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As a parent who wants the best for their kids, it can be frustrating when your child is having trouble paying attention. Whether they struggle with concentrating in class, staying still, or a lack of focus on homework, attention problems can impact your child’s development in several ways.
Attention is important for educational purposes, but it’s also needed at home and for activities like sport and hobbies. The ability to focus is important in almost every area of life.
Importantly, the Bible teaches us to pay attention to things that matter. For example, Proverbs 2:2 tells us to make our ears attentive to wisdom, and Hebrews 2:1 to pay close attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
As Christian parents, we want our kids to focus on the most important thing – knowing God and developing a strong, trusting, lifelong relationship with Him.
There are many reasons why your child might be struggling to pay attention. Not every child with attention problems will be diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or a learning disability. Your child may be bored with the material they're learning. Maybe they don't understand what's going on in class. Or maybe there's something going on socially or at home that's bothering them.
Whatever the reason, you can do numerous things to help your child focus and pay attention both at home and at school.
Here are six signs to look out for that could indicate your child is finding it hard to pay attention.
They are having trouble completing tasks
If you've noticed that your child is having trouble completing tasks, whether it's homework or chores around the house, it could be a sign of trouble paying attention. A child who is struggling to pay attention will likely have difficulty finishing things they start.
If your child’s teachers mention problems with paying attention in class, this is worth noting. Every child has a difficult day (or week) at school now and again. But if they’re frequently getting in trouble for lack of attention, it may be time to talk to the school about what's going on.
Your child's grades are slipping
Another sign that your child may be having trouble paying attention in class is if their grades start to slip. If your once straight-A student is now getting Cs, or if their grades in one particular subject start to drop, it could indicate they are having difficulty focusing. Talking to their teacher can help you get to the bottom of the issue.
They daydream more than usual
All kids daydream from time to time. But if you notice your child is zoning out more often, it may be a sign of a problem. If your child is daydreaming, they may have trouble completing tasks, both at home and at school.
They seem stressed or anxious about going to school
If your child used to love going to school but now seems anxious or stressed about it, that could suggest they are struggling to pay attention in class. Kids who are having difficulty concentrating often feel like they're falling behind and can't keep up with their classmates. This can lead to anxiety and stress.
Your child loses interest in activities they once enjoyed
If your child seems disinterested in the things they once loved, it may be because they’re struggling to pay attention. For example, if your child used to love going to soccer practice but now they're making excuses not to go, it may be because they're finding it hard to follow directions. Loss of interest in activities can also be a sign of mental health difficulties, so it’s worth looking into.
If your child is having trouble focusing in the classroom, you’re not alone. According to a study by the Gonski Institute for Education, nearly four in five teachers reported seeing a decline in students’ ability to focus on learning tasks. And that was before the pandemic disrupted teaching and learning across Australia.
No matter the reason, if your child is struggling to focus in the classroom, it’s important to take action. Here are some key reasons why your child may be finding it hard to focus at school.
Lack of sleep
One of the most common reasons why children struggle to focus in the classroom is because they’re not getting enough sleep. According to the Growing Up in Australia study, only half of 16-17-year-olds were getting the recommended amount of sleep on school nights. And children aged 12-17 years were less likely to get the required minimum on school nights than non-school nights.
As well as problems with focus and concentration, lack of sleep can cause irritability and moodiness – all of which can interfere with your child’s ability to learn and interact positively with their peers.
Australian Government Guidelines recommend that:
- children aged 5 to 13 years get 9 to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep
- young people aged 14 to 17 years get 8 to 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Their diet is affecting their focus
What your child eats can have an impact on their ability to focus in the classroom. When kids skip breakfast, their blood sugar levels drop. This can lead to feelings of fatigue and make it difficult to concentrate.
To help your child focus at school, make sure they eat a healthy breakfast before heading off to school. Pack a nutritious lunch and snacks for later in the day. Foods like fruit, whole grains, lean protein, and yogurt can help keep your child focused throughout the day.
Vision or hearing difficulties
If your child is having trouble seeing the blackboard, reading their textbooks, or hearing instructions from their teacher, it’s no surprise that they’re having difficulty concentrating in class. Left unmanaged, vision or hearing problems could impact your child’s ability to learn and succeed academically. If you suspect your child may be struggling with their hearing or vision, be sure to arrange an appointment with a health professional.
