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A Comprehensive, Expert-Recommended Guide to Helping Your Child’s Mental Focus

Contents

What Parts of Kids’ Brains Are Concerned with Mental Focus? Nature vs. Nurture: Are All Kids Born with the Same Ability to Focus?What Causes Lack of Concentration Among Children? Non-Modifiable Factors How Can You Help Improve Your Child’s Concentration and Mental Performance?Conclusion

Mental focus is crucial to a child’s personal development and long-term success. Children with good concentration generally do better in school, have high self-esteem and are motivated to accomplish their goals. Meanwhile, easily distracted kids experience the opposite, with each negative encounter causing a domino effect on all aspects of their growth.

Inattention is common among young people, but when it starts to hurt their academic performance, self-confidence, and personal relationships, it becomes a cause for concern. Your child is born with unique gifts, and it’s only natural to want to help them unleash their hidden genius. In this article, we discuss the many factors that can distract kids and what various field experts recommend to enhance their focus and mental performance.

What Parts of Kids’ Brains Are Concerned with Mental Focus?

Children are born with billions of brain cells connected by trillions of synapses. Different regions of the brain help your child focus, and they work in synergy.

For example, a toddler’s perception of hunger and sighting of food engage different neural pathways. To respond to hunger pangs, another neural network motivates the child to take action and continue until they are fed.

As in adults, children’s mental focus is the result of the combined actions of different brain parts, particularly the following:

1  Reticular activating system (RAS)

A collection of brainstem nerves involved in wakefulness and sleep.

2  Hippocampus

The seat of memory and learning. A child will also learn how to think symbolically during the preoperational stage. The ability to focus, short-term memory, long-term memory, logic, and reasoning are all developing during these years.

3  Sensory processing centers

Cerebral regions that analyze and make sense of what a person perceives from the environment. They include cognitive networks for calculation, language, and logic, as well as emotional processing centers.

4  Frontal and prefrontal lobes

The seats of attention, decision-making, motivation, cognition, planning, judgment, morality and impulse control. The prefrontal lobe completes its development in adulthood, well after most other brain regions have finished theirs.

5  Astrocytes

During this stage, a child learns how to think abstractly. They hone their problem-solving skills and the type of person they're going to become is made clear.

Adults are taught by experience to ignore various external stimuli and control their urges. Their ability to concentrate mostly depends on the activity of the above parts, which are largely affected by lifestyle choices.

By comparison:

“Children’s brains have not had enough practice to allow for significant pruning, habitualization, and adaptation, so they are more prone to environmental distractions on top of internal ones. In addition to the above regions, their sensory nerve pathways—sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste and position sense—greatly influence their mental focus.”

Nature vs. Nurture: Are All Kids Born with the Same Ability to Focus?

Some children are more proactive in pursuing their goals, whereas others are more laid back. Some “are not the forgiving type,” while others easily forget they were ever angry. Some are more adventurous, while others are overcautious.

These are all explained by differences in temperament, the inclination to behave a certain way in response to a stimulus.

In the 1970s, child psychiatrists Thomas and Chess theorized that kids were born temperamentally diverse, having different moods, thresholds of responsiveness, distractibility, persistence levels, etc. They believed that the combination of these traits determined a child’s goodness of fit into their environment.

“Kids are not born with the same ability to concentrate or filter their thoughts.”

Angry children who keep getting into fights and struggling academically will continue to resort to the same defense mechanisms without intervention.

“However, the brain’s plasticity makes it possible to optimize mental performance by training, therapy and other tools.”

Modern science and patient guidance have helped countless children turn their Ds and Fs into straight-A performances.

If your child seems to have learning and emotional difficulties, you need to find out how to help them focus better. The sooner you do this, the sooner they can overcome developmental barriers.

What Causes Lack of Concentration Among Children?

Children who have focus problems tend to be shy, demotivated, indecisive and full of self-doubt. They can pick up on their parents’ frustration and build negative perceptions of themselves. Additionally, labeling from other children, teachers or parents can make them too discouraged to try again, which often results in withdrawal or aggression. All of these can make it more difficult to unlock their abilities.

Does this sound familiar?

If your child or a friend’s has difficulty concentrating or paying attention, doctors recommend looking into the following possibilities:

Modifiable Factors

These are the more common reasons for poor focus and mental performance in children. A large majority are easy to correct, and thus, have a good prognosis.

