According to a recent proprietary study by Narbis; a technology company dedicated to creating wellness products to enhance attention and concentration, the majority of parents—63 percent—report that their children’s homework is a source of household stress and frustration. To any parent of a child during this age of smartphones, this news will come with little shock and much consternation.
One worry common among parents of children who’ve shown a tendency to lose focus is that their young student may have a clinical problem like ADHD or a learning disability. Regardless of medical diagnosis, families of students of all ages can benefit from professional advice to hone their focus and stay on task. Here are some tips from mental health professionals for children to improve concentration and for families to minimize anguish come homework time.
- Create and maintain a space dedicated to homework.
A quiet space away from the television, video game console, or loud siblings, stocked with all of the supplies a child needs to get work done will not just help prevent distraction; it will also help to establish a routine. “When parents create an organized space for homework, kids can help to keep it maintained,” says Adina Mahalli, a certified mental health expert and family care specialist who blogs for Maple Holistics.
This being said, before your family knows what distractions to avoid or prevent, there has to be an inventory of what noises or settings cause your child to be distracted in the first place. Tania DaSilva, clinical director and owner of Behaviour Matters, a Toronto-based therapeutic mental health program, suggests that parents first do an inventory of their child’s distractions and stimuli, then act accordingly. Depending on the cause at hand, “a few simple minimization tricks to try are noise-cancelling headphones, setting phones to airplane mode, or having a signal to focus such as a closed door or sign” can all help, she says.
2. Have tools on hand that will stimulate the senses.
Just ask anyone who’s had to share an office with a terminal knuckle cracker: Changes in what one hears or sees can be a disruption to workflow. At the same time, stimulating other senses can help concentration. At first blush, this seems a bit counterintuitive. Why does fidgeting help focus, rather than distract from the task at hand?
The answer: Some children lose focus when their sensory needs are not met. Remember the fidget spinner craze a couple years back? Or how doodling in your notebook helped you not just survive—but retain—that knowledge from that desert-dry seventh-grade history lecture on the Grange?
Tactile experiences can help students remain present and help increase brain alertness. Dr. Roseanna Capanna-Hodge, a pediatric mental health expert with a practice based in Ridgefield, Connecticut who uses neurofeedback training with her patients, notes that tools that stimulate the sense of touch such as weighted blankets or a sensory “wiggle” seat cushion can truly be a “game-changer for kids who are distracted by their unmet sensory needs.”
Along similar lines, taste—or perhaps more accurately, the feeling of chewing—can help keep the brain alert, as it’s a form of movement and thus can help get students through mentally challenging tasks. Capanna-Hodge suggests chewing gum or chewy snacks such as jerky or fruit leather as homework snacks would work great for this purpose (and could be a part of setting up the work area as outlined in tip #1).
Another good choice for the sensory snack list, she continues, is carbonated beverages, as the feeling of bubbles helps with alertness. (Those parents looking to cut down on their children’s sugar consumption might consider seltzer, as Dr. Capanna-Hodges recommended in an email.)
3. Prioritize the most challenging tasks.
It might seem like whittling down the to-do list by knocking off the easiest items first would be the way to go. Not so, say the child psychology experts we interviewed. The tasks that likely will take the most mental energy should come first. “Wasting precious mental energy on homework items that are easy will make the hard tasks even tougher to get through,” says Capanna-Hodge.
Next question: How do you, as the parent, figure out what actually is the hardest assignment in your child’s backpack? Turn into a learning experience for your child and engage them in establishing priorities in their own right.
DaSilva suggests asking children what are the three most important things they need to do that day. Besides the immediate payoff of cutting down on homework time, this labelling method will empower your child with valuable life skills such as an “on-task” mentality and gaining a sense of accomplishment from finishing a gargantuan assignment.
4. Stuck on a question? Move on or move around.
Is their mind wandering? Is that one word problem on tonight’s math assignment confusing your child into frustration? Move on to something else. “There’s no rule that demands you to complete a subject before moving to another,” Mahalli points out. During the course of doing that second assignment, your student might just get a new burst of inspiration on that befuddling task, heightening their sense of accomplishment that much more.
Getting stuck on a problem might mean it’s time to get up and walk around a bit. Stretching and moving engages the muscles, which in turn stimulates the brain and helps maintain concentration. For this reason, Dr. Capanna-Hodge suggests having your child work at a standing or adjustable table or desk as a way to integrate movement with homework.
5. Make homework a race against the clock.
Imagine the urgency you feel when you have a deadline looming vs. some date that seems far off. (Cases in point: Avoid the post office the evening before Tax Day; the supermarket the Wednesday before Thanksgiving; or any shopping establishment on December 24.)
All too often, that might be the situation the night before your middle schooler’s quarterly science project is due. Creating made-up deadlines will help your children apply that same sense of immediateness to their work and retain focus for that period of time. Consider putting a reward in place as motivation: “For example, you have 30 minutes to finish your reading, and then we will play outside,” she offers as a possibility.
You can use the clock to make homework a game in and of itself to help track and sharpen improvements in academics and ability to concentrate. “Children love competing,” DaSilva points out. Get them to compete against themselves: “Track how long it takes them to read—and understand—a certain number of pages and check back to see if their reading speed is getting faster.” Is math proving challenging? Try the same with getting through the number of math problems quickly and without mistakes.
Making it a point to check the clock or setting alarms at set times can offer an opportunity for a periodic mental check-in: Is their mind wandering? Are they doing something that’s off-task? A reminder that they are losing focus can help your child learn to redirect attention back to what needs to get done.
Homework and growing up.
Homework is an important part of growing up. Not just in terms of the educational content itself, but also in the goal-setting and sense of accomplishment it can impart on formative minds. Deadline setting, accomplishing to-do lists, and creating a workspace conducive to productivity are all key skills not just for getting through schoolwork, but are also life skills that will pay off throughout your child’s career. With a bit of strategizing—and gamification thrown in for good measure—your child can gain focus and concentration in this era of constant distraction.
The number of distractions at home doesn’t seem to be diminishing anytime soon. As a nonclinical device, Narbis looks to bolster focus and attention in the home through neurofeedback training. Wear Narbis for two or three 30-minute sessions a week while reading, working on a computer, or doing homework. Narbis provides instant feedback to help wearers recognize when they are distracted, giving the cue to get back on task.