Powering Down Powerful Distractions
Concentration is the ability to focus, and it is a crucial skill for success at school and at work. Educators today worry that the ability to concentrate is eroding under the relentless barrage of random messages from cell phones and social media. And this concern is justified. Brain research shows that when a person is distracted, the hippocampus — the part of the brain devoted to storing and recalling information — isn't engaged.
Parents need not necessarily try to discourage a child's enthusiasm for interactive media, but the beginning of the school year is a great time to set limits and establish routines that promote concentration.
One of the best ways to help children grasp the value of attention is to give them yours. When you're doing something with your child, don't allow yourself to be distracted by your cell phone or the one last thing you need to do online. Focus full attention on what your child is saying or what you are doing together. Make deliberate decisions about when you're available for phone calls, when the television is on and how long you'll spend on social media.
Children who grow up with the benefits of parental attention — and limits on attention-draining activities — will begin to understand that attention, like money, is a finite resource. You can squander it on shiny doodads that don't mean much or you can save it to spend on something that really matters.
The culture often sends kids the message that distraction is fun and concentration is drudgery. Parents can counter with the idea that concentration puts you in control of what your brain is doing while distraction turns that control over to others. Here are other ways to get that message across:
Budget tech time. Video games, social networking and other interactive pastimes do not need to be available 24/7. Establish tech-free times when kids do homework and engage in other activities that require concentration. Encourage older children to post an away message that says they won't be available. Make a humorous sign — "Student at work. Quiet please!" — to minimize interruptions from other family members. Find your own offline tasks so you can work side-by-side with your child. Make a point of turning off your own cell phone so you can write a thank-you note or read a report.
Design a tech-free workspace. Be sure your child has a designated space for homework where tools such as paper and dictionaries are close at hand and distractions such as video games and snacks aren't visible. Many children will protest that they need the Internet for every assignment, but that's not usually the full story. Some work — math problems, reading — will actually go faster if children are away from the screen. If they need to access a math assignment online, they can do the work elsewhere after printing the worksheet.
Find "prime time." Some children focus best right after school when the lessons of the day are still fresh. Others will do better after a snack, sports practice or even some social networking. Still others will get homework done in half the time if they get up early and do it first thing in the morning. Experiment with different times and help your child identify — and protect — the time when he or she is most able to concentrate.
Chunk the work. Help students divide homework into manageable portions so they are not paralyzed by the workload. When writing a book report, for example, it is often easier to focus on a single paragraph about a specific topic rather than the project as a whole. Older students may do better with a timetable that includes incentives — 30 minutes of homework earns 10 minutes of social networking. Just be sure to set a timer so homework resumes again after 10 minutes!
Teach attention. Even under optimal conditions, your child's mind may wander. Use a simple technique to help your child stretch out periods of attention. While doing homework, keep a 3-by-5 card close by and make a mark each time attention wanders. If the thought is important, jot it down. Tell your child not to be hard on himself for losing focus. Remind him that like any skill, concentration requires practice.
Make a game of it. Many classic, offline games require focused attention. Games like Scrabble and Memory (card matching) build concentration skills. Another fun memory builder is the old party game where you assemble a tray full of random objects and have everyone look at it. Then cover it and write down as many things as you can recall.
Keep in mind that technology is not the only culprit that can wreak havoc on concentration skills. Health problems, lack of sleep, too little exercise, stressful relationships and even poor nutrition can also make it hard for kids — and adults — to pay attention.
Encourage your children to make deliberate decisions about how to allocate brainpower. It is one of the best ways you can assure their success during the school year — and beyond.
Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.