Expert Tips Help Your Child Focus in Class and on Homework
Improved concentration levels mean better classroom performance. On March 18, 2015, Carolina Parent hosted a live Facebook chat with Dr. Rebecca Jackson, Center Director, of Brain Balance of Cary. Here's a transcript of the conversation:
Carolina Parent Magazine: Welcome to the Carolina Parent and Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina"Optimizing Your Child's Attention and Focus in the Classroom and at Homework Time" LIVE Facebook chat! Today we'll be talking with Dr. Rebecca Jackson, Center Director. READERS: We welcome your questions as a comment below this post. Don't forget to REFRESH your page!
Carolina Parent Magazine: Welcome Dr. Jackson! Onto the first question: What are different factors that can play a role in the success of focus for a child?
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Frontal lobe development (the last area of the brain to develop and the area that controls impulses, and keeps our mind focused on the task at hand). Also the startle response. Kids that still have this will be more distracted than others with loud noises, etc. Food – protein helps us focus, sugar interferes with focus.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Auditory processing can also impact – if this area of the brain is immature it is more difficult for the child to tune out background noise.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Don't assume that your child's brain works like yours – we have more mature brains so more of an ability to tune things out, prioritize, etc.
Carolina Parent Magazine: "Don't assume that your child's brain works like yours" – great reminder, Dr. Jackson!
Carolina Parent Magazine: You mentioned frontal lobe development. Can you explain the science a bit further as to why adults have longer attention than children?
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Frontal lobe is the area of the brain that differentiates us from the animal kingdom. It allows us deeper thought and reasoning, emotional regulation, focus, organization, etc. This is the last area of the brain to develop, and isn't fully formed until our mid 20's in an ideal situation. For children with any sort of even very minor complication or immaturity in development this area of the brain is impacted since it is the last area to develop, and complications at lower levels will hold back development in this area.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: This is why we only expect a 2-3 year old to have minutes for attention, and this increases as we age. As adults with healthy frontal lobe function we figure out strategies to help us optimize this area – we eat protein because we realize that too much coffee on an empty stomach intereferes with our productivity. We get up to go to the bathroom and move around to give our brains a break before we refocus. Younger children with more immature function will have a harder time figuring out these strategies on their own.
Sherry Sesso Franke: We know that our son is intelligent, and his teachers tell us so, but what we don't understand is why school and homework is suddenly so hard for him when it comes to reading comprehension or figuring out a math word problem. Help!
Carolina Parent Magazine: Thank you for your great question, Sherry Sesso Franke!
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Ability to understand the work and ability to get it down and turned in on time are two very separate pieces. In fact, so many of the kids we work with here at Brain Balance actually have ABOVE AVERAGE intelligence. A bright child can still have immaturity in frontal lobe development that gives us focus, organization, and impulse control. School will take another big leap forward, even for a very bright child, when their ability to complete the work in a more timely fashion, or do the work then actually remember to turn it in comes together.
Sherry Sesso Franke: That makes a lot of sense…. my son completes his homework, but consistently forgets to turn in his homework and finds it in his backpack weeks or months later.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Sherry, you also brought up two really key points with reading COMPREHENIONS and math STORY problems. Left brain memorizes information, and right brain helps us to understand what that actually means. We can have a child that is excellent with early math, and can solve every problem correctly, but struggles to figure out what the story problem is asking him to do. This is two different parts of the brain. It is possible to have a child at or even above age appropriate in left brain developmental pieces, but still struggle with right brain. Other things that can go along with right brain development can be emotional regulation (how do you handle yourself when you get upset), transitions, personal space, boundaries, social interactions, etc
Sherry Sesso Franke: My own school and homework struggles as a child just flashed before my eyes, I HATED math word problems…. thank you for the clarification. This explains SO much.
Ashley-Ruth Moolenaar Bernier: Are there any self-check strategies I can teach my son to use so that he can remain focused in the classroom? He's only in kindergarten, and that age group definitely has a high need for movement, but I've been told he tends to become more distracted than his other classmates. His teacher helps him to refocus, but how can I help him to begin to regulate himself?
Carolina Parent Magazine: Thank you for asking this, Ashley-Ruth Moolenaar Bernier! Great question that will help many parents.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Kindergarten is a really tough age for self-regulation. The child first must cognitively have the understanding of cause/effect, then have the frontal lobe ability to implement. For example, the expectation is to keep eye on teacher and follow along, but when a friend walks by the door the child wants to wave and say hello! First he needs to understand why that is not acceptable, then right brain frontal lobe needs to be strong enough to control that impulse. Having as many visual cues and reminders as possible, and breaking things up into small increments will be necessary. Physical, physical, physical as well. Have him do stair sprints right before leaving for school and encourage as much running at recess. See if teacher will allow for gum, or sitting on an exercise ball. These both can be effective strategies to activate more muscles to help focus the brain.
