‘An 8 second attention span’: how to help children focus for longer.

Having a shorter attention span than a goldfish is a good media story – but it doesn’t have to apply to our children.

This week I was inspired to write about ‘focus’ because of a rather eccentric article that appeared in The Telegraph. It suggested that the human attention span has reduced so much that a goldfish can now focus for longer. Almost to prove this point, they amusingly posted a picture of a man on a boat looking at his smart phone, missing the whale emerging from the water next to him.

The claim that attention span has reduced to 8 seconds is dangerously close to Ben Goldacre intervention territory. But for parents, focus can be a serious issue. How many times have school reports come back with ‘needs to focus’ or ‘concentration needs to improve’ written on at least one line.

In this age of digital distractions, it’s no wonder that children struggle to concentrate. We as adults certainly do – how many times have we accidently caught ourselves on Facebook when we should have been writing a difficult email, or used Twitter as a way to put off doing the washing up?

For any child with an active imagination the world is a minefield of potential disturbances. The problem is that this is often misinterpreted. In America the instances of diagnoses of ADHD have risen 5% each year since 2011 – in Kentucky alone, 19% of children have been diagnosed with the disorder. Many of these children are being ‘treated’ with drugs.

In most cultures ADHD cases occur in about 5% of a population. But in the USA it is higher mainly due to the fact that the American Psychiatric Association classes fidgeting, a reluctance to do homework, and frequently losing schoolbooks as ADHD.

ADHD is a very real and difficult problem for those who have it – and effective learning measures can be put in place to help those children who struggle with it. But although it may not be as extreme as ADHD, focussing can still be an issue.

Many methods can help your child focus, but as everyone learns, acts, and reacts differently, the strategies will be different for each child. As a tutoring agency we are particularly focussed on this.

But underpinning these strategies are strong methodologies. A few of the key ones are below. Understanding these methodologies can parents to improve their child’s attention & focus, by building effective strategies.

  1. Learning not performance.

 A study by the Institute of Education showed that if children were encouraged to focus on performance in tests then their performance dropped. When the children were pushed to achieve certain scores, they abandoned strategic thinking, persisted with failing strategies, alongside developing a feeling of helplessness. But when children were presented with learning orientated attitudes, their results improved, along with their general behaviour.

A child will feel the pressure of a test or exams, so where a parent can help is by encouraging them to focus on particular learning, and keep their mind engaged. This way focus will improve, as it is not distracted by unnecessary stress.

  1. Practice

It’s been suggested that practice is the key to improving focus. In the same way that one wouldn’t try to run a marathon straight off, expecting a child to focus on revision for 8 hours straight is not going to happen. Building up the lengths of time is a guaranteed way to see results. It’s like a muscle – use improves performance. As a parent, you can use this understanding to help them put effective strategies in place.

  1. Engagement

Often the reason for a lack of focus is because of boredom. This can be for a variety of reasons, including the child being particularly intelligent and disenchanted by the pace, or the topic being presented in a way that just doesn’t interest them. The teachers that we remember from our school days are the ones that engaged us with their subject the best. So working out how a child can be better engaged with a subject or even topic will really improve focus. Learning doesn’t have to be ‘serious’ – if the child is engaged and learning, that’s the result that we should be aiming for.

By Jonathan Coates @coates_jonathan