Helping children focus during home schooling

By Sally Kenney, School Psychologist:  

“The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.” Daniel Kahneman

The ability to focus on a task is not just about exercising self-control: it is mediated by our brain’s executive function and includes being able to filter irrelevant sensory information, to recognise when our attention has drifted and to shift our attention back to the task at hand.

Our ability to sustain attention can vary depending on what the task is – listening, reading, writing, drawing, building with Lego, playing an instrument – it depends on the individual. It also depends on whether the task is passive or active, how interested or invested we are in the task, how skilled we feel, as well as the feelings we have during the task.

WHAT MAKES IT HARD TO FOCUS?

Active distractions: When we are in high-distraction environments, our brains have to work really hard to filter out the sensory ‘noise’. We can also be distracted by things about ourselves – an itch, aches and pains, an uncomfortable chair, hunger, too cold, etc.

Boredom: Unappealing tasks are hard to stick with, as are tasks that are too easy. If the things that are distracting us are more appealing than the task at hand, we can quickly find ourselves procrastinating, or moving towards something more pleasurable or meaningful.

Anxiety: Feeling anxious negatively impacts your executive functioning, making sustained attention difficult. It is harder to ignore sensory information when your threatened brain is monitoring for danger.

Low mood: when our mood is low, it can be hard to maintain enthusiasm or see the point in things. A low mood makes it easier to focus on the negative, to assume the worst and to expect failure, making avoidance more appealing.

Fatigue: The foggy feeling of tiredness can slow our perception and reaction times. When we are sleep-deprived, we produce more cortisol, a stress hormone which interferes with executive function. But many students report feeling fatigued despite getting more sleep than normal, so it’s worth looking a little more at why COVID-19 is making us so tired:

  • Less activity– moving our bodies helps us to regulate our energy. At School there is a lot of movement within the school environment. Also, for most children, the majority of their physical activity happens in a social context. If there is no sport being played, no training, and they’re not able to play with their friends, chances are your children are not as physically active as normal.
  • Less sunlight – Not going outside as much as normal means less exposure to sunlight and more melatonin being produced, making them sleepy. At School there is a lot of time spent outside, probably more than they’d realise when you add it all up.
  • Isolation– for those who are more extroverted, being around other people is energising. Those who tend more towards introversion still experience loneliness and the sadness that can come with that feeling.
  • Interactions are more effortful online– When we interact face-to-face, there is a process of mutual attunement. We subconsciously monitor the person we are with through facial expression, gesture, posture, tone of voice, etc and modify our behaviour in response. This can help us understand how the other person is feeling and what they are communicating non-verbally.
    When interacting with people online we need to work a lot harder than usual to connect with them in the absence of the physical person; we’re missing the cues that help guide us in our interactions and it’s exhausting.
  • Stress, worries and anxiety – carrying the kinds of worries that the pandemic brings is heavy work and for some it can severely impact on sleep.

HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN THEY HAVE LOST FOCUS?

What does it feel like for you when you’ve lost focus? Do you have an urge to get up and walk around? Do you yawn, stretch, shift in your seat? Look for something else to do? Go to the kitchen? Adults’ better developed capacity for self-awareness means it is easier for us to recognise when we’ve lost focus, label it as such and then intentionally re-direct ourselves. Children are often unaware of having lost focus and younger children can completely forget what they were meant to have been doing, especially if whatever they have moved onto is more appealing.

When we lose focus, if whatever grabs our attention is more appealing than the task at hand, it takes self-discipline to re-direct our attention back to where it needs to be. For children, the internet is a bottomless chasm of distractions, each more tantalising than the last.

HELP TO MANAGE THE DISTRACTIONS

Developers of games and apps design them with the intention to keep the user engaged for as long as possible. The part of a young person’s brain that drives them to seek pleasure and reward is more active than the part that helps them to focus, filter distractions and make good choices. (Brains On! is a fantastic science podcast for kids and they made a great episode about this last year).

They need to practise focusing, filtering and decision-making to get better at it but sometimes can benefit from some external intervention in keeping with their development.

Parental control software is one tool that many parents look to help their children avoid the pitfalls that come from too much time spent online (at the expense of other, more important activities); to avoid their child developing an increasing dependence on online activities; or to keep them safe from bullies, scammers and predators.

One option available to families is Circle, which is compatible with the platforms that Kilvington uses. More information and a free trial is available at meetcircle.com.

Other options that VCE students often use are apps that block certain apps or URLS at designated times. There are too many to mention here, but this article lists some recommendations for starters.

TALK BEFORE YOU DOWNLOAD

Some children – adolescents in particular – can take offense at parental controls and may complain about invasion of privacy, unrealistic perception of danger, or lack of trust. While you are likely using parental controls as protection, not punishment, the perceived deprivation can feel punitive and your child might complain about being punished for something they haven’t done yet.

When making the decision about parental controls, it is important that it is communicated to children the reasons why these measures are being considered and the support that they offer. As children get older, it is also important to make sure there is opportunity for them to practice the skills of decision-making and self-monitoring in order to develop those capacities.