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Q&A: How can I help my student focus?

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Great tips for helping your homeschooler develop better focus.

Now that my son is in sixth grade, he’s doing work that requires him to really dig in and focus. He’s doing good work, but he’s so easily distracted, and he has trouble concentrating. Is there anything I can do to help improve his focus?

Learning to focus can be hard even for adults, but most of the time, all you need to boost your concentration is a change in your routine and regular practice, says Michael Coates, M.D., chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Try these easy-to-implement actions to help your son improve his focus.

Set a timer. Something about an established time limit — “Work on this math for 15 minutes” — inspires focus, so don’t hesitate to break out the kitchen timer when you get to a subject you know taxes your son’s concentration skills. Start with small increments of time, and gradually increase time spent until you reach the amount of focused time you’re shooting for. This works best if you don’t rush — you don’t have to increase the time every day. Instead, give your son a chance to really adjust to each increase before adding more time.

Check your sleep habits. Around sixth grade, some kids start making the shift to adolescent sleep habits, which means their bodies naturally want to stay up later and sleep longer in the mornings. Kids really need at least seven hours of sleep a night to concentrate during the day, so if your child’s sleep patterns are changing but your schedule isn’t, it may be time to try something different. Even just starting an hour later in the morning may be enough to improve your son’s concentration.

Practice mindfulness. If your son starts to drift off during reading assignments or conversations, it may be that he’s spoiled by the everything-now nature of video games, Wikipedia, and Twitter. To help him shake that I-could-be-doing-10-other-things-now feeling, encourage him to pause and wiggle his toes or snap his fingers. That moment of focused concentration will help his focus settle back down.

Have a glass of water. A 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that being as little as two percent dehydrated — such mild dehydration that your body doesn’t even feel thirsty — can negatively impact concentration. Pour your son a big glass of water before his next intensive focus session.

Jump around. Exercise is one of the best ways to improve focus, so take plenty of action breaks to walk around the block, kick a soccer ball in the backyard, do jumping jacks in the living room, or play a quick round of Wii Sports between subjects.

Bottom line: Don’t expect your son’s concentration abilities to develop on their own. Help him sharpen them over time by test-driving different focus-boosting techniques.

Originally published in the spring 2014 issue of home/school/life magazine. Subscribe to get great homeschool content every season.Do you have a question about homeschooling? Email us, and we'll try to help you find an answer. Questions may be published in future issues of home/school/life.