By Nivedita Mukerjee
Within their first couple of parent-teacher meetings the preschool teachers repeatedly hear the following concerns, with varying degrees of anxiousness :
“My child can’t sit still for 5 minutes!”
“My child day dreams randomly while doing something and sits at a task unfinished.”
“I can’t seem to get my child to finish even a simple puzzle.”
Does any of the above sound familiar to you?
Here are some ways that you can help your child concentrate better:
• Consider the challenge level of the work. Sometimes the task is too easy and sometimes too difficult. The level should match the capability and/or instructional range of the child’s age.
• Try motivating by using sand timers of varying lengths of time as per the task as visual reminder for the task underway. It can become a game later to beat the timer as proficiency and concentration increase. This is a good way of self-monitoring as well.
• Break up the task into steps to give multiple achievement levels within the overall task as steps. Solving a small portion of the puzzle or colouring one portion of the picture or making a part of a clay model etc.
• Check for any environmental factor that might contribute to distraction. For e.g. Fan above the head or air-conditioning unit sound, open window to noisy street/moving people, uncomfortable seating, fidgety student (at school) or sibling (at home) next to him/her etc. A change of place might just make it several notches more conducive to focus on task at hand.
• Peers or buddy system in class might work for assisting and/or encouraging the child to focus and finish the work, especially if it is a collaborative project.
• Sometimes sitting next to teacher/teaching assistant in the class or parent at home while the parent is doing their own work and role modelling focus on task, works as a visual reminder to stay on task.
• Sometimes young children find it helpful to talk about what they want to write or do and then do it, as it helps them get clarity as to what they are setting out to do.
You would need to keep re-evaluating the suggestions mentioned and discuss the same with your child’s teacher to figure out what works for your child and in which situation. As your child grows, crossing various milestones in his/her preschool years, the needs and thus the techniques to enhance concentration, would change.
Games and activities that help building capability to concentrate in your child:
For pre-schoolers, there are several simple games and activities that you can engage in with your child at home, to help him/her focus on a given task while having loads of fun. A lot of them are variations of dot to dot activities that build up the attention span while improving the hand-eye coordination and teaching number, colour, pattern etc. Here are a few references
for free printables :
There are YouTube videos that guide you to make your own dot to dot activity sheet like this one:
There are some memory games available online for kids like:
Many activity kits and board games for memory building for young children are available, for example :
Amongst the concerns that parents of a pre-schooler may have on their child’s attention span, I have often heard parents wondering :
“Is it normal for my child to be bouncing up and down while watching TV?”
“ My child moves on to playing with another toy even as he has taken out something else to play with!”
“My child can’t hold a conversation or a line of thought.”
“Does my child have ADHD?”
While ADHD (Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) is one of the most common brain-based condition of childhood, all restless ness cannot be labelled as ADHD.
What is ADHD? Before you get worked up, here’s a link for you to know more:
The children with ADHD may not:
• Be able to filter out unimportant visuals and audio from what is relevant and important to them.
• Focus for age-appropriate durations without getting distracted.
• Concentrate on one instruction or activity at a time.
• Hold a string of thought or a conversation.
• Follow a task with oral instructions.
The signs of ADHD also change over time. The struggles that a child suffering with ADHD in preschool will go through would be quite different in elementary, middle and high school. You may consider early intervention once you have observed your child carefully, discussed with the child’s teacher, consulted your child’s paediatrician and consulted the learning specialists or specialists like audiologist (for hearing issues), speech pathologist (for speech and language related issues), neurologist, behavioural paediatrician etc. Observe your child and make notes so that you can share the same with the teacher/s and specialists for better understanding.
As an educator, some activities that I have seen having positive influence on memory and focus are :
• Rhymes and poems- with chanting, clapping and movements associated with them.
• Stories – listening to and sequencing activities associated with stories that keep the child engaged and are great fun to recall, talk about the characters and wonder what could happen if they were one of the characters. This can be done with any of the children’s stories, without any special aids. The children can draw, make play-dough characters or play dress up. All of which would need the child to stay focussed on the story and it’s various elements.
• Role playing – if there are other children participating in the story telling-playacting then it is even better as they as give cues to each other for the sequence. In that process, they can all be focussed on the same activity for a fairly long time with each other’s help.
• Outdoor games, obstacle course, Simon says and I Spy with my little eye.
Each of the above help in the following ways:
1 Exercise their working memory.
2 They have to adjust to each other’s imagination.
3 They have to keep track of and relate to what has happened and what is anticipated.
4 They have to problem solve – like play two or more characters if there are less members in the game or figure out way through various barriers in the obstacle course indoors/outdoors.
5 Most of these activities, whether rhyming or navigating obstacles are interactive and multi-step towards achieving completion.
