Kids of all ages can have trouble with focus, including pre-teens. Everyday distractions can prove challenging even for kids who are generally focused otherwise. But parents and caregivers can help children learn to be better focused, at least more often and at times when it matters most.
How can you help your pre-teen child stay focused? The first thing to do is watch for patterns to discover possible reasons your child may have challenges in focusing (for example, do you notice it happening at a certain time of day or in certain situations? Or just on occasion? Or when your child is stressed, or hungry, or excessively tired, etc.? Noticing these patterns can help. Once you understand more about when and why, you can work with your child on specific games and exercises to improve concentration and focus, along with addressing any physiological causes such as more restful sleep or healthy snacks.
As a parent, it can be tough to ascertain if your child has an ongoing attention issue that needs to be addressed, or if it’s just part of your child’s unique temperament. My own child is now a teenager, and she has had difficulty focusing since preschool so I’ve spent years researching possibilities of causes and coping strategies. If your pre-teen has trouble with focus, it’s not likely something that will be outgrown, though it may manifest differently at different ages and into adulthood. Learning strategies to help your child focus can be beneficial as your child grows.
Common Examples of Focus Challenges
A trouble with focus can appear in numerous ways that may change over the course of time. Here are some common examples of focus challenges you may be seeing with your child:
- Often being late for scheduled activities
- Not finishing classwork or homework
- Often keeping a messy bedroom
- Not being able to decide when to focus on a bigger picture or rather to the details
- Have challenges in filtering out unnecessary information, sights or sounds
- Getting easily distracted when interrupted and not able to get back on track with their thought process
- Focusing on paying attention without getting distracted or lost in thought
- Concentrating on a single activity through completion
- Difficulty following or remembering directions and instructions
- Following a conversation without getting lost midway through
The challenge for parents and caregivers is to understand that if your pre-teen seems to have an ongoing problem with staying focused, it’s not that they are being defiant. It’s not because they’re lazy. It’s not because they’re not smart. Kids may want to focus and try to focus and simply cannot manage to get the results they want. Often, kids need our help to teach them ways to be better focused and also motivated to learn coping strategies that work for them – even when it’s challenging.
Discovering Potential Causes and What to Look For
Lack of focus in kids can be occasional or an ongoing issue. There is a wide variation in attention spans that merely relate to a child’s individuality. Yet an ongoing “lack of focus” issue may be a biological imbalance where your child isn’t producing enough dopamine (ADHD), or it may be simply that your child isn’t getting enough sleep.
Here are some common potential causes for trouble focusing you can look for in deciding which strategies may be most useful:
- Lack of sleep
- Poor quality sleep
- Disagreements with friends or in circles of acquaintances
- An exciting social event
- Major life event, such as divorce, death of a family member, or moving
- General stress
If you suspect any of these as having an impact on your child’s ability to focus, you can help to address the cause as you also learn and apply strategies that can help to enhance your child’s ability focus.
Ways to Help Improve Your Child’s Focus
Two helpful sources to offer information and support are your child’s teacher and pediatrician. But even if you’re not sure what the cause of ongoing patterns of inattention are, you can still help your child at home with these useful tips to improve focus and increase concentration:
- Consider adjusting you child’s diet to include healthy, vegan fats while reducing (or preferably eliminating) sugars, dairy, and gluten. This combination improves the brain’s ability to sustain attention and supports cognitive retention.
- Ensure your child is getting enough quality sleep each night (aiming for 10-11 hours per day for pre-teens). Most kids are not getting enough restful sleep each night and it’s one of the easiest ways to boost your child’s ability to focus.
- Spending time in nature has proven to be beneficial, helping to increase focus, sustained attention in completing tasks, the ability to listen and follow directions, and resisting distractions.
- Set reasonable expectations. Learn enough about child development to understand whether or not the expectations you have are realistic for your pre-teen child. Comparing your child to other children’s abilities and outcomes is not helpful, but knowing the range of typical capabilities for your child at different ages is.
- Know and follow your child’s interests. Kids tend to hold their focus with greater ease when engaging in activities they enjoy. So when you have a choice about how a lesson can be presented, choose a modality that best suits your child’s personality and interests.
- Get your child moving. Kids will often feel fidgety or zoned out when they’re been in one place too long. Change up the scenery and encourage movement.
- Simplify the schedule. Too many transitions and activities can be too distracting for a child who already has trouble focusing. Fewer activities allows for time to delve into an activity or task with a higher level of focus and concentration.