If your child is experiencing stress at home or school, it will be difficult for them to focus on anything else. Talk to your child's teacher to see if there is anything going on at school that may be causing stress and take steps to help reduce stress at home.
Lack of motivation
There are a number of reasons why students might lack motivation. It could be that they're more interested in things outside of school, they don't feel challenged by the material, or they don't see the relevance of what they're learning. The solution will be different for each student, so it’s important to figure out what the root cause is before taking action.
Unidentified learning styles
Every child has a preferred way of taking in and remembering new information, known as a learning style. There are three main learning styles:
- Visual – these learners learn better by seeing information presented visually, such as in diagrams or charts.
- Auditory – people with an auditory learning style learn better by hearing information presented verbally, such as in lectures or explanations.
- Kinaesthetic – these people learn best by doing things themselves, such as through hands-on activities or experiments.
An unidentified learning style is a learning style that has not yet been identified by educators. If teaching doesn’t match your child’s learning style, it can be harder for them to concentrate.
Fear of looking stupid in front of class mates
This fear can manifest in several ways. Some kids may not participate in class, while others might be disruptive. It can even lead to kids avoiding school altogether.
Many children have experienced some form of trauma, such as witnessing or experiencing violence. Signs of undiagnosed trauma in students include:
- withdrawal from friends and activities they once enjoyed
- changes in eating or sleeping habits
- excessive worry or anxiety
- intrusive thoughts or flashbacks
- angry outbursts or acting out behaviors
- feelings of hopelessness or numbness
- changes in physical appearance or hygiene.
Trauma can have a profound impact on a child's emotional and mental health, so it's important to seek professional help if you notice any of these signs.
They might have a learning disability or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
According to research by Deloitte Access Economics, ADHD is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in Australia, affecting one in 20 children.
ADHD affects a person’s ability to pay attention, control impulsive behavior, and sit still—all skills that are essential for success in the classroom. If you suspect your child may have ADHD, talk to your doctor about getting a diagnosis and treatment plan.
As a parent, it’s natural to feel concerned if your child seems unfocused and uninterested at home or at school. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help your child improve their attention and focus.
- Talk to their teacher
If you're worried that your child isn't paying attention in class, the first thing you should do is talk to their teacher. They may have some insight into what's going on and why your child is having trouble paying attention. They may also have some suggestions for how you can help your child at home.
- Encourage a routine
One of the best ways to help your child focus more is to create a daily routine for them. Having set times for homework, meals, family time and play helps your child know what to expect each day and can help them be more successful in school and other activities. A routine can also help cut down on power struggles because your child will know what is coming next.
- Make time for physical activity
Physical activity helps kids burn off energy and has been shown to improve memory. All children need time to run around and play, but children with focus issues may need it even more. If your child is cooped up all day, it can be harder for them to sit still and pay attention.
Australian guidelines recommend children and young people aged 5 to 17 years should aim for at least 60 minutes of activity that makes the heart beat faster each day. Examples include:
- team sports like football or netball
- bike or scooter riding
On three days per week, try to include some activities that strengthen bones and muscles, such as:
- activities that use body weight, like sit ups and push ups
- lifting weights.
Children and young people should also try to do several hours of light activity each day, such as walking the dog or helping with household chores.
- Encourage good sleep habits
Sleep is essential for health and wellbeing at every age, and especially for developing minds and bodies. Lack of sleep can affect your child’s ability to concentrate, remember and control their behaviour, making it harder for them to learn. Tired children may have difficulty paying attention to the teacher's instructions.
Australian guidelines recommend that each night:
- children aged 5 to 13 years get 9 to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep
- young people aged 14 to 17 years get 8 to 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
This is just a guide. Your child may need more than this, so look out for signs of sleep deprivation – such as irritability, trouble waking up, poor concentration or changes in behaviour.
To help your child get good sleep, create a routine that includes winding down for 30 minutes before bedtime. This might include taking a bath, reading a Bible story together, or singing worship songs.
- Limit screen time
Screen time includes time watching TV, playing video games, or using a tablet or smartphone. Too much screen time can be detrimental to your child’s attention and focus. It can lead to behavior problems, difficulty sleeping, and poor school performance. Australian guidelines recommend limiting screen time to no more than two hours per day, not including screen time for school work. It’s especially important to limit screen use before bedtime. The blue light from screens can keep the brain awake by suppressing the hormone that regulates the body's sleep cycle.