Some of my all-time favourite outdoor games for pre-schoolers can be found here :
You can try including these activities in your everyday routine:
• Making cookies and chapatti/paratha.
This is an all-time favourite sensorial activity – kneading dough is fun, messy, works out the muscles of fingers and arms; following a recipe also helps your child to plan a sequence of actions and possibility to modify when repeated. Opportunities of creativity with different kinds of ingredients to add to cookies and/or stuffing the parathas, making variations to tweak them to their own and their family/friends suggestions and taste is very good for their emotional and cognitive capabilities. Both of these support development of executive function.
• Mystery bags/feely bags.
These require specific use of working memory. As you put in familiar objects, whether the child’s toys or everyday items that child is familiar with like cell phone, spectacle case, toffee etc. and ask the child to feel the objects from outside or by putting the hand inside the bag and guess what they are. It would need the child to use their sensory information of touch to imagine the shape and form of the object to recognise it.
Relationship of aerobic fitness and motor skills with memory and attention in pre-schoolers(Ballabeina): A cross-sectional and longitudinal study done by Iris Niederer, Susi Kriemler, Janine Gut, Tim Hartmann, Christial Schindler, Jerome Barral and Jardena Puder led to the conclusion that –
“…In young children, higher baseline aerobic fitness and motor skills were related to a better spatial working memory and/or attention at baseline, and to some extent also to their future improvements over the following 9 months.”
Here’s a link to their study.
Based on their results, they have suggested that exercises involving specific mental processing, including executive functions like reasoning, problem solving, planning etc. which go on to help in managing time and paying attention – are most suitable to trigger overall cognitive development in young children. They further mention that their data contributes to the emerging field of brain fitness and highlight the importance of a promotion of physical education.
The link above will take you to a list of 8 key executive functions that your child needs in order to organise their time and work. Each of these may be strengthened using various strategies that would help your child organise and act on information received. You can help your child or take him/her to a specialist to learn ways to hone them or work around, if there are issues in this area.
To help your child with improving their working memory, you will find some very useful tips here:
Choice of appropriate diet is essential in helping your child focus:
High sugar foods set kids up for a mid-morning energy crash. Proteins and complex carbs, that take time to digest, make ideal breakfast combinations not only for adults, but more so for kids whose day might peak with literacy/numeracy – high cognition activity in the mid mornings. Options of oatmeal or upama, eggs and toast/French toast, rava idlis with grated vegetables, dal-dosas, dal and vegetable mixed parathas, nuts and berries, whole wheat bread and cheese or peanut butter and jelly, whole wheat crackers or tortillas with cheese, these coupled with unsweetened juice, chocolate milk, fruit salads with curd are good to keep your child going through the day without the sugar crash and feeling sluggish, lethargic, anxious and distracted.
Include your child in planning for his/her meals from the time you visit the grocery store. Have them help you pick up the fruits and vegetables they would like to be served up. It is a sensorial experience for them and they remember and enjoy their meals when they have picked it up themselves. The four nutritious groups you need to keep in mind to include in each of the meals would be:
• Starchy foods
• Fruits and vegetables
• High iron and high protein foods
• Milk (check the contents of whole and skimmed in order to ensure that it contains Vitamin D and A), cheese, curds/yoghurt
The foods to be limited and/or avoided would be:
• Sweets and chocolates
• Salty foods (avoid chips and salty snacks like papads, pakodas, samosas; use herbs and spices to flavour the food instead of salt) The FSSAI recommends only 2g of salt a day for pre-schoolers.
• All whole grains only (they might feel full before they have eaten enough)
• Raw or partially cooked eggs, shell fish, large fish that might contain high levels of mercury
• Whole nuts (they might choke)
• Tea and coffee (they reduce the absorption of iron from foods)
• Carbonated drinks (can damage teeth)
Fussy eaters under 5 year old, might need supplements containing Vitamins A and D. This can be done under advisement from your paediatrician.
A study, “Impact of iron supplementation on cognitive functions in preschool and school-aged children : the Indian experience” By Subadra Seshadri and Tara Gopaldas talks about the significance of managing iron levels for young children. Click here to read more.
Finally, developing executive functions – attention, impulse control, working memory, planning – all are a combination of nature and nurture. And while it might be hard to change IQ, it is definitely possibly to improve a child’s ability to concentrate and increase executive functions. Do remember however, keeping on task longer should not be confused with compliance, obedience, sitting quietly or staying still etc. It has to be about children to persist to achieve the goal they have set for themselves and solve the problems to satisfy themselves and not for consequence of reward or punishment.
Nivedita Mukerjee is a journalist, educator and parent. She writes about matters that concern a child’s success and well-being. She can be reached at email@example.com.