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Oregon Family Magazine

Neuroscience to Boost

12/30/2023 ● By Dr. Rebecca Jackson
When your child struggles to focus or stay on task, you may find yourself uttering, “Come on, try harder. You can do this.” While those words are well-meaning, they can do more harm than good. Struggles with attention are usually not from a lack of effort. This child often has to work harder throughout the day to accomplish the same tasks others can do easily. And with this knowledge that they are trying, yet still falling short of expectations set by parents and teachers, can come with feelings of self-doubt and shame.  

To counteract the frustrations attention challenges can create, implementing strategies to optimize and improve attention can help reduce stress and build confidence. 

Create a Routine that Signals the Brain that it’s Time to Focus.

Start by creating a dedicated space for kids to do their work that minimizes visual and noise distractions. Pick a space that is not far from where you are but is quiet and calm. 

Next, engage the sense of smell to engage the brain and support memory. Diffusing essential oils during homework time will not only be pleasant, but a recent study out of the University of California at Irvine saw a significant increase in cognition by leveraging the power of the connection between olfaction (smelling) and memory.  

Finally, begin homework time with ten minutes of vigorous exercise. While it may sound counterintuitive to have your kids move before sitting quietly, you’ll quickly notice the benefits of this routine. Studies have shown that in as little as 10 minutes, individuals who engage in physical activity score higher on cognition tests, including attention and memory. 

You Strengthen What You Practice

Sustained attention is the ability to block out distractions and maintain focus for an extended period. This aspect is needed to sit through a math class, a work meeting, or to write an article. This differs from the type of attention used to play video games or scrolling social media.  

When it comes to muscles and the brain, you strengthen what you use. It’s important to find balance in the types of attention kids use each day. People often gravitate to tasks that do not require sustained attention, such as playing video games or scrolling social media (these tasks utilize short bursts of attention that differ from sustained attention). Ensuring kids practice sustained attention daily helps improve this type of attention.  Reading a book, playing a board game, having a conversation, cooking, arts and crafts, and playing softball are all activities that utilize sustained attention.  

Reduce Stress to Maximize Focus

Stress hijacks your brain, or the more technical description is an amygdala hijack. The amygdala is a small but mighty part of the brain that processes emotions and connects emotions with other brain functions, including sensory and memory. Psych Central describes this scenario of a brain hijack as “when strong emotions take over the thinking part of your brain.” This means that times of high stress, anger, or anxiety reduce the ability to sustain attention, engage memory, or regulate reactions and behaviors. 

If your child worries about how they’ll do on a math test, it will be harder to focus on test preparation. Stressing about how much work they have to do will make it take longer to complete. Just saying “homework” can elicit a stress response for our kids, making it harder for them to focus. 

To help reduce homework stress, start by identifying the source of your child’s anxiety. If they feel overwhelmed with the work they must complete, you can guide them to make a to-do list. If they’re worried about not understanding the content, reviewing the material or finding a YouTube video demonstrating the concept can be helpful. Reassure your child that you’re there to help and support them. Whether that means allowing you to review the content or staying in the room while they work independently, you can still show support.   

Mindfulness Meditation for Kids to Improve Attention

Mindfulness meditation focuses on awareness of self and helps to improve attention, even in kids and beginners to meditation.

Taking a few moments each night at bedtime to practice breathwork can be a great place to begin mindfulness meditation practice for kids of all ages. With your child, place one hand on the chest and one on the stomach.  Take a deep breath in, breathing deep into their tummy. Then, slowly release the breath. Prompt your child to be aware of the rise and fall of their stomach and listen to their breath. Begin with just a few breaths, then gradually work up to doing this for several minutes over time.  

Not only is this deep breathing exercise very calming before bedtime, but it is also a sustained focus activity. Spending quiet time and being aware of your body and thoughts exercises attentional pathways in the brain, helping improve focus over time.  The hardest part of beginning mindfulness meditation with your child is not falling asleep as you do together!  

For more tips and strategies to optimize your child’s abilities and development, read Back on Track: A Practical Guide to Help Kids of All Ages Thrive, available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or anywhere you buy books!