Concentration is the ability to focus your own attention, and everyone agrees it’s crucial to success at school and work. Now educators are worried that the ability to concentrate is eroding under the relentless barrage of random messages from cellphones and social media. They are right to be concerned. Brain research shows that the hippocampus, the part of the brain devoted to storing and recalling information, isn’t engaged when a person is distracted.
Smart parents won’t necessarily try to discourage a child’s enthusiasm for interactive media. Instead, the beginning of the school year is a great time to establish routines that promote concentration — even for kids who love the distraction of media in all its many forms. 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 computer. 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. Often, our culture sends kids the message that distraction is fun and concentration is drudgery. Parents have to counter that with the idea that concentration puts a person in control of what his brain is doing while distraction turns that control over to others. Here are other ways to get that message across:
Obviously, video games, social networking and other interactive pastimes have an important place in the lives of kids. They just shouldn’t 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 off-line 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, balance the checkbook or read a report.
• Design a tech free work space. Be sure your child has access to a workspace where the tools needed for schoolwork (paper, dictionaries) are close at hand and distractions (video games, snacks) aren’t visible.
• Provide good lighting and a chair that’s the right size for your child. 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 the child is away from the screen.
Most adults know when they are sharpest during the day. Encourage your child to experiment with different study times. Some children will be most able to focus right after school when the lessons of the day are still fresh while others will do better after a snack or a sports practice or even a session of 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. Help your child identify — and protect — the time when he or she is most able to concentrate.
Although it may be obvious to parents, students often don’t know how to divide homework into manageable portions. The idea of writing an entire report may be paralyzing. It’s easier to focus if you limit your attention to a paragraph about a specific topic. 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!
Many classic, offline games require focused attention. Remember Memory, the matching game that requires players to remember where to find pairs of cards? Or, try the old party game of assembling a tray full of random objects. Have everyone look at the tray, then cover it and write down as many things as you can remember. Scrabble and card games are also enjoyable family activities that reward concentration.
Technology isn’t the only reason children have trouble concentrating. 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. Still, encouraging your children to make deliberate decisions about how to allocate brain power is one of the best ways to you can assure their success during the school year — and beyond.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for over 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website, www.growing-up-online.com.
@ Copyright, 2010, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.