1  Surroundings Full of Distractions

Examine your child’s learning environment. Extra stimulation of their senses can make them lose focus easily. At school, they could be seated next to classmates who would rather talk than listen to their teachers. At home, wall decorations, loud noises, strewn-out toys, TV and others could divert their attention from doing their homework.

2  Lack of Good Sleep

Not getting enough sleep tires out the RAS and can make kids too drowsy to pay attention. Check for things that make it difficult for them to fall asleep at the right hours or get good sleep quality. Late-night horror shows and electronic gadget use, midnight noises, bed bugs, uncomfortable cots, etc. are common examples.

3  Finds No Motivation in School

Our educational system recommends the same learning courses for kids. However, as we mentioned previously, children are born with different gifts and temperaments. Lack of interest can mask true intelligence, and it may be because kids find schoolwork too difficult or easy.

Tasks that are too difficult can demotivate young, inexperienced people. Meanwhile, too easy assignments can also bore them. You’ll never know the difference unless you sit with your child and investigate. Either way, lack of interest can result in poor focus and fund of knowledge.

4  Inactivity-Induced Brain Fog

Take a break and get your child moving. Exercise raises levels of oxygen, nutrients and the neuronal growth factor BDNF in the brain. All of these substances stimulate growth and synaptic formation in regions critical to learning, concentration and emotional balance. Sedentariness deprives your child of the mental benefits of physical activity.

5  Poor Nutrition and Energy Management

The brain needs food for fuel, tissue maintenance, disease protection and proper function. Poor neuronal nutrition comes in three forms: too little intake, too much intake and intake of the wrong kinds of food.

Children who eat too little are at risk for vitamin deficiencies, dehydration, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar level) and various electrolyte deficits. All of these conditions reduce mental alertness, attention and motivation. Hunger and thirst can also distract kids.

Meanwhile, children who eat too much may suffer from chronic inflammation and early-onset cardiovascular disease, which also impair mental performance.

Eating the “wrong” kinds of food can likewise damage the body and brain.

  • Lunches filled with simple sugars and refined carbohydrates produce steep energy spikes and crashes, making kids too drowsy to focus at midday. They also make them susceptible to “insulin issues,” i. e. diabetes mellitus and its cardiovascular and neurologic complications.
  • Saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol all contribute to plaque formation inside the blood vessels. They raise kids’ proneness to inflammation. Plaque formation and excess sodium increase the risk of stroke in the young.
  • Alcohol produces both immediate and long-term mental impairment. Acute effects include confusion, disinhibition, incoordination and drowsiness. Chronic abuse can make those acute changes permanent and also lead to liver disease.

Without proper guidance, kids may get accustomed to the standard American diet, which is high in simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats and sodium. Additionally, since children naturally get curious about many things, parents should watch out for signs of underage drinking or experimentation with alcohol.

6  Toxic Exposure from the Environment

Environmental pollutants (see table below) expose children to various chemicals, some of which can directly damage neurons. These poisons also injure other organs, so symptoms of toxic brain damage may accompany other signs.

For example, mercury, can contaminate fatty fish. When it builds up, it may severely impair children’s problem-solving skills and sensorimotor functions. Since it circulates in the body, it can also produce kidney failure, which is potentially fatal.

toxic-exposure 

7  Too Little Social Interaction

Other species are born with their brains almost fully programmed, but the human brain starts with a clean slate. Social interaction stimulates the neurons and grounds children’s expectations of the real world. The lack of it can lead to relationship and emotional troubles, which can divert their attention from important tasks.

Additionally, moderate video-gaming has been shown to enhance mental performance, but too much of it can deprive kids of opportunities for healthy communication with real people. Check your child’s screen time to see if they have too much of it.

8  Too Worried to Think

Poor psychosocial conditions (see table below) have different effects on different kids because of temperamental diversity. Generally, however, they put kids at risk of poor mental and emotional maturity, as well as psychiatric health problems.

Economic barriers can likewise prevent children from having good access to education and technology. Their detrimental effects are even more greatly felt now when online learning has become necessary.

9  Too Sick to Focus

Our educational system recommends the same learning courses for kids. However, as we mentioned previously, children are born with different gifts and temperaments. Lack of interest can mask true intelligence, and it may be because kids find schoolwork too difficult or easy.

Tasks that are too difficult can demotivate young, inexperienced people. Meanwhile, too easy assignments can also bore them. You’ll never know the difference unless you sit with your child and investigate. Either way, lack of interest can result in poor focus and fund of knowledge.

