Zooming in on keeping kids focused

Learning from home means tons of distractions. Here are a few ways to help block out the noise.

Constant butt shifting. Eyes glazing over. A sudden uptick in requests for help.

Any of these could be a warning sign that your learning-from-home kids need to “recharge their attention batteries,” says Gregory Fabiano, a clinical child psychologist and professor at Florida International University.

Concentrating on lessons all day can be a challenge for students under the best of circumstances. But with COVID-19 cases still spiking around the country, many kids are now facing the possibility of an entire semester (or more) in front of a screen. As any adult managing a daily Zoom schedule knows all too well, that’s a tough situation to stay focused in.

Maintaining focus is even harder for kids because they don’t fully grasp the benefits of learning their times tables or how to conjugate Spanish verbs. “Kids have difficulty with postponement,” says pediatric neurologist Nina Schor, deputy director of the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Even if there’s a payoff down the road, it’s tough for them. For things not intrinsically interesting, the attention span is short.”

Some parents may not understand why their kids are having trouble focusing. “They’ll say something like, ‘Jimmy can focus for hours on video games or Legos. How can he have attention problems? I think he’s just bored,’” says Timothy Verduin, director of the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity and Behavior Disorders Service at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center. But the reality is much more complex.

Attention depends on a number of factors, including the activity of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Favorite activities tend to trigger dopamine activity, which aids in learning and attention and keeps us engaged in things we find enjoyable. “The more you do something pleasurable, the more engaged you get and the more fun you have,” Verduin explains. “There’s an opposite pattern that occurs if you’re not interested in something.”

Brain chemistry and structure aside, attention also has a lot to do with the room where it happens. “The typical learning environment had stuff baked into it helping kids engage,” he adds. Students in school are able to get positive reinforcement by watching other kids hunched over worksheets or having a teacher ask, “Have you started on number 5?”

“But if you’re sitting by yourself with headphones, you have the entire Internet competing with what you’re supposed to be learning,” Verduin says. “In the present circumstances, there’s no telling the ways this is more challenging for a kid.”

So, the big test for every parent this fall is figuring out how to make distance learning come into focus. Here are a few tips.

Establish a routine

For starters, Fabiano advises, develop a standard routine that really feels like school. “Get up at the same time, and get dressed in clothes, not pajamas,” he says. Make sure kids know what’s on tap by discussing it ahead of time and maybe even writing a schedule you can tape to the refrigerator door.

As your morning bell rings (or whatever signal you choose to start the day), your kid should be stationed at a spot designated as “school.” That could be a desk in a bedroom, the dining room table, a beanbag in the basement, or even the floor, says Mary Dickerson, head of the lower school for the McLean School in Potomac, Maryland, which specializes in educating students with ADHD, dyslexia, and anxiety. Each of their classrooms features “flexible seating” (a wobbly stool, a standing desk, etc.) to give kids choices and make sure they’re comfortable. That’s something families can adopt at home, she says.

Defeat distractions

Another McLean trick to try is a glitter jar. As part of the school’s mindfulness programming, teachers encourage kids to “settle their glitter” with DIY clear containers meant to help them take control of their thoughts. “If they can’t focus, they shake it, and watch the glitter settle to the bottom,” Dickerson explains.

Verduin’s advice is to make sure your kid’s computer or tablet isn’t the source of more distractions. Ideally, a child’s school device has no playtime apps or games to tempt them, and there are controls on surfing the Internet. “Blacklist sites that are black holes for kids,” he says, suggesting parents explain the move this way: “If I’m trying to eat healthier, I don’t put a plate of cookies on my desk.”

Adjust and optimize

So what’s the best way to digest a day’s worth of schoolwork? Teachers seem to be offering up a mix of both “synchronous” lessons (live group video chats) and “asynchronous” learning (recorded videos and offline assignments), giving families at least some flexibility to design a timetable that works for them.

For each child, that will likely be a matter of trial and error, Fabiano says. If math is the toughest subject, it could make sense to do that first and get it out of the way when a child has maximum attention. “But another parent might say, ‘I want to get my child revved up with spelling. Then we’ll do math,’” he says.

Another strategy could be bouncing between two or three subjects, a concept called “interweaving,” Schor says. Because you’re not doing any one thing for too long, you’re able to stave off the loss of attentiveness. “You could do math for 10 to15 minutes. Then say, ‘Let’s read a story and come back to the math,’” she explains. “You may learn the math better than if you’re forced to sit there.”

Get moving

Of course, being forced to sit anywhere for too long is bound to mess with your concentration, says Matthew Pontifex of Michigan State University, who studies how physical activity boosts cognitive function. “Kids need to move. And frankly, adults need to move too,” he says. “I’m not talking about running a mile, but a 20-minute walk.”

During short breaks between lessons, take the kids for a stroll down the block, go up and down the stairs a few times, or crank out a set of jumping jacks. Pontifex has a colleague who likes to turn on music and throw a little dance party. (Here are more ideas for quick indoor activity breaks.)

Pontifex’s research has shown that kids especially reap the benefits of these breaks, because after physical activity, they need less redirection in school—and hopefully at home. Plus, it’s better for long-term cardiovascular and emotional health.

Upping your family P.E. time as well as modeling and reinforcing active behaviors could wind up being some of the most important lessons kids get this year. But don’t sweat it if you’ve jumped and jogged and your kid is still struggling to focus on a particular afternoon. “Kids may not always be at their peak, same as adults. There’s a day-to-day fluctuation of attention,” Pontifex says.

Maybe you need to nag kids a bit on those off days, but don’t ignore them when all is well. “Catch children doing the right thing,” Fabiano says. “Those good behaviors should get acknowledged.” He recommends parents check in to offer a thumbs-up and comments like, “I’m proud of how you went right to work.”

Be aware

If you’re not finding much to praise, that could indicate a problem. Reach out to your child’s teacher for suggestions and strategies. “Say, ‘This is what I’m seeing. Help me with this,’” Dickerson says. “Teachers would rather know.” (Get tips for communicating with your child’s teacher.)

Many kids will undoubtedly have difficulty adjusting to the start of school this year, but be on the lookout for an unusual lack of attention and signs of depression, Schor says. It’s possible that children with attention deficits or other issues were functioning fine in a school setting. “But [being] deprived of interactions with peers and bothered by fears or aware of fears of their parents can make them less able to compensate for a disability that’s always been there,” Schor says. If that’s the case, Schor encourages parents who are concerned to make an appointment with a pediatrician. (Telemedicine visits have become more common and might be a good option if physically visiting a doctor’s office isn’t in the cards.)

At the end of the day, the more you learn about your kids, the better they will be able to learn—even after they return to a classroom.