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MetroKids

Focus Points

Teach kids how to concentrate in a distracting digital world.

Concentration, the ability to focus one’s attention, is crucial to success at school. But educators worry that the endless barrage of text and social media messages leads to an erosion of kids’ concentration skills. They’re right to be concerned. Research shows that the hippocampus, the part of the brain devoted to storing and recalling information, isn’t engaged when a person is distracted.

One of the best tactics to help children grasp the value of attention is to give them yours. Make deliberate decisions about when the TV is on and how much time you’ll devote to social media. When you’re doing something with your kids, stash all electronics and focus full attention on your interaction.

The Myth of Multitasking
Think you’re getting more done when you multitask? A growing raft of research begs to differ. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, multitasking can lead to a 40 percent drop in productivity and a 10 percent drop in IQ.

Another scholarly look by a team of Stanford researchers found that multitaskers have difficulty filtering the important from the irrelevent, thus “sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information.”

Yet a third study, this one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, links multitasking with a loss of short-term memory.

“There’s this myth that multitasking makes [people] more productive,” says researcher Zheng Wang, who conducted a multitasking study at Ohio State University that found task jugglers to consistently fall short of their stated goals. “They seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They feel more emotionally satisfied from their work, [but] they’re not being more productive.”

Doing so will help your kids understand that attention, like money, is a finite resource. You can squander it on blinking gadgets or you can save it to spend on experiences that really matter. Pop culture sends the message that concentration equals drudgery and distraction equals fun. Parents must counter that fallacy with the idea that concentration puts you in control of your brain while distraction cedes that control to others. Here’s how to get that message across:

Budget tech time

Video games, social networking and other digital pastimes have an important place in children’s lives; they just shouldn’t be available 24/7. Establish tech-free times when kids do homework and engage in other activities that require concentration. Encourage older kids to post an “away message” that states when they won’t be available online.

Design a tech-free workspace

Be sure your child has access to a workspace where schoolwork tools (paper, dictionary) are close at hand and distractions (iPad, snacks) aren’t visible. Many children will protest that they need the Internet for every assignment, but some work (math problems, reading) actually goes faster sans screen.

Find concentration “prime time”

Some kids are better able to focus right after school, when the day’s lessons are still fresh. Others do better after a snack, a sports practice or even a social networking session. Still others will get homework done in half the time if they wake up early and handle it first thing in the morning. Help your child identify — and protect — the time when he’s most able to concentrate.

For more on distraction and technology, read "Kids Tech Habits Need Balance."

Chunk the work

Students often don’t know how to divide homework into manageable portions. If the idea of writing an entire report is paralyzing, suggest your child limit her attention to a paragraph about a specific topic. Put older students on a timetable that includes incentives — 30 minutes of homework earns 10 minutes of social networking. Just be sure to set a timer so homework resumes after those 10 minutes are up!

Teach attention

It’s normal for young minds to wander, even under optimal study conditions. Use this simple technique to help your child stretch out periods of attention: While he works, encourage him to jot down what he thinks about each time his attention strays. After he writes the note, gently redirect his attention back to the task at hand. With practice, the length of time between note jottings should increase. Technology, of course, isn’t the only concentration drain children face. Health problems, lack of sleep, too little exercise, stressful relationships and even poor nutrition can reduce kids’ ability to pay attention. Still, encouraging your children to make deliberate decisions about how to allocate brain power is one of the best ways to assure their success during the upcoming school year — and beyond.

Carolyn Jabs, MA, mom of three computer-savvy kids, has been writing about families and the Internet for 15-plus years at Growing-up-online.com.

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