10  Down with the Blues

Mental health issues (see table below) in children manifest in a variety of ways. Without help, they can lead to poor school performance, as well as relationship and future career troubles.

11  Consider a Learning Disorder

Learning difficulties (see table below) have genetic and environmental components. Modern medicine and nutrition can improve them vastly, helping most kids reach their milestones. Those with mild impairment can become highly successful adults so long as the necessary support is given early.

12  Drug Effects

Some medications (see table below) can make children too drowsy to focus during school hours, so dosage and timing are important to consider. Ask your pediatrician or look at your medicine labels to see if any treatment that your child is on contains sedatives.

Non-Modifiable Factors

Inborn conditions that can affect mental performance (see table below) are rare. They are not always apparent at birth, and their manifestations range from mild to severe. Their course, treatment, and prognosis depend on symptom severity, with most needing advanced medical interventions or having no cure. Specialist consults are always necessary in these cases.

Those that affect the brain include the following:

1  Disordered Brain Growth Genetics

At birth, brain structures may be missing, misshapen, protruding from the skull, etc. Some can be corrected by early surgery. Others, however, produce epilepsies, failure to thrive and mental retardation.

2  Faulty Neurophysiology

Here, abnormal brain activity is not due to gross structural changes but may be related to defective micro-scale glucose and electrolyte metabolism. Most cases are due to incomplete development and resolve with brain maturation. However, poor nutrition and chronic illness can make abnormal brainwaves persist.

Rare, severe cases are associated with epilepsies that may or may not be eliminated by ablation.

3  Genetic Conditions That Indirectly Affect the Brain

These conditions impair mental performance by producing inflammatory substances, toxins, glucose and electrolyte imbalance, oxygen depletion, etc. Many children do well as long as their symptoms are under control.

4  Pregnancy-Related Conditions

Various maternal illnesses and adverse labor conditions can cause brain damage to the newborn. Some children survive with intact cognition and only mild motor impairment, while others have more serious manifestations.

Examples of Conditions That Can Impair a Child’s Ability to Focus
Environmental Pollutants Heavy metals like lead, mercury and hexavalent chromium

Organic fumes

Packaging waste

Industrial waste

Medical waste
Poor Psychosocial Conditions Psychological trauma from bullying, family abuse, loss, grief, witnessing a crime, family breakups, etc.

Overcritical language

Loss or lack of a guiding figure

Economic hardships
Medical Illnesses Infections

Asthma

Allergies

Diarrheal illnesses

Ear infection, hearing problems

Visual problems

Serious conditions like cancer, autoimmune disease, encephalitis, type 1 diabetes mellitus, meningitis, immunodeficiency, anemia, hypothyroidism, etc.
Mental Health Issues Mood disorders like major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder

Anxiety disorders

Body dysmorphia, eating disorders

Psychotic disorders

Oppositional defiant disorder

Substance abuse
Learning and Developmental Disorders Autism spectrum disorders

Sensory processing disorders

ADHD

Dyslexia

Mathematics disorder

Communication disorders
Medications Antihistamines, e. g. diphenhydramine

Anti-epileptic drugs, e. g. valproate

Anxiolytics, e. g. lorazepam

Antidepressants, e. g. mirtazapine

Antipsychotics, e. g. risperidone
Genetic Disorders Those directly affecting brain growth
  • Fragile X
  • Prosencephaly
  • Encephalocele
Those indirectly affecting brain function
  • Phenylketonuria
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia
Pregnancy-Related Disorders Folate deficiency, leading to central nervous system malformation

Congenital rubella syndrome

Other forms of maternal malnutrition and infection

Fetal alcohol syndrome

Cerebral palsy, etc.

“The reasons for poor mental concentration in a huge majority of pediatric cases are trivial. However, since kids cannot articulate their symptoms as well as adults can, doctors routinely try to look for a more serious cause—physical, psychological, social, etc.—until it is completely ruled out.”

They could miss a potentially fatal condition if they ignored subtle neurologic changes.

As in any health problem, the earlier that it is addressed, the better are the chances for a full recovery.

How Can You Help Improve Your Child’s Concentration and Mental Performance?

Now, you’re aware of the elements that can potentially distract your child. Below is a list of expert-recommended actions that you can take to help them focus better:

1  Give Them a Room Dedicated to Studying

Easily distracted kids can concentrate better while working in a dedicated study room—a room free of distractions. You can do the following to create one for your kid:

  • Pick a room that exposes them the least to outside noise.
  • Teach your child to organize their things. Workspace organization lessens potentially distracting clutter and enhances focus and productivity.
  • Paint the walls with cool, plain colors. Avoid displays of cartoon characters and other irrelevant graphics.
  • Limit electronic equipment to only the kind that they use for studying.

