Paul: We have both had some experience with this. Vicki, I know you have. How do you improve a child's concentration? We have a number of ideas for you. First, maybe a disclaimer. Concentration can be affected by a lot of different factors.
Vicki: And it's kind of hard to figure out just what is affecting your child.
Paul: It really can be. We are going to share some ideas with you, but be open to other solutions as well. Sometimes you need a little extra help. I have felt as a psychologist working primarily with children and families that we tend to over diagnose conditions like ADHD, for example. Sometimes when a child is having a hard time concentrating, it's really easy to jump to the diagnosis. Well, it may or may not be a true diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. So, let's just put that on a shelf for a little while as we talk about different ways to improve a child's concentration. And then we'll remain open to the possibility something else may be going on there.
Paul: So, before we leave that topic, Vicki, I know you have encountered this as you work with people in the schools as well. Have you seen some resistance sometimes?
Vicki: Yeah. Sometimes parents are really against putting their kids on any medication, and I understand the caution. However, if you have tried to manipulate the environment and you have implemented a lot of other strategies and haven't seen the progress you were hoping to see, it is a very valuable option to consider medication. Think of it this way. If I need glasses it doesn't matter how much harder I squint, I need the glasses. So, I'm not going to see better just because I'm squinting harder. There are times when medication is the answer. I think it's great to really explore as many options and natural options, as you can. Some of those factors are sleep, diet and exercise.
Paul: Right. Just taking care of the body. And we've seen through research and just practical experience with kids that sometimes what they are eating can have a big impact on their behavior. Too much sugar, high diet in carbs, those kinds of things tend to give an energy rush to the body without providing really sustaining nutritional value. If your kids are eating a lot of high sugar, high carbohydrate kinds of food, you might see a little less ability to concentrate and that's something that could be addressed through the diet. Also, like you said, exercise, making sure that you get enough sleep. This is what we refer to as brain maintenance.
Paul: And quite frankly… Vicki, when we were talking about the medication earlier, the medication of choice for a true attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is stimulant medication. That doesn't make sense to a lot of parents. “Stimulants? What the heck?” But really there's a lot of reasons why this is the case. And we found that if it's not properly treated, it can lead to further risk factors in the future. Especially as they get into their adolescence and teenage years. We find a higher incidence of drug use for example.
Vicki: Yeah. It's kind of a self-medication because they know they are not concentrating. If we are not providing the right medications, they'll often self-medicate.
Paul: Right. Now, usually when people find this kind of a video, they are looking for how to help my kid with concentration in some particular context. For example, doing homework, or fulfilling assignments or paying attention to a task. And it's very contextual, a lot of environmental factors contribute to the success or failure. Vicki, I know you've worked with some parents who didn't even realize that, “Maybe I should turn off the TV.”
Vicki: When your child is doing homework, you want to set them up for success. So, you are going to reduce as much of the noise around them. And I'm talking busyness noise as well. So find or create a quieter place. I have seen a lot of children have a lot of success using sound-canceling headphones.
Vicki: That's very helpful. Turn off the music.
Paul: There is also visual noise.
Paul: And by that, I mean is there a lot of things going on visually? Having the TV off is a really strategic move for you, because even if it's muted or even if it's low in volume, there is this visual noise. We go out to dinner sometimes. Do you remember the one that we went to last week? There were TV’s literally every 3 feet on the wall. And there were sports going on and infomercials and just all this visual distraction even though there wasn't any noise.
Vicki: Right. If you are putting your child in front of a big picture window for example and there are kids out there playing in the cul-de-sac and there's birds flying by, and squirrels running past. Just be aware of that. It might be better to position the child's study area in a place that doesn't have that kind of visual distraction. Maybe something that's a little more muted would help them with their concentration. This is very practical.
Vicki: We said to reduce sound distraction but sometimes classical music playing softly in the background could actually help them concentrate. So, do consider baroque period music. The research has shown it to be very helpful for concentration and completing a task.
Paul: This actually ties into brain studies that have been done. It stimulates different brain waves and different kinds of music have different effects. You mentioned baroque, also some of the classical or Romantic period music. It's music that does not have words attached to it as well. It's just the music. You can experiment with that a little bit as well. We also want to create a contextual environment that is brain friendly. Have you noticed, Vicki when you are doing a task and trying to concentrate for a long period of time, it gets harder as you go on?
Paul: So, give time for breaks.
Vicki: And you know your child. You might need to be more frequent with your breaks for one child than you do the next child.
Paul: And during the break, we want to be doing things that stimulate brain activity. Taking a complete break from the material that they are concentrating on and getting physically active will help them to concentrate more when they come back to the task. So, keep that in mind as well. Breaks with physical activity.
Vicki: A really great strategy for timing the breaks is to use some sort of visual schedule. And that helps the children a lot of the times know how long they are going to be concentrating. When is the break up? What are the next steps I have to do? It just helps to give them chunks. So you are taking the task in chunks, it helps kids concentrate during the chunk.
Paul: Vicki, when you say a visual cue, what are you referring to?
Vicki: Like maybe there will be a picture or you might write it up on a board. Say, 2:00 to 2:15 you are going to be working on math homework, that sort of thing. Then, we are going to have a break. We are going to have a snack.
Paul: It could be an actual physical timer then too that shows how much time is remaining in the break or whatever.
Vicki: Yeah. And I've seen a lot of kids responding really well to timers, especially the ones that count down. They like those.
Paul: You know, any time we get into this discussion about how do I help my kid to concentrate more, that's always based on the parents' motivation to help them concentrate. I think it's helpful to go down to their level. So, just put yourself in the kids’ head for a minute. Why should they concentrate? You've got 10 reasons as a parent why this would be important, but they might not have a single good reason to do it. So, we have to help provide those reasons for them. Check out our YouTube channel for other videos about consequences and the use of effective and positive consequences. All that does really is give them a good reason to concentrate. And you may need to do some behavioral planning with some effective consequences that allows you to assist them in their concentration.
Vicki: We also have a video on the parenting playlist about getting kids to focus better.
Paul: And we are here to support you in your positive parenting. The very first step to that is to get a copy of my book, Pathological Positivity. We will give you a free copy if you pick up the shipping. Go to drpauljenkins.com. Click on the big orange button once you get there and we send you a copy of the book.