Ashley-Ruth Moolenaar Bernier: Thank you so much! Now that it's warming up, we'll have to start running/biking to school again. I'll talk to his teacher about your suggestions. James Bernier Jr, tagging you so that you can follow this conversation as well.
Whitney Banks Swenson: I'm struggling with finding the right environmental balance at homework time. Too quiet is as bad as too noisy but life has to go on even at homework time. Then add in the need to use the computer for assignments and the distractions increase. Any suggestions for balancing the environment? Both my 12yo have diagnosed challenges on top of it.
Carolina Parent Magazine: Awesome question, Whitney Banks Swenson. Thank you for asking this question!
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: While you can't always control noises coming from outside and the chaos that goes with family life (and pets at my house) creating a routine and minimizing the extra chaos is helpful. Clear off the area you are going to work (no clutter laying around to distract). Jump 100 times, or something to use your muscles to use your brain. Write a list of what needs to be accomplished. Set a goal for how much time it should take to finish those tasks, then use a visual timer to see if you are on track for meeting your goal. Have your child check the items off on your list as he/she goes. Take "brain breaks" if the amount of time is exceeding 20 minutes. End the routine with cleaning everything up and packing it away so it is ready for school/work in the morning.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: With the technology still take breaks. If 2/3 homework tasks involve computer don't do these tasks back-to-back, and do as much as you can without a screen.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: At 12 years of age with some minor concerns I would want as little background noise as possible as his brain will not be "dual processing yet" so you don't want his brain fighting to tune things out instead of concentrating on the task at hand.
Whitney Banks Swenson: Thank you!
Don Hoffman: When doing different types of homework, say writing (right brain activity) versus math (left brain activity), is there different approaches to each that would help our child change gears and focus more and do better in each?
Carolina Parent Magazine: Great question, Don Hoffman! Thank you for posting.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Love that you are bringing right vs. left into this! Remember however that there is math for left and for right. Understanding the story problem and the concept is actually right brain, versus solving the equation is left brain. Fine motor is left brain, but getting left and right to all work together takes hemispheric integration, or the brain's ability to multi-task! For all of this utilizing the muscles is one of THE most successful strategies. To get more specific with left brain memory work (i.e. spelling or memorization) using a left brain smell that activates that area of the brain can be helpful (lavendar, citrus, etc). Also having a child spin activates large areas of the brain. The goal is to "wake the brain up" to get it ready to work and learn!
Brenda Larson: The left brain smell concept is absolutely fascinating to me.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Brain research is so cool Functional MRI's can show what areas of the brain are activated by different stimuli. So we can measure what is activated with different smells, light, physical activity, etc. This is the same research that is being used in cutting edge approaches with stroke, brain injury, post-concussion, etc. Looking at changing output in particular areas of the brain by increasing level of activation and connectivity in the desired region. Changing output NOT by practicing what they struggle with, but strengthening that area of the brain.
Sue Chen: Why is it hard to get teenagers to focus on tasks?
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: All of us procrastinate to a certain degree, and even more if they are tasks we don't enjoy. As adults we hopefully have full frontal lobe development which gives us the ability to organize and prioritize. Which means even if I hate the stress of paying bills, I know it has to get done by a certain time so I do it anyway. Our teens do not have full frontal lobe ability so their organizational strategy and ability will not be fully developed. Not to mention this is with optimal development. If there are any complications in development it will hold back this area even more.
Carolina Parent Magazine: "Senioritis" is definitely a real thing!
Sue Chen: Thank you!
Beth Poland Shugg: How does the brain's ability to focus change during the teen years? My sons (17 and 16) both listen to music while they do homework. They say it helps them focus better. Granted, the music is typically mellow, but could this be a distraction?
Carolina Parent Magazine: Great question, Beth! How does what some perceive as "white noise" help or hinder concentration levels?
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: This depends on the student and their level of development. The older a child is, and if auditory processing is at or above age appropriate our brain develops the ability to "filter" out sound. This means I can tune out background noise in order to concentrate. This can happen at a high level beginning around age 13. For some students additional background noise can actually help them hyper-focus. For kids younger than age 13, or if showing any signs of immaturity in this area I would not encourage this. Signs of immaturity in auditory processing would be the child that frequently needs things repeated, or struggles at all with attention and focus.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: We can see flux in focus as a child is progress through development. Things happen in "pops and plateaus" and when one area of the brain is having a big "pop" it can actually pull energy from other areas of the brain, so you can have a few periods or days where focus is harder than others, but this should level out in healthy development. Lots of sleep, protein and physical activity can help to optimize during these times, and all times really!
Beth Poland Shugg: Very helpful, thanks! Now I won't feel like I need to fuss at them when they have Spotify going while they're doing homework on the computer. In their defense, they listen to classical, movie soundracks and, um, Pink Floyd! (Gotta have one rock band in there.) Pretty mellow for the most part.
Lauren Isaacs: I read an article that said standing desk could help children focus better in the classroom and another article where a school implemented "movement breaks" into the curriculum which gave them "renewed focus." Can movement really affect our child's focus?
