If your child can’t focus on a task for their age times 3 minutes, working to improve concentration is going to be on your mind.
Getting your young child ready for school needs to include more skills than are on those handy checklists. Don’t get me wrong: I love a checklist and you can check out my Kindergarten Readiness Checklist set to see the milestones your child should be hitting before kindergarten.
But the skill of focusing on a task is the most critical skill you can reinforce at home to get your child ready for early elementary school.
To improve concentration and focus, take these concrete steps as a parent to increase your child's stamina for staying with a task.
If they get to school equipped for learning, they will spend less time learning how to focus and more time actually learning!
To improve concentration and focus, there are concrete steps you can take as a parent to improve your child’s focus on a task.
1. Your Goal: Improve Concentration
The most important first step in working to improve concentration is to understand that this is your main goal.
What that means is that you’re going to have to abandon some of the other possible goals you could have like accuracy and mastery.
Your child might not be writing their name correctly, but they are completely focused and engrossed in the project. Leave them alone.
Interrupting them disrupts the natural development of their focus. It’s like a muscle-- it need repetition and practice to get stronger.
2. Get an assessment of their ability to focus
The next time your child is playing, whether they’re stacking boxes or dressing dolls or running trucks along the floor, try to get an accurate measure of how many minutes they can focus on a task.
Remember, focusing while watching television, playing with an electronic tablet, or watching a movie don’t count. We want to measure their ability to focus on a task in front of them that is not digitized.
Children should be able to focus on a task their age times 3 minutes. For example, a five year old should be able to focus for 15 minutes on a non-digital task.
Kids should be able to focus on a task for their age times 3. So for a 5 year old, if they are able to focus only for 10 minutes (and not 15 as is the low end of the average) then you’ll know you need to work to improve concentration.
The upper end of the average is the child’s age times 5. So if your five year old is focusing for 25 minutes, they are doing great with concentration!
You don’t need to reassess this measure every day, but over the course of a few months, check back in on their focus.
3. Make improving concentration a game
Improving concentration takes practice. You can try timing your child as they build a tower, play with their dolls, or read independently, and then encourage them to increase their time each week.
You can make a physical number line with minutes, post it on the wall, and move a counter every time your child increases their minutes on task.
Or you could give them an individual stamina tracker to create a personalized chart.
We use these all the time to help struggling readers shoot for stamina goals.
This doesn’t work well for young children (who might not be motivated by a game like this) but for 8-15 year olds, this works like a charm.
For older children, try using one of these handy personal stamina trackers.
This first grade teacher outlines her whole process for setting up Read to Self in her classroom, including tracking stamina. You can adapt it for your house!
Other activities can help improve concentration at home, and the more fun they are, the better!
4. Give your attention to get attention
Sometimes, watching a child work will help to increase their focus and concentration.
When given a task that is unfamiliar, most kids will have a HARD time jumping into that task without support. The first time you show a toy or a task, stay with your child and watch as they work.
But parents, don’t take over when they inevitably write something incorrectly or play with the toy differently than it was designed for. Remember, your goal is to increase the amount of time your child can focus on a task, not to make sure they get the task right.
Watch and encourage, then back away when they look like they’re on a roll.
5. Make the time and space for focus
In your home, there should be times when uninterrupted work is possible. If the TV is always on in the background, this can be hard to achieve.
Create a “golden hour” each day or several hours on the weekend when the tv is off and everyone is doing their projects. It can be when dad is cooking dinner, when mom is wrapping up work in the office, or when everyone is doing homework.
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On the weekends, I sometimes just let us take forever to get to our first activity on a Saturday.
So if we are heading to the library like usual and The Girl gets involved in a task, I’ll just open up a book and see how long she goes. Sometimes she is washing those babies in the bathtub for an hour!
Giving your child tasks to focus on that they can do easily is the key. Don't expect them to focus on handwriting practice if this is a big challenge. For pre-readers, sticker books and other activity books that don't require your help are the best for uninterrupted work.
6. Teach the pleasure of being in flow
Most of know the experience of being in flow-- we are completely engrossed in our work and we don’t want to stop. The time melts away, we could stay engaged for hours, and the mental and intellectual work feels like such a pleasure.
Teach kids to get into flow
We want kids to get that same amazing experience.
Watch for when they have moments of flow, where they’re completely focused on a task and have a hard time putting it down. (And again, not the tv or the tablet).
For my daughter, it’s creating structures out of masking tape, building with magnatiles, writing her name, or washing her babies.
She is so engrossed she doesn’t hear me when I ask her a question, and she even seems irritated with me that I’m interrupting her.
These are times to rejoice as a parent, maybe even to delay dinner 10 minutes becuase they’re so into their project.
Definitely mention to them that you can see how excited they are about their task and take time to admire their work afterwards.
Transition out of flow gently
Sometimes it’s tempting to demand that our kids respond right away to us. We want them to drop everything and listen or put their clothes away or wash up for dinner.
Their complete immersion in a task is a GOOD thing, and is a sign of future academic and career success.
But I know how irritating it can be to be completely ignored.
Try to give your child a warning with a countdown so they can transition out of their work. I sometimes give several reminders (“Dinner in 10 minutes! I’ll remind you one more time and then we have to clean up.”) and I sometimes use a sand timer.
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If she’s really into her writing, I’ll plop a 5 minute sand timer down next to her and say “Dinner is in 5 minutes. When the sand goes out, please come to the kitchen.”
Usually that works. The act of checking the timer a few times in 5 minutes gently helps her transition out of the flow and head to the kitchen.
To improve concentration in our kids, we first need to make our home a place where periodically our kids can work on a task without being interrupted or corrected. And then to improve concentration even more, there are steps to track and to encourage stamina for work. Have fun watching their stamina for work increase!