2  Help Them Practice Sleep Hygiene

Healthy sleep is acquired by developing consistent bedtime routines. You can help your child improve their sleeping habits by doing the following:

  • Remind them to go to bed at the same hours every night. Cue them by turning off the TV and their electronic gadgets.
  • Encourage them to get their things ready for school, brush their teeth and take a warm bath before going to bed.
  • Paint the walls with cool, plain colors. Avoid displays of cartoon characters and other irrelevant graphics.
  • Read happy stories to young kids. Encourage older kids to make a habit of reading storybooks or light novels before sleep.

3  Teach

Sometimes, young people just need to be shown the way out of complicated problems. Understanding and solving drills on their own can boost their confidence and regain their interest in schoolwork.

Sit with your child and determine what areas they find difficult. Show them the correct way of approaching each problem and give them plenty of practice drills. Congratulate them for any improvements and motivate them to keep working on challenging questions. Hire a tutor for subjects that you think are beyond your expertise.

4  Make Learning Fun through Brain Games

Children who find schoolwork too easy can eliminate boredom by solving increasingly challenging drills. Related brain games can also make learning more fun. Studies show that, when done in moderation, brain games can sharpen cognition across various age groups. Different game levels are available for various subjects, including math, vocabulary, science and history.

5  Make Delayed Gratification a Tool

Temperaments aside, rewards stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers and create positive reinforcement. Children will happily control their impulses and concentrate if they know they are getting a big prize for it—an act called “delayed gratification.” You can motivate your child to do better in school by offering a highly desired reward, such as a new toy, fun trip or added playtime.

6  Let Your Child Run and Play

Push your child to be more physically active. They can start with fun activities like walking the house pet, dancing to their favorite tunes, racing with other kids, etc. You can also encourage them to play a sport. Athletics teach children lessons on and off the field that help them grow emotionally and teach them life skills like strategy and discipline.

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7  Feed Your Child's Brain

Diet impacts many aspects of health, including mental performance, which is why doctors do not overlook this aspect when examining or treating patients.

Mental focus problems caused by nutritional deficiencies are treated by supplementation with the appropriate nutrients. Meanwhile, children with phenylketonuria and the like are advised to avoid certain foods. For other conditions, doctors routinely complement their management strategies with good nutrition.

Heart-healthy diets include vegetables, fruits, grains, fat-free dairy, oils and various protein sources. Studies show that certain heart-healthy diets can become brain-healthy as well. One example is the Mediterranean diet, which can boost kids' mental performance and self-esteem.

You can level up a heart-healthy diet into one that also directly benefits the brain by choosing food groups rich in the following nutrients:

  • Alpha-glycerophosphocholine—enhances alertness, memory retrieval, muscle strength and other body functions.
  • Curcumin—sharpens the mind, stabilizes the mood and protects the brain.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids—speed up brain cell communication and absorb toxic free radicals. Studies show that children born to moms on omega-3-rich diets tend to have high IQ.
  • Trans-resveratrol—a powerful brain antioxidant and immunity modulator.
  • Uridine—a building block of RNA and DNA, directing the production of chemicals that enhance mental performance. It is also involved in many aspects of metabolism.
  • Vitamin C—an antioxidant and immunity enhancer. It also increases the production of chemicals that boost alertness and mood levels.

Aside from their unique cardiovascular health benefits, evidence proves that these nutrients raise BDNF levels in the brain. Ask your doctor about including them in your child’s dietary regimen.

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8  Go Green

Limit your child’s toxic exposure by doing your part in protecting the environment.

  • Avoid burning plastics and other materials.
  • Have fun raising greens together with your child. Plant trees if you live in a rural or suburban area. If you reside in a crowded city, grow a vertical garden.
  • Avoid or stop smoking. Teach your child about its health and environmental dangers.
  • Encourage them to bike, walk or take the bus when going to school. Make sure your kid has a helmet on when riding a bike.
  • Take trips to the countryside or beach to expose your child to cleaner air.

The list goes on. The World Health Organization states that cleaning up the environment can reduce childhood deaths and illnesses worldwide by 25%.

