Focus and Attention

“Your children are not homeschooling.  They’re at home, in the middle of a crisis, trying to get some schoolwork done.”  Kim Hopkins, The Ross Greene Podcast

For many students, attention and focus are the biggest barriers to online learning.  This post is designed to give you tools to build your child’s focus skills, as well as permission to let go of academic expectations entirely if that’s what your child needs right now.

Learning can be broken down into 3 major processes*:

  • Focusing on what needs to be learned 
  • Taking in the information
  • Getting out the information, or showing what you’ve learned

This is hard enough in the typical classroom.

To be successful in the online learning world, you need to focus differently, take in information differently, and show what you know differently.  Your child will need a new set of skills. 

In this post we’ll focus on focus.

How to Engage your Child’s Focus Muscles

Focus is about interest, energy, coping and self-monitoring.  Here are some strategies to help your child build these skills.

Step 1: Getting Interested

The first step to focusing is finding a reason to be interested.  To increase your child’s interest:

  • Offer more choice.  Ask the teacher if your child can choose the topic, or do a variation on the assignment such as a video, skit, or drawing.
  • Give more autonomy.  Allow your child to set their goals for the day, designing breaks, and any rewards.  Ironically, you may find they get more done, even if their goals are much smaller than yours or their teacher’s.
  • Connect lessons to their daily lives.  Use money to teach math, interview relatives to learn history, or talk about ideas for their own future careers.

Step 2: Sustaining energy and focus over time

Once your child is interested, they still may have difficulty with stamina. To help attention last:

  • Post the end-goal where they can see it.  Make a visual reminder of where they are headed.
  • Break down the task into small pieces.  Make a list of the parts on a whiteboard that’s easy to erase as tasks are complete.  
  • Take brain breaks.  In between these tiny tasks, take little brain breaks to replenish attention. 
  • Alternate between challenging and easier tasks.  The easier tasks give a little boost of accomplishment, while the challenging tasks keep the brain interested.
  • Work together on projects.  To the extent possible, have your child work with another student (virtually), their sibling, or you to complete a project or assignment. 

Step 3: Coping with Setbacks

If something is frustrating, it’s even harder to sustain focus.  To build coping skills:

  • Before the challenging or boring task, discuss strategies to cope with the frustration.  Practice taking a deep breath, talking through the problem out loud, or having a mantra.
  • Re-energize.  We tend to make more mistakes and have more difficulty solving problems when we’re mentally tired.  Help your child realize that frustration means “brain break!” not “I can’t.”
  • Use Growth Mindset language.  Tell your child learning online is a new skill they are building, and it’s very different than learning in the classroom.  For specific language to use, check out Mindset Works. 
  • Teach self-monitoring.   At different points during work time, ask your child to rate their energy level on a scale of 1-5, using a percentage, or color scale.  Agree ahead of time when to take a quick brain break, or a longer exercise/movement/snack/game break. 

Children with Severe Attention Challenges

If your child has ADHD or other challenges affecting attention (e.g. anxiety, Autism, or stressful external circumstances), here are a few things to consider in addition to what’s above:

  • Cut your expectations in half (or more).  What your child is able to do in this context is likely very different than what they could do in the school context (and even that was probably hard!)  Help them feel successful with what they can do.
  • Talk to your teacher.  Be clear about what your child can and cannot do in this context, and brainstorm ways for them to engage in learning in a different way.  It’s worth getting clear on what’s required, and then throwing everything else out in favor of whatever your child needs right now (like reading together in a fort with hot cocoa, or getting credit for learning life skills like cooking or laundry).
  • Check out these Home Challenges. This is a resource from UCSF for supporting kids with attention and behavior challenges during SIP.
  • Use visual schedules and large analog timers (to show the “size” of how much time is left rather than just a number.)
  • Take a lot of breaks.  Your child may need breaks at much shorter intervals than you think.  
  • Sit on an exercise ball, wobbly seat, or stand.  Engaging the core muscles can help engage attention.
  • Get a lot of exercise. Sub in movement for academics when your child is struggling to engage.  You may even be able to do the lesson orally while they are shooting baskets or playing hopscotch.  (Check out Clown PE on FB or YouTube for a fun extra “class” from Coventry and Kaluza.)
  • Preserve your relationship.  Above all else, don’t let fights over schoolwork destroy your relationship during this time.  Baking cookies will teach them much more math than fighting over doing a worksheet. 

Please let me know if you have any questions!

*This post was inspired by the Universal Design Learning framework, which is based in the science of how we learn.  These guidelines are used by educators to design an optimal classroom experience for all kinds of learners.  

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