- Set routines and stick to them. If your child knows the timing of everyday routines, it lessens the stress of keeping up with too many changing parts. The more you can stick to a daily routine, the more focused your child can be on other tasks.
- Reduce clutter and stuff. The fewer things your child has to keep up with (and provide distractions), the greater focus they can offer the things in their environment.
- Reduce or eliminate screen time. Screen time stimulates brain activity, yet drastically reduces the ability to concentrate on anything else. The less time your child spends in front of screens (whether TV, phone, computer, video games, etc.), the more s/he can sustain their focus when engaging in other activities.
- No interruptions. Offer your child time when you do not interrupt his or her activity. Remember that your input and comments may be a primary distraction from your child’s focus at times. So give them time regularly to absorb an activity independently, without comments, movements and outside distractions to the extent possible.
- Soothing sounds and smells can improve concentration. Consider the environment and add soothing elements to assist in creating a calmer area in which to focus.
Let your child know that trouble with focusing is a common issue and nothing to be ashamed about. All kids have different areas of strength and areas that are more challenging. It’s also possible that a child’s greatest area of challenge can, over time, become their greatest strength simply because they spent more time focusing on how to improve!
How to Know If Your Child Needs More Help?
If you suspect your child might have ADHD as the source of focus and attention challenges, you may not know where to start in navigating the maze of information. Here are some tips to help you figure out next steps:
Learn Common Signs and Symptoms of ADHD. For pre-teens, signs and symptoms include:
(Keep in mind that not all kids exhibit the “hyperactivity” part of ADHD, so some of these may not pertain to your child and s/he may still be considered to have ADHD, sometimes called ADD when hyperactivity is not part of a child’s picture)
- Works slowly (sometimes considered too slowly)
- Finds it challenging to keep track of his or her stuff
- Zones out or loses focus of thought often or easily
- Often forgets day to day things (homework, chores, etc.)
- Forgetful about what s/he’s just read or heard unless it’s particularly interesting to him/her
- Often starts tasks but doesn’t finish them (homework, chores, projects, etc.)
- Has trouble with transitions during the day
- Has trouble with following directions, turning in homework, or remembering to bring things home from school (notes, lunchbox, etc.)
Pay Close Attention to Your Child’s Behavior and Patterns
Plan to take notes while observing your child over a period of time, and write down anything that concerns you relating to his or her behavior.
Talk to Your Child’s Teacher (and to Your Child)
Knowing what’s going on with your child at school is helpful. Your teacher may see things at school that you don’t notice at home. Or, you may be able to clue your child’s teacher in to things that may help your child during the school day. Also, talking with your child about how things are going can give you some clues about what s/he may be struggling with.
For example, if your child is sitting near the back of the room and seems to miss a lot of instructions, suggest that the teacher move your child to the front of the room. And ask the teacher to pay extra attention to whether or not your child seems to be listening to and grasping instructions.
Or the opposite may be true. In talking with my own daughter, she felt it was more helpful to be seated at the back of the room so that when she missed something, she had a better view of the others kids and would take cues from them. When she was seated at the front of the room and missed something, she felt entirely lost.
So ask your child for his or her opinion of strategies they feel may be helpful, share those ideas with your child’s teacher, and then together you can adjust as necessary.
Talk to Your Child’s Doctor
Speak privately with your child’s pediatrician (not in your child’s presence) to share your concerns. Bring your notes, ask questions, and ask your child’s doctor for advice about whether or not it makes sense to exploring ideas to find out if your child might have ADHD. If the pediatrician suggests seeing a specialist to either diagnose or rule out ADHD, ask for a referral.
Consider Treatment Options
If it turns out your child is diagnosed with ADHD, consider pros and cons of medication versus natural treatments.
Look Into School Evaluations and Options
Many schools have free evaluation tools and assessments that can help to find out if your child may have any other learning disorders (common with kids diagnosed with ADHD). By working with the staff and tools available through your child’s school, with a combined approach, you can navigate a plan that may help your child be more successful at school.
Consider Connecting with Other Parents Dealing with Similar Issues
It can be helpful to identify a support network of other parents who have kids the same age who are also dealing with attention and focus challenges. By talking together, you can share strategies that work, discuss challenges and ways to overcome them, and work together to address any challenges your kids are facing at school or during organized activities.
In essence, the most effective way to help your child learn to overcome challenges in their ability to focus is to become as educated as possible, be patient with your child, and strive for success in small doses. Celebrate each stepping stone as your child learns to manage his or responsibilities with greater focus and concentration – one step at a time.