Do you ever worry about your child’s ability to focus? Many parents do. But how many of us are overlooking the fact that today’s kids are growing up in a busy world full of stimuli that their developing brains just aren’t equipped to manage well?
Fortunately, cultivating the ability to pay attention can be pretty simple—and makes for some beautiful moments with your child too.
How attention works
At any given time, the brain receives messages (via sensory systems like sight or smell) about the world, some more important than others. It deals with this information deluge by engaging two kinds of processing: top-down and bottom-up.
Say you meet for business in a busy coffee shop. Your top-down attention processing helps you focus on the meeting, while the bottom-up attention processing distracts you through myriad stimuli. Maintaining focus becomes a game of tug-of-war between the two.
The task is even harder for children. “Attention is a cognitive process that develops over time as children grow,” says Gail Johnson, a pediatric occupational therapist.
Humans rely on more than one type of attention to survive, learn, and thrive, she explains, so considering just one will not give an accurate picture. Attention types include sustained (ability to focus on one task), selective (ability to focus on a selected stimulus while filtering out others), alternating (ability to switch back and forth between two tasks requiring different cognitive functions), and divided (ability to respond to two or more demands simultaneously).
If we’re asking children to perform tasks they’re not interested in, they’ll be easily distracted, cautions Johnson, but that doesn’t mean they’re unable to focus in general.
“Meeting children at their level of performance and increasing the level of challenge as you go will keep them focused,” says Johnson. When they’re focused, children are able to ask questions and participate in conversations; they can problem-solve, which enhances self-confidence and the ability to learn and tackle difficult tasks; and they learn that different types of attention are employed at different times.
How to foster better focus
Never doubt the power of a good snuggle-and-read session. Reading to children helps them develop empathy and listening and language skills, and it enhances their ability to focus as they discuss captivating story plots and moral and social issues.
Same goes for playing together. “When we play with children, they get our full attention,” says Johnson. And playing, whether by themselves or with others, keeps children focused; it helps them develop social skills, learn to solve problems, and manage their feelings (or at least start to do so).
Multiple studies have concluded that nature has a rejuvenating effect on attention in both adults and children. Having windows facing green spaces or taking field trips in nature increased attention and helped decrease stress. Bonus: Impulse control is better after some nature time.
Are screens the worst? Or can they help?
Babies and toddlers benefit the most from face-to-face interactions and real-life experiences and less so from exposure to screens, be those TVs, tablets, or phones.
Children who watch too much TV early in life may have delayed language skills, but larger studies have concluded that two hours or less of daily screen time won’t harm cognitive performance in older children as long as they get at least 60 minutes of exercise daily and nine to 11 hours of sleep.
“Avoid using the television or other screens for babysitting,” cautions Johnson. Instead, reserve some time to watch together and chat about it.
“Observe the child and the activity they’re engaged in on screens,” says Johnson. Certain functional skills can be sharpened through computer activities, but there is no one-size-fits-all advice. “Be aware of the game your child is playing and see if they’re developing skills that are transferable to life activities.”
Most of us can only focus on one activity at a time. While some people have better divided attention, overall focus and performance are affected when we try to attend to more than one activity at a time. Multitasking is not the holy grail of time management (surprise!).
What sabotages your child’s ability to focus?
- tiredness (either after a long day or due to lack of proper sleep)
- hunger (or too many highly processed foods)
- lack of physical exercise
- nature deficit
- emotional distress
- impending illness
TIP! Observe your child’s emotional state as they’re disengaging from screens (tip: There should be no emotional distress).
Why omega-3s are so important for kids
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the two major classes of polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs. Omega-3s include:
- ALA—alpha-linolenic acid—found in plant oils like flaxseed, soybean, and canola
- EPA—eicosapentaenoic acid—found in fish and their oils, as well as krill oils
- DHA—docosahexaenoic acid—also present in fish and krill oils
We have to get omega-3s through our diets and/or supplements.
What do they help with?
Omega-3s provide our bodies with energy and support healthy cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, and endocrine function.
These healthy fats are particularly important for development in the womb and throughout childhood. EPA and DHA are thought to help promote healthy mood balance and support the growth of the brain, eyes, and nerves in children up to 12 years of age.
How can you make sure your child gets enough?
The main source of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are fish oils; algal oils are also available for those who don’t eat fish. You’ll find these supplements in your local health food store as capsules, softgels, bottled liquids, and even gummies.
What’s their role in ADHD management?
Many people diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also have deficiencies and imbalances of omega-3s during their developmental years. So researchers are interested in the role of omega-3 supplementation in treating symptoms of ADHD.
In 2017, a systematic review investigated the outcomes of 25 randomized controlled trials examining the effect of combined EPA and DHA supplementation on ADHD symptoms. The authors discovered that longer trials led to the greatest improvements in ADHD symptoms.
Which nutrients support brain health and focus?
- water (dehydration means restlessness, irritability, and confusion)
- protein for neurotransmitters and balanced blood sugar levels
- B-complex vitamins for attention and memory
- choline and zinc for brain development, sensory processing, memory, and cognition
- omega-3s for learning, memory, and mood regulation (see “Why omega-3s are so important for kids”)
Can certain foods help or hold kids back?
Eating the right kinds of foods is essential for a child’s brain development.
“Cooking and baking from scratch is the best way to eat for brain health,” says Heather Parkinson, a registered holistic nutritionist. Some additives and preservatives, along with color chemicals and flavor enhancers, can adversely affect our brain, she adds.
Your child’s ability to focus is best when their blood sugar levels are balanced, which can be achieved, Parkinson explains, by combining a healthy protein or fat source with a natural carbohydrate, such as a piece of cheese or a handful of nuts with an apple or other fruit. Food intolerances and allergies can also affect focus. Parkinson advises keeping an eye on newly introduced foods.