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Concentration - your child's mental workout!

Picture: http://blogs.simplyfun.com/

Parents often phone into the Practica Program Advisory Service asking why concentration is not listed as a ‘skill’ in the Parent’s Guide. This is because most parents want to help grow their children’s ability to concentrate. We agree that it is very important and felt this was indeed a topic to discuss!

What is concentration?

Let’s start off by saying that concentration is a term that describes the brain’s ability to keep on going at a task, much like the term ‘fitness’ describes the body’s ability to keep on going during a sport’s game.

    Researchers can use PET scans to point out different regions in the brain that control speech, analytical reasoning, emotional experiences, visual processing, auditory processing, motor skills and so on – but there is no region in the brain that can be pointed out as the ‘concentration’ hotspot. So instead of viewing concentration as a ‘skill’ on its own, it helps to think of concentration as being ‘mentally fit’.

How does a child naturally learn to concentrate for longer?
As discussed in earlier posts, a child’s brain is ‘wired’ during the early years of life, mainly during the first 3 years, and up to early-school-years. (If you missed that post, click here.) Two interesting processes go along with this ‘wiring’ process: (1) myelination and (2) the development of brain cohesion.

    1. Myelination: We know by now that activities which use the brain will develop a stronger neural network of connections between brain cells. As this process unfolds, a waxy covering develops around each and every neural connection that acts as ‘insulation’ in the same way as one would like to insulate an electrical wire to keep the sparks from flying all over the place. The more a certain region of the brain is used, the thicker these myelin sheaths develop around the brain cell connections in that area, and the smoother and more quickly information will travel there.

    As this process of myelination progresses throughout the various regions of a child’s brain, the child gradually learns to process information more effectively, focus his attention better, and keep going for longer. In other words – he learns to ‘concentrate’.

    2. Brain cohesion: The more various regions of the brain are used together in combinations, the better they learn to ‘talk’ to each other. That is called ‘brain cohesion.’ Interestingly, different tasks require different combinations of brain regions to work together.

    For example, as a child listens to a story while looking at the illustrations, he uses a special combination of brain regions that include those that process sounds, visual images, language, emotions, logical sequences and memory. However, when the same child looks at an instruction card to build a construction with blocks, he also uses the visual part, but now combines it with other regions, like those that control eye-hand coordination and logical reasoning.

    The more a certain combination of brain regions work together, the better they learn to talk to each other – it’s as if the information gets to travel on big highways between regions that are used together often, as opposed to having to travel on little footpaths between other regions of the brain.

    This explains why parents often report that a child can ‘concentrate at home’ but not at school. The simple explanation is that a formal school environment expects of the child to use combinations of brain regions together that he may not often get the opportunity to use together at home or in a pre-school. A good example of this would be a child who seldom listens to stories, but loves to play blocks can easily get to the point where he plays with his blocks for 30 minutes, but continues to ‘space out’ or start talking about other things after listening to a story (or a lesson) for 3 minutes!

How to train your child to concentrate for longer:

Step 1: Start by determining your child’s developmental level.
Many parents do not understand just how long their child should be able to concentrate for at any given age, so here is a practical age-by-age list:

Age and concentration in minutes

1 year = 1 minute

1,5 years = 2 minutes

2 years = 3 minutes

2,5 years = 5 minutes 

3 years = 10 minutes

4 years = 15 minutes

5 years = 20 minutes

6 years = 25 minutes 

    The most that a child of six years or older can concentrate for is 25 minutes, which is why the South African Department of Education has chosen to structure all school lessons in 25-30 minute intervals. In fact, most adults are also only able to really tolerate 25 minutes of concentration at a time as well.

Note to Practica Parents: One of the greatest benefits of the Practica Program is that the activities listed for every age group in the Parents' Guide has been specifically selected to last as long as a typical child of that age is able to concentrate.

Step 2: Build from the bottom up.
A person wanting to run the comrades marathon will start with a 10 minute walk once a day and build up to a point where they are fit enough to take on an 80km run, and again, this rings true for your child’s ability to concentrate.

    Similarly, if your 6 year old can concentrate for only 3-5 minutes, meet him where he is at by playing a wide variety of games with him that require of him to focus his attention and complete a task while actively using his mind for 3-5 minutes. (Parents who own a Practica Program can save time by paging to the 2-year old section in the Parents’ Guide and choosing activities from all the various sections listed under that age, because the games in that section are designed to last for 3-5 minutes.)

    After a number of weeks, when your child is confident that he can easily play all kinds of games for 5 minutes at a time, move on to activities that encourage your child to keep going for 10 minutes at a time (listed in the 3-year old section in the Parents' Guide) … and so forth. Keep going slowly but surely until your child reaches the point where he enjoys activities that are age-appropriate for a 6-year old and keeps going for 25 minutes at a time.

Important pointers:

1. Variety is very important
Spending many hours practising your tennis game isn’t going to do much to improve your soccer skills – simply because each game requires a unique combination of body parts to work together well. Similarly, the best way to prepare a young child for any challenge that may come his way later on in his schooling career is to play a WIDE variety of activities and games on a regular basis. We’re repeating ourselves, but this important factor is so often overlooked that it is worth repeating!

2. Don’t waste precious concentration time!
Don’t be discouraged when you spend 20 minutes preparing an interesting activity for your 2,5-year-old only to find that they get bored after five minutes! This is completely normal!

    This is not to say that you shouldn’t prepare activities, but it is a great idea to prepare them once a week for the week ahead (as is recommended by the Practica Program), so that you have them on hand quickly and can catch your little one when they’re ready to interact.

    It is also a good idea to spread activities out. Do some brain-building interaction for the length of time listed above and then take a 10-15 minute break and do the same thing or something new again after that. This gives your child a chance to ‘recharge’ and be mentally ready for the next activity.

3. Differentiate between fun and fitness
In physical fitness there is a real difference between the benefits of swing-ball (which is fun) and the benefits of tennis (which builds fitness), and the same rule applies to building mental fitness.

    While it may be fun to run around outside, unpack the Tupperware drawer and bang pots together, and free-play and creativity have their place in your child’s day, this kind of unstructured activity is not going to exercise your child’s ability to concentrate.

    The kinds of games and activities that do improve concentration involve anything where there is a task to be completed, a plan to be followed, steps to take in a progressive fashion and a goal at the end of the activity. For example, finding all the yellow marbles, or stacking a tower of 10 blocks high, matching all the same coloured socks, building a construction with building blocks according to the instructions on an instruction card, singing a song from beginning to end with specific gestures at various points, etc.

4. Make building self-confidence a priority.
The greatest draw-back for a 6-year old who cannot concentrate for long is not always the obvious consequence of not being able to follow instructions and complete tasks – it’s more often the fact that he has been told directly or indirectly, over and over again by various adults in various situations that he cannot concentrate!

   In light of this, starting with activities aimed at 2-year-old level of concentration and building up from there has a dual purpose – not only are the activities short, but they’re also easy. By moving on to more advanced and longer activities gradually, you ensure that your child experience success over and over again, in a wide variety of contexts, he starts to believe in himself and his abilities. If you do not have a Practica Program you can still help your child by ensuring that you meet them where they are at, and slowly increasing the length of time in which they are encouraged to concentrate on completing a task.

    Concentration is important, especially when it comes to school as well as just learning about life in general, and just like keeping your body fit, it is all about keeping your mind fit as well!

The Practica Team
parents who know better... do better

Comments, or a request to be added to the post update alert email? Please email lizette@practicaprogram.co.za

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