Are Children Born With the Ability to Focus or Can It Be Taught?

teach your child how to focus
The first response to a child’s inability to focus on projects or homework is too often medicine. If there were a reliable non-pharmaceutical solution to teach your child how to focus, would you try it? 

American schools measure students by their ability to understand and regurgitate knowledge. But do you ever recall a class in school that actually taught you how to focus? Likely not. The building blocks of knowledge are not what we learn but how we learn. While some children  have an innate ability to focus on tasks, most children (and adults alike) find it difficult to zero in on one thing, especially if that task is of no particular interest to them. Mindfulness meditation is a great way to teach focus. 

Think of a bodybuilder. The success of a typical bodybuilder in a lifting competition is measured by how much weight he or she can lift. However, it takes hundreds of training hours for them to reach that goal. They also need a special diet designed to build muscle mass, coaching to learn the proper technique, the countless hours of practice to build up endurance and adequate rest to recover after workouts. The goal is lifting a certain amount of weight, but the training, diet and rest is the process that gets a bodybuilder there. For your child, focus and resilience are the goal, mindfulness meditation is the process.  

Nearly all children have trouble paying attention to tasks they aren’t engaged in, and that’s normal. The flood of information and stimuli that we are all, including children, subject to, has been correlated with increased rates of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), anxiety, depression and mental illness in young adults. 

According to a national 2016 parent survey, the estimated number of children diagnosed with ADHD  is 6.1 million (9.4%), and six in 10 children with ADHD had at least one other mental, emotional or behavioral disorder. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), some 4.4 million (7.1%) children are diagnosed with anxiety and 1.9 million (3.2%) have been diagnosed with depression. The National Institutes of Health states that nearly one in three of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. These numbers have been rising steadily and are even more problematic during a pandemic, which causes further social isolation. This data, combined with the rate of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers doubling over the past decade, leaves us with many concerns for the future.

We strongly recommend the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. They are:

  • Promoting a healthy diet
  • Increasing daily physical activity
  • Ensuring children are sleeping enough for their recommended age
  • Adding mindfulness and meditation to daily life

Mindfulness and meditation may be the most crucial of the four. Studies have shown that meditation can give that much-needed conscious pause to be mindful of the present moment, calm the mind and refocus attention. What ancient societies have known for generations about meditation and mindfulness practices is being adopted by Western science and validated with research. 

So how do we incorporate meditation into our daily lives? The key is to start slow and remember that new habits take time. A simple but consistent approach is the only way we can truly incorporate meditation into already-hectic family routines. Most families have enough stress and responsibilities. Meditation can help offset them. 

There are multiple ways to learn different practices of mindfulness meditation, so you can choose the method to match your child’s style. Books, YouTube videos and audio tutorials, websites and smartphone apps are resources that teach meditation. Because there are also many types of meditation, it’s okay and fun to experiment. 

The recommended time frames for mindfulness practices are based on the child’s age and attention span. For example, preschool children should spend only a few minutes per day, while grade-school children should aim for three to10 minutes twice a day; and teens and adults can aim for at least one 45-minute session per day.

Here’s how to get going:

  • Start with one minute of sitting with your children daily, either in the morning or as a part of their bedtime routine. If we couple this practice to an already-established routine, then it becomes easier to stay consistent, and there is no need to carve out extra time for it. For example, if you already have a bedtime routine of bath time or storytime, incorporating an extra minute then is a simple add-on that will easily slide into your routine. 
  • Parents and other caregivers should also remember to practice what they preach and adopt the discipline as well, even if for a few minutes. Caregivers are the most valuable influences in a child’s life. It is also a great way to incorporate quality time with children when they start or end their day. 
  • One simple starting technique is taking slow deep breaths together and encouraging your children to feel and experience their breath. Have them feel each breath through their nostrils and as it fills and empties their lungs. See how many breaths they can take with their eyes closed, before they get distracted. We take so much for granted every day. Using this time to appreciate our body and breath can teach children to appreciate each moment fully. Start with whatever amount of time your child is already able to reach, and build on it progressively.
  • The mind naturally wanders during mindfulness meditation. Don’t fight it, but when your child’s mind drifts during breathing time, gently remind them to refocus thoughts back to the breath. Even though this may seem odd, you are actually teaching them the building blocks of concentration.
  • Afterward, ask what they were thinking about when they got distracted; this will help them start to become aware of their own thoughts. Awareness is a huge step in mindfulness. It will also help you understand what your child might be stressing about, so that you can talk it through. 
  • Another useful tip for after meditation is to ask your children to name one thing they can smell, see, taste, hear and feel. Once these habits are ingrained, then you can continue to build upon them, just like with any skill. 
  • By repeating this small exercise daily, you are reprogramming their brain and creating a new habit. Mindfulness meditation will improve their ability to focus, decrease anxiety and over time help them become more centered and resilient. 
  • If your children can focus on their breathing for a period of time (a task more difficult than it sounds), then they will slowly be able to pay attention to other things. 

Another important point when helping children learn to focus throughout the day is to take away any multitasking and focus on single tasking. For example, many children will simultaneously watch TV and play with a device. Such multitasking takes away from their ability to focus. Similarly, there should be no TV watching while eating. Children who watch TV while eating tend to eat 30% more calories. Eating should be a singular task. Once that task is finished, they can clear their dishes and move on to the next task, like homework, a hobby or, in rare cases, watching TV. If a child is playing with a toy, let them play with the toy until they are done with it. Once finished, they should put the toy away and move onto the next task. These are good practices for any age child and, frankly, for you too. 

As your children become more proficient and consistent, remind them to take deep breaths during times of stress, anger, difficult school assignment or an exam. Deep breathing can also be incorporated before or after time-outs for them to sit and self-reflect. 

Through meditation, brain centers for emotions and executive functioning can be changed, especially in the developing brain, which can help children regulate their emotions so that they have fewer meltdowns, reduce their impulsivity and improve concentration and focus. Even though it may require more work up-front, many caregivers are delighted to know there is a non-pharmaceutical way to improve these behaviors in children. 

Meditation is not only helpful and beneficial for children, but a great addition to any household, no matter its goals and struggles. It can be incorporated at any age, by setting small goals and building until it’s a valuable, crucial part of any child and teen’s life. Children who meditate, and those who learn these lessons during their formative years, are better able to handle adversity and unpredictability, focus on tasks and perform well in school.

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