“Concentration a very misunderstood thing,” says Parent/Child Coach and accredited Play Therapist, Helen Sholdice.
“A lot of people believe that children are born with the ability to concentrate, but they’re not. It’s like any other skill. The more we practice, the better we get. It’s actually a mental muscle. Concentration skills can only be developed by children themselves, but parents can play a huge part in supporting them.”
Like many practitioners and researchers, Helen is clear on the links between concentration and the ability to learn and to succeed: “Without that ability to concentrate, it’s very difficult to achieve very much in life. The more a child can give their full attention to a task, the more likely they are to succeed.”
And while concentration is linked to the child’s developing interests and motivations, it can tend to wane at the point it’s regarded as most important – when ‘big school’ begins.
“Babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers all show the ability to concentrate on what they’re interested in,” Helen explains. “That might be their parent’s voice or something they want to grab, or the bike they want to learn to ride.
“As children get older and enter formal school, that’s usually where the inability to concentrate rears its head. Children may start to feel inadequate in their ability to do tasks, or they may not be able to concentrate long enough to understand them. So, a lack of confidence can stop a child making a concentrated effort. Not necessarily a lack of ability.”
When a child is learning something new or working on a challenging task like homework, Helen believes that concentration only develops when the child is encouraged to be as independent as possible. Here’s her advice on stepping back and allowing the child’s concentration skills to come to the fore:
1. “Allow the child to prepare,” Helen advises. “If the parent and child are going to cook, encourage the child to take out the utensils, put on their own apron, get out the cookbook and do as much as they can for themselves. If they’re doing homework, the child should get out their own schoolbooks. If they’re reading age, the child should open up the homework diary and see what’s in it.”
2. Whose homework is it anyway? “When the child is beginning a task, the parent’s tone of voice and attitude are crucial,” Helen explains. “Encourage the child to take their time, tell them there’s no rush. The slowing down and the settling down are important. Establish a rhythm.
“If the child is doing homework, tell them that you’re there if they need you, but don’t do the work for the child. Parents will often say, ‘We have homework’, but that’s not the case. Parents can bring quite an intense feeling to the homework – often of urgency and pressure. That isn’t good for concentration.”
3. Don’t ride to the rescue. When it comes to homework, children don’t always read the instructions, Helen reminds us. “They might tear into the work then get bogged down. The parent might come in to rescue the child. It’s kindly meant, but the child may start to feel the parent doesn’t think they’re any good at the task. They may then give up and hand it over. Then the parent starts trying to do the task for them and it becomes laborious, horrible and difficult. Emotions can run high and that leads the brain to release cortisol and adrenaline. The child may struggle and get angry and that’s when difficulties can arise between parent and child.”
4. Take a break. “If a problem comes up, encourage the child to take a break,” Helen advises. “Offer them a glass of milk or juice. If you have a cup of tea, that shows the child that when things get overwhelming it’s a good idea to step back and reflect. When the child is ready, they can then go back to the task and slow down and focus again. Again, you can stay nearby, but don’t be tempted to start doing the task, otherwise there’s a dependency. Emotionally, it becomes very difficult for the child to concentrate because they’re not independent.”
5. Acknowledge the child’s efforts. “Completing the activity successfully can bring great contentment and clarity for the child,” Helen notes. “The knock-on effect is that the child shows patience and more tolerance and become more cooperative. Those are the by-products of concentration. It’s very powerful.
You don’t need to go overboard with praise when the homework is finished. Acknowledgement and encouragement are better than treats. Show that you recognise the child’s effort. You might say something like, ‘That wasn’t easy, but you really stuck with it and you didn’t give up’. Or you might say, ‘Now that you’ve finished, you understand things better’.
Helen Sholdice is a Parent/Child Coach and a Certified Play Therapist. She works in private practice and runs a number of parenting courses and is also a frequent contributor to national media titles.