I’m a teacher, and every school year I see so many intelligent students who get bad grades because they can’t focus. They‘re bored by their textbooks, zone out in class discussions, or give up if the activity is too hard or tedious. They miss out on so many opportunities to learn and succeed, simply because they never learned to focus on a task. “If it’s not fun, I don’t want to do it.”
Attention span, focus, and mental discipline
Attention span is a child’s ability to give undivided attention to a specific task at hand. There is a natural attention span that is based on age. “On average, a child should be able to stay focused on a task for two to five minutes times the year of their age,” says developmental behavioral pediatrician Neal Rojas to Parents magazine. So, a preschooler can concentrate for about 15 minutes, while those in early grades can concentrate for 30 minutes.
But as a child grows older, he learns how to block out other stimuli (like background noise) and eventually develops the mental discipline to stick to a task. That’s where parents can help. We can build their ability to focus, starting from an early age.
Break tasks into chunks
Children will find it easier to work on short activities with frequent breaks than being forced to study for an hour. That’s exactly how most preschools structure their subjects. “We alternate reading or listening activities with something more physical or social,” explains preschool director Totie Martinez.
However, the activities usually center around one theme, so children learn how to stick to a topic. “For example, we will have the Letter of the Day or Animals in the Ocean, but always use different approaches,” says Totie.
Use different ways of teaching
Totie adds that it’s important to think of how a child learns. “Many parents measure attention span by how long kids can concentrate on a book or a writing activity. But kids process information in different ways. They can use their hands, talk to you about what they read, sing, draw.
If your child avoids an activity (like drills or reading books) and struggles to sit through even five minutes, switch tactics. “Don’t give up on the lesson, change the way you teach it.”
Over time, this also builds your child’s confidence. “Many students give up not because they’re bored, but because they’re frustrated or afraid to fail. Switching tasks or approaches keeps them interested and shows them that they can learn anything they put their mind to.”
Play board games (or any activity that needs steps)
Board games actually demand your child’s full attention. He has to remember whose turn it is, follow rules, count the dice, and move objects around the board. It’s the perfect way to teach kids to stay focused while still having fun.
Aside from board games, try activities that require kids to follow instructions or steps. This includes baking cookies, craft kits, build kits, or origami. Follow your child’s interests. If he likes cars, start a DIY project where he makes his own racetrack or car garage. He’ll be naturally interested in the activity, but will also be forced to focus on following the steps.
Some studies show that exercise can help kids pay attention, and that even 20 minutes of physical activity improved their performance in tests or class discussion. Since they can’t go out in the playground, look for ways to sneak in physical activity in their day.
If you don’t have a yard, try these ideas from other parents. “I found some YouTube videos that teach Kpop dance steps, and my daughter loves it!” says Ciara. Tony, who lives in a condo with his three sons, got a video game where kids can play virtual baseball and basketball. “It was worth the investment, because now it’s our family bonding activity—and there’s kickboxing and dancing too, which my wife is using to lose weight.”
Build curiosity and confidence
Don’t interpret a short attention span as laziness, rebellion, or a natural weakness in a subject. “Once you label the child and say ‘He hates Math’ or ‘tamad magbasa’ it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You give up, and if your child hears it, he will give up too. Just build curiosity and confidence first. Teach a topic in a different way, praise his attempts. Once he is more confident in the subject and is curious about it, he will be more open to drills or books,” says Totie.
If a child loses interest in an activity, allow a short break but guide him back to the task. Don’t let him completely drop or give up on it. You can set a goal: “Finish this page first, and then you can have a snack.” Or, “Let’s take a break, but we need to finish Math homework before lunch time.”
And reinforce persistence—not just in homework, but chores or even frustrating games. If you tell him to put away his toys but he abandons it midway to watch TV, don’t clean up then scold him. Instead, calmy and firmly lead him back to the task and make him finish it.
Follow a daily routine
Routines give children a sense of security and develop discipline. You won’t have to fight them everyday to get them off the gadget to do their homework; they get used to the schedule and can even prepare themselves for the next activity, which lets them settle quickly into the task.
Make sure they get the right nutrition and sleep
Your child’s physical well-being has a real effect on his ability to focus and concentrate. Make sure he gets enough sleep every night, and gets nutritious meals throughout the day. Replace high-sugar snacks with more nutritious alternatives like apple slices with peanut butter and a glass of milk, or tuna on whole-wheat bread. This gives a steady stream of energy that powers their body and their brain through the tasks of each day.
Nurture your child’s ability to focus and concentrate. Don’t be impatient or yell at him if he’s distracted. Instead, give him the structure and teach him the skills to stick to a task until he succeeds.
In the beginning, these lessons may be as simple as teaching him to put away his toys or sit through a book. But as his attention span grows longer and the tasks grow more difficult, it becomes the mental discipline that will serve him well in school, in work, and in life.
About The Writer
Dedet Reyes-Panabi was editor-in-chief of a parenting magazine for over 10 years, but has been writing for newspapers and magazines much longer than that (hint: back then, people still used film for photo shoots!). Today, she is a content marketing consultant for both local and international companies. She is full-time mom to two kids, three cats, and a stubborn French bulldog.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are his/her own, and does not state or reflect those of Wyeth Nutrition and its principals.