9  Have Heart-to-Heart Talks with Your Child

Talking to your child provides you more opportunities for teaching and investigating potential problems. Find time every day to do the following:

  • Set the rules. Teach them about acceptable behaviors at home and in school. Use gentle but clear words.
  • When correcting a child, emphasize the lesson and not the punishment. Being too harsh can push kids to lie.
  • Everyone has unique abilities that can make them highly prized in their community, so teach your child the value of individuality. If you have two or more children, avoid playing favorites or labeling anyone as a “black sheep.”
  • Talk to them about dealing with defeat, frustration and anger. Validate their feelings. Teach them better ways to respond in similar situations in the future.
  • Most importantly, children are generally afraid of reporting abusive treatment, but such experiences come with physical signs and behavioral changes. Examine your child’s body for bruises and cuts in odd places. Look for signs of anxiety, such as sleep difficulties, bedwetting, panic attacks, concentration problems, lying, etc. Comb through the words they use, which their immature minds can make up for things they don’t understand.

child-givesTalking to your child gives you more opportunities to teach or find out if something is bothering them.

10  Encourage Playtime with Other Kids

Video games are fun and stimulating. However, they can become predictable over time, so they will never be good substitutes for real-life interactions.

On the other hand, studies show that collaborative play with other children can speed up cognitive development. Such interactions stimulate critical brain regions, including language centers, audio and visual processing networks and areas for emotional regulation and judgment. So encourage your child to enjoy some playtime with their friends today.

11  Chat with Their Teachers and School Counselors

Talk to teachers and school counselors about your child’s behavior. If they cannot focus well during class, you can ask to have your child sit closer to the front and away from distractions.

If the child is persistently inattentive and disruptive even in front of authority figures, it may be time to look for medically treatable disorders. For example, ADHD is diagnosed when school-age kids exhibit these behaviors both at home and in school.

12  Find the Child’s Comfortable Learning Style

Just as temperaments are different, educational experts hypothesize that children’s learning styles also vary.

  • Visual learners learn better with the rich use of images. The text’s spatial orientation can also help them remember what they read.
  • Auditory learners may benefit from listening to teachers and audio-recorded lessons.
  • Kinesthetic-tactile learners understand concepts better by touching and manipulating objects in their environment.

Some kids do well with just one learning style, while others have mixed learning styles. School counselors and developmental specialists may help you figure out which one suits your child best and formulate study habits that work. 

13  Work with Your Pediatrician

Medical conditions like asthma and diabetes are still more common causes of poor school performance than ADHD and other learning disabilities. Take your child to the pediatrician for a checkup. The doctor can look for a physical cause and recommend treatments that can eliminate or improve it. Specialist consultation may be needed in some cases.

14  Get Specialist Help

If the primary care doctor finds nothing wrong physically, they can recommend a specialist to look for learning disabilities or psychiatric problems. Depending on the diagnosis, medications, psychotherapy, the use of special writing tools, etc. can help your child make dramatic improvements.

15  Adjust Their Medications

Medications for allergies, seizures and psychiatric conditions are some examples of sedative-containing drugs. If your child finds it hard to focus in class after taking their meds, ask your doctor to adjust the dosage, intake schedule or both. The doctor may also offer a suitable alternative drug.

As you can see from this guide, helping kids regain their focus does not have to be a one-man job. In fact, enlisting the help of a few experts may give your child the best chance at recovery.

Again

“if you sense any bothersome changes in your kid, don’t delay in taking action. The longer they stay sick or adopt a maladaptive behavior, the greater the damage and the longer it will take for them to recover.”

Conclusion

Mental focus impacts various aspects of children’s personal growth. It is the product of the coordinated actions of different brain areas.

In adults, those areas include the RAS, hippocampus, sensory processing centers, frontal and prefrontal lobes and astrocytes. By comparison, children have not mastered screening out unimportant stimuli. We add their sensory pathways in this neural circuit because of their significant influence on kids’ mental abilities.

Science recognizes the genetic differences among children in terms of temperament and capacity to concentrate. However, neuroplasticity enables them to overcome learning and developmental barriers through training, therapy and other tools. Children who can fully harness their mental abilities achieve mental momentum, translating into higher incomes and happier lives as adults.

There are modifiable and non-modifiable factors affecting concentration. The causes of impairment range from common, easily correctable conditions to rare, more serious health disorders.

We have presented here a comprehensive guide to help parents enhance their children’s focus. While there are many ways to help kids reach their full mental potential, it is best to identify possible problems early and address them as soon they are detected.

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