Within their first couple of parent-teacher meetings, pre-school teachers repeatedly hear the following concerns, with varying degrees of anxiousness :
“My child can’t sit still for 5 minutes!”
“My child day dreams randomly while doing something and sits at a task unfinished.”
“I can’t seem to get my child to finish even a simple puzzle.”
Does any of the above sound familiar to you?
Tips to help your child concentrate better
- Consider the challenge level of the work. Sometimes the task is too easy and at other times, too difficult. The level should match the capability and/or instructional range of the child’s age.
- Try motivating the child using sand timers of varying lengths of time as per the task as a visual reminder for the task underway. In due course, as proficiency and concentration increase, the child will try to beat the timer. This is a good way of self-monitoring as well.
- Break up the task into steps by creating multiple achievement levels within the overall task, such as solving a small portion of the puzzle, colouring one portion of the picture or completing one part of a clay model.
- Check for environmental factors that might contribute to distraction. The noise of the fan above or the sound of the air-conditioner, a window opening onto a noisy street/moving people, uncomfortable seating, a fidgety student (at school) or sibling (at home) next to the child, etc., are some distractors. A change of place might make it several notches more conducive to focus on the task at hand.
- Peers or a buddy system in class might work by assisting and encouraging the child to focus on and finish the work, especially if it is a collaborative project.
- Sometimes, sitting next to the teacher/teaching assistant in the class or parent at home while the teacher/parent is doing his own work and being a role model for focusing on a task works as a visual reminder to stay on the task.
- Sometimes, young children find it helpful to talk about what they want to write or do and then do it, as it helps them get clarity about what they are setting out to do.
You must re-evaluate the suggestions periodically and discuss them with your child’s teacher to figure out what works for your child. As your child crosses various milestones in her preschool years, her requirements and, therefore, the techniques to enhance concentration, change.
List of activities that have a positive influence on memory and focus
- Rhymes and poems: Chanting, clapping and associated movements .
- Stories: Listening to, talking about and sequencing activities associated with stories keep the child engaged and are fun to recall. Children can draw, make playdough characters or play dress up—all of which would require the child to stay focussed on the story and its various elements.
- Role play: If there are other children participating in the story telling-playacting, then it is even better as they give cues to each other for the sequence. In that process, they can all be focussed on the same activity for a long time.
- Outdoor games, obstacle course, Simon says and I Spy with my little eye.
Each of these games helps to:
- Exercise their working memory.
- Learn to adjust to each other’s imagination.
- Learn to keep track of and relate to what has happened and what is anticipated.
- Teach problem solving skills.
Include your child in these everyday activities
Making cookies or chapatti/paratha.
This is an all-time favourite sensorial activity – kneading dough is fun, messy and works out the muscles of fingers and arms. Following a recipe also helps your child plan a sequence of actions and teaches her to explore the possibility of modifying it. An opportunity to be creative with various ingredients is very good for the child’s emotional and cognitive capabilities.
These require specific use of working memory. Put in familiar objects, whether the child’s toys or items that the child is familiar with like a cell phone, a spectacle case or a toffee and ask the child to guess the object by feeling it from outside or by putting her hand into the bag. The child recognises the object by using her sensory information of touch to imagine its shape and form.
The role of fitness and diet on memory
Exercise tips to help your child focus:
Relationship of aerobic fitness and motor skills with memory and attention in pre-schoolers (Ballabeina): A cross-sectional and longitudinal study done by Iris Niederer, Susi Kriemler, Janine Gut, Tim Hartmann, Christial Schindler, Jerome Barral and Jardena Puder led to the conclusion that
“…In young children, higher baseline aerobic fitness and motor skills were related to a better spatial working memory and/or attention at baseline, and to some extent also to their future improvements over the following 9 months.”
The study suggests that exercises involving specific mental processing, including executive functions like reasoning, problem solving, planning, etc., which teach the child to manage time and pay attention, are most suitable to trigger overall cognitive development in young children.
Diet tips to help your child focus
Foods high in sugar set kids up for a mid-morning energy crash. Kids involved in a lot of learning at midday tend to burn calories quickly. Proteins and complex carbohydrates that take time to digest make ideal breakfast combinations for such kids. These foods prevent sugar levels from falling so that the child does not feel lethargic, anxious and distracted.
Include your child in planning for her meal right from the time you visit the grocery store. Ask her to pick the fruits and vegetables she would like to eat. It is a sensorial experience for the child and she will remember and enjoy her meals better. Include the following four nutritious groups in each meal:
- Starchy foods like rice and wheat
- Fruits and vegetables
- High iron and high protein foods
- Milk (check the contents of whole and skimmed to ensure that it contains Vitamin D and A), cheese, curds/yoghurt
Foods to be limited/avoided are:
- Sweets and chocolates.
- Salty foods like chips, papads, pakodas and samosas; use herbs and spices to flavour the food instead of salt. The FSSAI recommends only 2g of salt a day for pre-schoolers.
- All whole grains which might make them feel full before they have eaten enough.
- Raw or partially cooked eggs, shell fish and large fish that might contain high levels of mercury.
- Whole nuts which might pose a choking hazard.
- Tea and coffee because they reduce the absorption of iron from foods.
- Carbonated drinks as they damage teeth.
Fussy eaters who are under the age of 5 years might need supplements of Vitamins A and D with advice from a paediatrician.
Executive functions such as attention, impulse control, working memory and planning are all a combination of nature and nurture. While it might be hard to change the child’s IQ, it is possible to improve her ability to concentrate and increase executive functions with systematic efforts.
Nivedita Mukerjee is a journalist, educator and parent. She writes about matters that concern a child’s success and well-being. She can be reached at email@example.com.