It's Fall; It's Time to Focus

Ellen Galinsky
September 27, 2010

Fall has begun and it's a major transition for the kids. As one mother puts it:

Summer can feel so scattershot. Then we expect our kids to jump right back into school-to sit still at school and focus on the task at hand and to come home after school and focus on homework and activities. It's an upheaval for them.

I can remember the upheaval of that transition -- the twinges of sadness, fear, and anticipation as summer ended; the abrupt change of watching the sunlight from classroom windows rather than being outside in it or of sitting at the kitchen table doing homework rather than a million other things I wanted to do.

But it's not just an upheaval for the kids, it is an upheaval for us too. A father says:

It is painful, those first three weeks when school starts. We all have to get used to a new routine, and then suddenly we get in the groove and it begins to seem normal again.

I have received a number of emails from parents asking how you help children focus, especially during this transition back to school.

First -- what is focus? Focus is one of the seven life skills that I found have the power to help children thrive now and in the future. All of these skills involve the pre-frontal cortex, the last part of the brain to develop. These skills emerge in children on a developmental timetable, but they develop over many years, thus it is never too late to promote Focus and the other life skills.

Focus (which I couple with Self Control) involves the ability to pay attention, remember several things at the same time, think flexibly and resist the temptation to go on automatic but do what we have to do to reach a goal.

This probably sounds pretty complicated, but it becomes much clearer when you see this skill in action. Take a look at this video of an experiment by Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia. The child in the video is asked to say the word "night" when he sees a picture of a sun and to say "day" when he sees a picture of a moon. In order to do this, he has to focus, remember the rules, and follow the directions that call on him to do the opposite of what he sees in the picture. In the video, you can also see how Diamond helps the boy become more proficient in this skill.

Diamond: Day/Night from Mind in the Making on Vimeo.

Here are some suggestions for how you can promote Focus and Self Control in your children.

1.    Play the games that researchers use to measure focus.

  • Play the Day/Night game that you just saw on the video.
  • Play the Peg Tapping Game. This is used by Clancy Blair of New York University to measure school readiness. Take a stick or pencil that you can use for tapping (drumming). If the adult taps once, the children are supposed to tap twice. If the adult taps twice, the children are to tap once. You can make the rhythms more complicated for older children.
  • Play Simon Says, Do the Opposite. A researcher from Oregon State University, Megan McClelland uses this (calling it the Head-to-Toe Task) and finds that the children who do well on this task have higher scores on tests of literacy and math. If the adult says, "touch your head," the children are supposed to touch their toes. And if the adult says, "touch your toes," the children are to touch their heads.
  • Play the Stroop Game. This is for children who can read. Write the name of a color in different color (for example, write the word green in red magic markers) and ask the children to say the color they see, not the word that's written. It's hard!

2.    Bring children into the process and have them come up with ideas of what helps them focus.

If your children are having trouble focusing on schoolwork, ask them what ideas they have to solve this problem. I did this with my daughter and she came up with some very creative ideas to help herself focus, like putting her head down on the table for a few minutes if math homework was overwhelming.

3.    Find ways to make schoolwork meaningful.

Children are much more likely to pay attention to schoolwork when they can see the reason for learning it. Some teachers are good at this. On a radio show recently, a parent told me that her daughter's teacher was always asking the kids to talk about how they personally relate to the subjects they were studying. Other teachers aren't so good at this, but you can help by making your kids' schoolwork more connected to their lives and thus more meaningful. For example, you can say: "It is important to learn to count so we can make sure that the money we get back from a cashier is the correct amount."

4.    Take breaks during homework time.

A number of parents who wrote me, asking for suggestions to help their children focus, seemed to assume that children can focus best when they are sitting still, paying rapt attention. Think about yourself. Why do some of your best ideas come popping into your mind when you are taking a walk or taking a shower? Our minds and our bodies need time for rest and recovery-so build in breaks during homework time so children can rest or be active and then return to schoolwork.

5.    Make learning into family fun.

A friend of mine with teenagers was meeting great resistance in prompting her children to study for the SATs. So she decided to get involved herself and learn the material alongside her kids. Now they play SATs (like you might play Scrabble) around the kitchen table and it is really family fun.

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