by Diane Masiello, Ph.D.

Summer is here, and your child has no desire to do the educational practices that will help them avoid “the summer slide”—the tendency some students have to lose academic progress during the two-month break. Here are some tips on how to help children focus when all they (and, maybe their parents) want to do is goof off. 

Take a break from electronic devices. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and other tech mavens refused to allow their children to use electronic devices until they were on their way to adulthood. Cell phones, iPads, handheld video games and gaming consoles are distracting and addicting. The design of most apps and games provides immediate gratification for small tasks, which hit the brain with small bits of dopamine. Reading non-fiction passages and dividing fractions do not offer the same pleasurable reward feedback loop. Thus, they will never be as appealing to anyone, much less children who have far less ability to self-regulate and postpone gratification. Don’t make electronics time a given—make them earn it by doing something that requires sustained focus—reading, doing a page of math problems, even building with Legos. Interacting with anything that does not have a screen will make them less resistant to activities where they need to focus.

Let them be bored. Do not be the cruise director of your child’s summer. Let them find (non-electronic) ways to occupy their time. Psychology Today says boredom improves mental health by allowing the mind to slow down, creates space for creativity, encourages a search for new things, allows children to establish new goals and helps establish self-control. Work can be boring. Children who do not experience boredom in their daily lives will have a much harder time in school when faced with tasks that are necessary, but not fun.

Create a regular work time and space based on your child’s performance. Your child may not want to follow their normal pattern of homework at exactly 3:30 pm every day. Give them a week to show you how they thrive when in control of their time. Do they seem to be more focused in the morning, right after breakfast? Or at 2 pm downtime? Maybe 7 pm is their ideal hour. Once that is determined, carve out that time specifically for educational practices and make it a daily habit. Then, create a workspace that gives them the interaction they need without distraction. Many experts believe work should be done at a desk in the child’s room, but that solitude can lead to daydreaming. In the beginning, it’s best to have them work in a calm space where you can observe them. What are their work patterns? What distracts them? How long can they stay focused before they look out a window, play with their eraser or start chasing the dog? Make a log of your observations to see what, exactly, is getting in the way of your child’s focus. Then, one by one, try to eliminate those things from your child’s work area.

Set realistic goals by using a timer. A five-year-old will not be able to focus for very long, yet by the teenaged years, children should be able to focus for almost an hour. This has less to do with the individual child and everything to do with brain development and how children learn at different developmental stages. According to the Brain Balance Achievement Center, two-year-olds can only be expected to focus for 4-6 minutes, four-year-olds for 8-12 minutes, six-year-olds for 12-18 minutes, eight-year-olds for 16-24 minutes, ten-year-olds for 20-30 minutes, twelve-year-olds for 24-36 minutes, fourteen-year-olds for 28-42 minutes, and sixteen-year-olds for 32-48 minutes. Set a timer for the appropriate amount of focus time, and see how your child does. If they hit the mark, great. If not, stop the timer when they lose focus, and use that as the starting point. Increase their time by one to three minutes every day, and before long, they will be right on target. 

Build in rewards. Eventually, good grades and the feeling of a job well done will become your child’s rewards. Whether this begins in high school or toward the end of college is dependent on the individual child. Until they develop that work ethic, though, a little reward can go a long way. Some parents choose to “pay” their children with money or with electronics time. However, smaller rewards, like a Friday treat or a trip to the Dollar Store, can work just as well if all the work was done with focus. It’s up to the individual family to decide what the rewards will be—whether hourly, daily, weekly or monthly. A younger child, for instance, may do better with an hourly reward, like on marble, or a piece of candy, or a coin in a jar per five minutes of focus. Older children should not need hourly rewards but may do well with daily or weekly surprises. The key is to be consistent and keep it simple. Don’t develop a reward system that is financially, physically or psychologically difficult to maintain for you and your family.

Bear in mind that there are a number of issues involving focus that cannot be solved using the methods above. If you try all these tips and your child is still showing trouble focusing, consult with their pediatrician. They may have something more serious going on that may need to be addressed with medication or different therapies.