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: There is so much exciting research in this area. Remember the old adage "sit up to pay attention?" There is huge truth to this! Using our muscles actually increases the base-line activation or "idle speed" of our brain. This can help to encourage more focus, and can actually enhance memory, all things that help with learning! We talk to our kids at Brain Balance all the time about "using your muscles to turn on your brain." I wish our schools did more to incorporate this into the classroom. Even just one minute of using the muscles is showing to help increase focus and memory in learning.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: "Spark" is an excellent book talking about this concept!
Lauren Isaacs: Wow, even one minute – amazing. Thanks for the book recommendation!
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: More and more fortune 500 companies are using stand up desks, putting gyms in the office and encouraging movement. It increases productivity int eh workplace and the same concept applies to homework and school.
Carolina Parent Magazine: How do we know the difference between child immaturity/lack of focus and a real developmental problem? What are those common red flags to look for?
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Good question that will be hard to answer in a few sentences. Watching attention and focus is a great red flag to observe. Since this is the last area of the brain to develop concerns here are often indicative of further complications or concerns. Watch your child compared to their peers or siblings; how often are you needing to re-direct focus, remind to keep hands to themselves. Are you able to give the child a multi-step instruction and they can carry it out (this will differ depending on the age). Talk to the classroom teacher if you, they have a room full of comparables. There are differences in expectation with age and gender, but a class full of 6 year old boys and girls, does your child stand out in the number of re-directions.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: At Brain Balance we are looking to see WHY frontal lobe, or other areas of the brain did not develop at the same rate as everything else. And minor things early on hold back that chain of events. To optimize the outcomes or productivity of the child you want to make that each step along the way is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. This will catch things up initially, but even more importantly allow for future development to happen at a more age appropriate rate to keep things on track going forward.
Carolina Parent Magazine: Submitted by a reader: "I am definitely a bit scatter-brained (hey, I'm a multi-tasking mom!). Is there a way I can be a better role model for my child's concentration, which is also a bit scatter-brained."
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Good timing with this question. See my response to Whitney Bank's question on creating an effective environment for homework. Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Write out your list of tasks together, even if your child only has 1 or two items to accomplish, this is a great lifelong strategy to start implementing!
Carolina Parent Magazine: From a reader: "My child has always been sensitive to loud noises and is easily startled. He's school-age now and I'm wondering if this sensitivity could affect his school performance down the road."
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: DEFINITELY!!! We are all born with a startle response that triggers pupil dilation, increases heart rate, etc. As our system matures we grow out of this response to a certain degree (if you jumped out of a closet and said boo I would still react, but a horn honking outside during my meeting should not trigger this same response). For the student that has not matured beyond this reflex startle stimuli will pull focus, no matter how much the child wants to please you by staying on task. Their body goes into "fight or flight" mode and they have the need to check out that noise. If I said to you concentrate really hard to make your pupils dilate you wouldn't be able to do that, this isn't something you can control. Same thing for the child that hasn't outgrown this reflex, they don't have the ability to block this out so it doesn't impact them. It can also really drive up levels of anxiety and aggression in a child.
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: This is a reflex that kids should outgrow, so it is possible that he/she will eventually outgrow this, but the concern is this should really be gone by 2 years of age, so if you are still seeing this reaction there is an immaturity in the rate at which this is integrating.
Carolina Parent Magazine: Are there any brain-teasers or games that kids can do to improve their concentration and focus?
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Yes. These types of activities tend to be more left brain stimulatory which can increase memory and focus and will have less of an impact on impulse control. On-line programs like Lumosity can be excellent stimulators for parts of the brain, however the child/adult needs to already have a very high level of functional ability for this to really have an impact. Games and brain teasers stimulate frontal lobe as well as left brain memory components. Frontal lobe is one of the last areas of the brain to fully develop. You need high level frontal lobe function for the activities to "stick." This means if there is an immaturity in this region of the brain, you can see some short-term symptomatic change which doing the games/exercises, but you will not continue to see the benefit if you are not continuing with the activity. My goal for kids is always permanent, lasting change so that you can stop playing the game, and still see the long-term benefit. This comes from actually maturing the brain, not simply stimulating.
Carolina Parent Magazine: I think that's all the time we have! Thank you to Dr. Jackson of Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina for your time and expert advice. We think you helped A LOT of parents today!
Brain Balance, Cary, North Carolina: Parting words as this chat wraps up. Keep your kids active! Even just 5-10 minutes of using the muscles right before homework can be hugely helpful, and fun. Run, jump rope, squats, burpees, etc. Get creative and have FUN with this. Teach your kids that muscles turn on the brain as this is a lifelong concept for success. Then take breaks. A one minute physical break of using the muscles again can eek out extra work time that is productive!
Carolina Parent Magazine: Just amazing what our brains are capable of. Thanks so much for your time and advice, Dr. Jackson!