class and homework exercises, especially where they are already displaying an understanding of a concept.  Children with poor concentration do not necessarily benefit from repetition and the longer they have to endure at a single task, the worse their performance is likely to get.

It might also be necessary to cycle tasks so that they are not expected to do one particular task for too long.  For example, a useful strategy might be to get them to divide their homework period into time slots, then decide on one piece of homework for each slot. It does not matter if that piece is not finished within that time slot, move on to another task, and come back to complete the first one.  At the end of the day, as long as all homework is completed, it does not matter that a task is started and not completed immediately. Cycling tasks is useful as it helps create the novelty that the brain needs to stay interested, it also ensures good engagement is sustained throughout the time period and helps to increase motivation as well.  Insistence on starting and finishing in one sitting may compromise the quality of work as well as a child’s eagerness and motivation.  By cycling tasks you are teaching your child a good coping mechanism, that they need to come back and complete a task, but it all does not need to be done in one sitting.

Children who need to study for tests/exams may need to be taught other learning techniques other than relying on traditional rote means. The use of visual cues such as pictures/symbols, colours etc. are useful study aids.  Talking notes out loud to another person may also assist. Adding movement to learning sometimes assists those who need the additional stimulation to stay attentive.

Good planning and organisational skills are crucial for productive studying.

The role of good nutrition and adequate sleep cannot be underestimated in terms of its impact on concentration, and subsequently learning.  The brain requires a steady supply of fuel and adequate rest in order to function optimally.  Thinking, problem solving, planning, organizing and paying attention all depend on this.

Children require on average between ten to twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep.  Older teenagers can get by with nine hours. A lot of research has shown that one of the factors related to the high incidence of learning difficulties in children is a lack of good sleep habits.  A lot of consolidation of learnt concepts happens when one is asleep .

In a recent therapy session, one of my little patients and his mother were negotiating strategies to assist him with managing his concentration during the week.  The dreaded ‘sugar’ topic raised its head and I asked him the question, ‘How much sugar do you think is too much for a child to have every day?”, his response : “100 sweets a day is too much, 50 is probably ok”.  Even though the answer stirred a giggle from his mother and myself, he was deadly serious.

Your brain is largely made up of water, essential fatty acids and proteins.    To keep it functioning optimally your child’s brain requires water regularly. Encourage them to drink enough water in smaller amounts throughout the day.

Carbohydrates are the brain’s main source of fuel.  The brain is very sensitive to changes in blood sugar levels. High GI foods result in high levels of blood glucose which drop very quickly whereas low GI foods result in a steady release of glucose so the brain is kept going with a constant and stable supply of fuel.

Protein is also required for the brain to grow.  If you are uncertain about your child’s specific nutritional needs a dietician or nutritionist can assist you in this regard.