Focus Factors: Beef Up Your Child’s Mental Stamina
Tips and tools for helping your child work longer and more productively.
Tony swore that he would work hard with his math tutor today. He was crushed by his last quiz grade and wanted to do well on the next one. But when the session was over, his tutor reported that, five minutes after starting work, he wiggled in his chair, made silly comments, and drifted in and out of focus. Sound familiar?
Low mental stamina is frustrating for instructors, but it’s frustrating for kids with weak attention, too. They don’t understand why they can’t sustain focus or sit still. Luckily, the right strategies at home and school improve your child’s mental stamina.
Recharging Mental Batteries
Is your child a fidgeter? This is usually an easy question to answer. The less obvious, more important, question, is: What kind of fidgeter is he? Fidgety kids come in two types:
- The child’s fidgeting takes him off task. The child becomes too absorbed in tapping his feet in a rhythm or unraveling the hem of his shirt to attend to what’s around him.
- The child remains attentive while he is moving. He doesn’t pay attention despite his movement, he pays attention because of it. For many kids who struggle with focus, physical movement is a way to recharge their mental batteries. The attentive fidgeter may do a great job of reviewing flashcards with you while pacing around the room, but if you have him sit still his focus will usually evaporate.
If your child falls into the second category, finding ways to let him move during instruction and work periods will increase his ability time he stays focused. At home, let him do his homework while standing at the kitchen counter or have him sit in a chair that spins, so he can twist gently back and forth. At school, have him try a sit disc. If his classroom is carpeted, ask his teacher if you can give him a short piece of wooden dowel to roll beneath his feet. Or, try tying a Theraband from one desk leg to another so that he can bounce his feet up and down underneath it.
The sky’s the limit with movement strategies, with two important caveats:
- His movements must help him focus and work. If he spends more time spinning in the chair than working on his Spanish homework, the chair is not an ideal tool.
- At school, his movements shouldn’t disturb his classmates. He must respect his classmates’ right to a distraction-free classroom.
For the fidgety child whose movement takes him off task, sit discs and standing desks are unlikely to help. But just as a long-distance runner can improve his stamina, a child can improve his mental work stamina with training.
Start by asking your child to work for as long as he can after school. Use a timer and stop it when his focus starts to flag. That’s the baseline. Set the timer again and give him a 10-minute break – ideally, it should involve physical movement, not screen time. Ask him to work for the same amount of time again and give him another 10-minute break. Repeat until his work is finished. The next day, see if he can increase his work time by 30 seconds or one minute. Reward him if he can, but remember that increasing his stamina will take time.
Other strategies can also help your child work for longer periods. For example, suggest that he try switching tasks if he feels that he is running out of gas before he takes a break. Sometimes trading one assignment for another can fill his mental gas tank. Another reason your child may stop work prematurely is because he feels like he’s not making progress. Make his progress visible by making a checklist of all of his tasks, so he can cross them off as he finishes them.
If necessary, break tasks into pieces. For example, instead of one list called “Grammar Worksheet,” write “Grammar Worksheet, numbers 1-5” and “Grammar Worksheet, numbers 6-10.” This helps your child see his progress on a single task, which may increase his willingness to stick with his work.
Chart the time your child spends focused and the number of breaks he needs on a piece of paper. Celebrate with him as his stamina improves and his need for breaks diminishes. A rewards system could be effective. Your child’s teacher may wish to set up a similar system in the classroom.
A word about timers: This indispensable tool can encourage some kids and distract others. If your child spends more time focusing on the timer than his work, keep the timer in a place where he can’t see it.
Don’t forget to use the preview and review processes in conjunction with your stamina-building strategies.