The ability to concentrate long and hard enough in class so that what is being taught truly sinks in comes easier to some children than others. In any classroom there will be a range of levels of concentration, and there may also be numerous underlying reasons why children battle to concentrate. If your child struggles in class to such an extent that his work progress suffers noticeably, you should obviously address it. But before you jump the gun and pin the blame to ADD/ADHD, the scapegoat of concentration problems, there may be any number of other root causes, from a noisy classroom to sensory integration problems and even epilepsy.
Some are relatively easy problems to fix, but others can be complex and require a battery of tests to get to the bottom of them. Nutrition and sleep are two of the simplest, yet most common factors that can affect concentration, claims Justin Skea, head of St Cyprian’s Preparatory School in Cape Town. “In my experience, the fact that a child does not sleep enough or has a diet that is lacking in essential nutrients such as iron, is often overlooked, yet it plays a huge role in how a child concentrates.”
Skea points out other issues in a teaching environment that may be relatively easy to resolve: a fidgety child’s desk and chair may be incorrectly sized, and a child may be a kinaesthetic or tactile learner, which means he is able to concentrate best when he can move, stand or touch something rather than be forced to “sit and be quiet”. Children who have slightly slower processing skills or poor working memory may also struggle to concentrate.
According to Andrea Kellerman, a Durban-based educational psychologist and neurofeedback practitioner, there is a plethora of things that may cause concentration problems. “There may be too many visual distractions in the classroom, the child may have auditory discrimination or visual perception problems, a learning disability or have high levels of anxiety that cause the brain to be in overactive mode,” she explains. “Different therapies work for specific problems, but one should never just ignore them.”
Shooting in the light
If the problem lies deeper than the child simply being bored with a dull learning activity, they may need professional help. But when do you make that call? “The golden rule for me,” says Skea, “is if it is affecting two or more aspects of a child’s life. School performance should never be the sole yardstick.”
Cape Town-based educational psychologist Sharon Aitken advises a good psycho-educational assessment before choosing a therapeutic route for your child. “If you don’t know what’s really wrong you may end up wasting an awful lot of money on interventions that won’t make a difference,” she says. Aitken explains that the four- to five-hour-long assessment should provide a clear understanding of the child’s intelligence level and cognitive skills, as well as scholastic, emotional, physical and sensory functioning. Depending on the outcome of the tests, your child’s psychologist may refer you to other specialists, such as a behavioural optometrist, audiologist or paediatrician to check for an underlying illness. “Once all the findings are in, the supervising psychologist will then create an intervention, ensuring the child is not overloaded with therapies,” explains Aitken.
If your child cannot concentrate due to anxiety, professionals such as Kellerman may formulate a brain training programme involving sensors that will stimulate the brain with the correct brainwave frequency. “The stimulation trains the brain to change and to create new, desirable neural pathways,” says Kellerman. “Other techniques that may help with anxiety include relaxation and guided visualisation to help them gain more control of their mind and emotions. The exciting thing is that the brain can be trained and can change.”
When Melissa Smith’s* daughter was in Grade 0000, the school recommended that she start occupational therapy. “They also wanted to do an assessment, because they believed she had sensory issues,” explains Melissa, a Joburg mom. “The assessment threw up a few red flags that I hadn’t identified at home – she wasn’t finishing what she started and would get bored quickly with tasks.”
The Smiths were soon facing a therapeutic mountain. Each grade their daughter went into, the teacher had the same thing to say – she needed OT. After her first term in Grade 0, the teacher recommended audio therapy, as she was struggling to sound out words and recall sentences, with auditory processing and with instructions. Therapy did help to a point, explains Melissa, but by Grade 1 her daughter’s problems had escalated. “Her teacher recommended that we see a neurologist to have an electroencephalogram (EEG) as well as a full educational assessment to pinpoint the problem areas,” says Melissa. “Her teacher was concerned with her particularly short attention span and that, despite being happy and well-adjusted, she was falling behind her classmates. She was also concerned that she may have petit mal epilepsy, which is a brief disturbance of brain function due to abnormal electrical activity.”
Fortunately the hour-long EEG was normal, but because of her low score for concentration, the neurologist suggested giving medication a try. “We went through various options and eventually settled on Concerta 18mg,” says Melissa. They will reassess her daughter in six months, but the medication has already made a huge difference to her ability to focus.
You will discover any number of programmes that claim to assist with developing concentration, but Aitken advises caution. “Unfortunately, many of them don’t have clinical trials or studies to support their claims,” she points out. Consultation with a psychologist or another professional is highly recommended before implementing home programmes.
Having said this, there are things you can do at home to help your child improve her concentration. Skea recommends the following:
A structured routine at home and at school gives every child the foundation they need for emotional wellbeing. Routine includes ensuring that your child gets sufficient and proper sleep each night. Exercise should also form part of this daily routine.
If your child is overwhelmed by the end product, help him break the task into bite-size chunks. In this way he will be able to work steadily and systematically through a task that may seem insurmountable at the outset.
- concentration challenge
An egg timer or countdown clock is a fun way to get a child to focus on the task at hand. Challenge him to complete a task in a set time. For the kinaesthetic learner, you could add a fun element by getting him to run outside and back in before being set the next time challenge.
- study area
Create an area in the home or classroom, which allows the child to work or read quietly without disruptions and distractions. For the highly sensory child, you could even create a “mock” cave or tent for a quiet place to “escape”.
- limit exposure to TV and other electronic devices.
- quiet time
Avoid filling your child’s day with endless activities. Allow time for them to be quiet and still.
*Name changed for privacy.
Marc de Chazal