Helping kids stay on task comes in a lot of different forms and for different reasons, which affects what tools you use. Each child is different too in their ability to stay on task. The ability to pay attention depends on their age as well as what focus time has been required of them in the past. Some children just tend to be more energetic than others, while others seem to find it easier to stay on task. All of these factors need to be considered when helping kids focus.
Setting appropriate expectations
The first step is having appropriate expectations for YOUR specific child. How old is your child? What is the energy level of your child? Is your child interested in what they need to focus on? Does your child have learning disabilities or a mental health disorder? Even if your child is average in most areas with good focus abilities, the length of time a child can focus is less than adults. You cannot expect your child to sit still for really long periods of time. When you become frustrated remember all of these factors to know what is appropriate for your child.
Once you have an idea of what is appropriate, setting expectations using Preventive Teaching helps prepare your child for rewards and consequences. Preventive Teaching is a tool to teach your child the specific behaviors that you expect of them. It also allows you to Role-play those expectations. Role-play is very important when implementing new behaviors with your child. Initially, setting up a reward system for following your expectations can also motivate for your child to use the positive behaviors you have taught.
Creating an optimal environment
A big part of helping kids stay on task is by setting up an appropriate environment that encourages concentration. One way you can do this is to have them go in a room away from people and other distractions. Even sitting near a window can be distracting for some children. You can also create a homework station out of a tri-fold poster board that has all the supplies they need attached to it.
Before your child begins the task, make sure they have everything they need and have gone to the bathroom before. This way they can sit down for the whole focus period without having to get up, which sets them up to become distracted.
Providing breaks and incentives
Children need breaks from learning and tasks. Even a 10-15 minute break is enough to give the brain a rest before focusing again. The length of time, both on-task and off-task, can be based on your child’s age and functioning. Setting timers for those focus periods can also be helpful, so they know when the end of the task will be, or how long they will have to complete a chore.
Providing incentives is also very helpful in creating motivation when helping kids focus. It doesn’t have to be a big reward or even a reward at all. You could just provide a way for your child to track completion or the minutes they’ve spent. For example, moving a pom-pom from one side of the table to the other each time a problem is completed or 5 minutes pass.
Activities to improve attention and concentration
Many activities can be used when helping kids focus. Daily exercise, especially outdoors, is very helpful in burning off energy and allowing the mind to focus when it’s time. Daily mindfulness and meditation is another tool that can help your child quiet the mind, as well as give activities they can turn to when they need to focus.
Other activities can increase concentration by increasing the blood flow and connections between both sides of the brain. BrainGym is one company that provides activities with motor skills that utilize both sides of the brain. These are great to use right before your child needs to focus.
Fidget toys are also helpful for children who tend to become distracted. It gives something for their hands and mind to do while focusing on what they need to do. If your child needs help staying on task with something more physical, such as household chores, playing music can provide a substitute for a fidget toy.
Let your child help set up a routine
Routines and schedules are surprisingly effective when helping kids stay on task. If your child does the same thing in the same way every day, there will be no need to argue or discuss what needs to be done each time the task is required. It’s predictable and becomes a natural behavior pathway for your child.
Have your child help set up the routine. Allow them to choose in what order to do tasks with some flexibility in the schedule. When they have some control over the schedule they’ll be more likely to take ownership and follow it.
If you approach helping kids stay on task as a positive teaching opportunity, it will go more smoothly. It will also provide extra opportunities to build a relationship with your child as you work together to find solutions. In this time of uncertainty, teaching your kids how to better focus may even heal and elevate your family life.
The topic of school at home and how to make it successful was covered in the following video and is a great resource for parents who want to learn more about helping kids focus.