- Eat healthy foods
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for everyone, but it can be especially important for children with attention and focus issues. Foods high in sugar may make it harder for your child to concentrate and stay still. Focus on providing meals and snacks using the five everyday food groups and aim to limit ‘sometimes’ foods like processed snacks, sweets and soft drinks.
- Get them involved in extracurricular activities
Extracurricular activities are a great way to help your child focus. They provide structure and a sense of accomplishment. Plus, they give your child something to look forward to outside of school. Find an activity that interests your child and sign them up. Chess club, dance class, football practice, youth group or worship band —the options are endless.
- Create a study space at home
A designated study space will help your child focus when it's time to do homework. It should be quiet, well-lit, and free of distractions like TVs, phones, and toys. Encourage them to take breaks often so they also have time for physical activity and building family relationships.
- Capitalise on their learning style
No matter what your child's learning style is, there are ways you can help them learn more effectively. If your child is a visual learner, try sitting down with them and going over their notes together after school. If they're an auditory learner, have them listen to audiobooks on the way to and from school or while they're doing chores around the house. And if they're a kinaesthetic learner, look for opportunities for them to get involved in hands-on activities – like science experiments or cooking projects.
- Build their motivation
If motivation is an issue, there are several ways you can help.
- Encourage them to talk about their feelings – this can help you get to the bottom of why they're struggling. Maybe they're feeling overwhelmed by their workload or like they're not good enough compared to their classmates. By talking about their feelings, you can help them identify roadblocks, then work together to find solutions. Additionally, simply knowing you're there for them and willing to listen can be a huge source of comfort and motivation.
- Help them set small goals – children may be overwhelmed by the big picture, which can make them feel like giving up. One way to combat this is by helping them set small goals rather than focusing on the end goal. For example, rather than telling them they need to raise their grades by the end of semester, encourage them to get a better grade on their next test or complete all their homework for one week.
- Praise efforts rather than their results – this will encourage them to keep trying even when they don't get the results they want. If you only praise them when they do well, they may become discouraged and give up when they don't meet your expectations. Instead of saying "Great job on your A+!" try saying something like "I'm proud of how hard you worked on that test."
- Find shared interests outside of school – finding an interest to share with your child can give them something positive to focus on outside of school and provide an opportunity for you to bond. For example, you could sign up to a local sports club or go for bike rides together. If they're interested in art, you could buy some supplies and spend an afternoon creating together. Having common interests is also a great way to encourage conversation about school. You can ask questions about how their day went and offer gentle encouragement about doing their best.
- Boost their confidence
If your child is struggling with looking foolish in front of their classmates, you can help to build their confidence.
- Talk about it – let them know it's okay to feel this way. This can open up dialogue, so your child feels comfortable coming to you with any concerns.
- Encourage them to take risks – taking calculated risks is how we learn and grow as people. Let your child know you're there to support them no matter what happens.
- Encourage them to ask questions – when they're feeling unsure about a concept or topic, encourage them to raise their hand and ask the teacher for clarification. This will not only help them better understand the material, but it will also show their classmates that it's okay to not know everything.
- Teach them that everyone makes mistakes – help your child understand that everyone learns in different ways and at different speeds. Just because they don't understand something right away doesn't mean they're dumb or that they'll never get it. It's okay to make mistakes and ask for help. What's not okay is making fun of someone for making a mistake.
- Help them develop their identity in Christ – the ultimate confidence comes from knowing you are a beloved child of God and understanding what Christ has done for us. You might like to look through the Bible together for helpful verses. Or try memorising verses, such as those in this list of 100 verses about our identity in Christ.
- Talk to your child’s doctor or healthcare professional
If you’re concerned about your child’s attention span and other strategies haven’t worked, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor. They can rule out medical reasons for the behavior and offer guidance on how to best support your child.
If your child struggles to pay attention, remember to focus on the long-term picture. God is not surprised about your child’s challenges. He has entrusted you to raise them up in the way they should go. He is most concerned about drawing people into his kingdom, renewing our minds, and conforming us to the image of Christ.
Helping your child focus can be a challenge, but it's not impossible. God is with you on your journey of raising a young adult of good character who delights in using their unique gifts, talents and quirks for kingdom purposes.