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Helping Kids Focus

Easily distracted, scattered, unfocused kids. What's a parent to do?

When I cast my net among parents for questions they wanted answered this summer, the most frequent question I received was, "What do I do to help my child be more focused at home and school?"

According to the CDC, approximately 9.5 percent or 5.4 million children ages 4-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, as of 2007. The percentage of children with a parent-reported ADHD diagnosis increased by 22 percent between 2003 and 2007.

Whether your child has been diagnosed with ADHD or just drives you crazy because it seems like you can't get and keep his attention, or she comes home from school with a book bag exploding with papers, all parents can benefit from understanding a few principles that address how to help kids develop greater focus.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I must tell you there are some fundamentals parents need to look at first. Take this little quiz to see if you know where I am going with this:

1) Does your child go to bed and wake up the same time five out of seven days?

2) Is your child getting 8 to 11 hours of sleep?

3) Is your child eating whole grains, vegetables, fruits, non-processed, low sugar foods at three meals each day?

4) Are you limiting your child's technology time or screen time to one hour per day during the school week and three hours a day on weekends?

5) Is your child moving her body actively at least 60 minutes every day?

6) Does your child have unscheduled "down time" of at least one hour every day?

If you answered yes to five or six of these questions and your child still is having trouble focusing to the point it is interfering with his functioning at school and home, get a professional assessment from a licensed therapist who can ascertain whether your child may have a diagnosable disorder that most often can be treated with counseling, skill building, and extra parenting support.

If you answered yes to three or four of the questions and your child is having trouble focusing, work on developing the remaining two areas in your family's lifestyle. See if that makes a difference.

If you answered yes to two or less of the questions, let's start here:

Plentiful, regular sleep with consistent routine is critical for the brain and body development children are so rapidly experiencing. I don't know about you, but if I don't get a good night's sleep it's hard for me to focus and remember things the next day.

Quality nutrition is so important. In today's society it is far too easy to run through the drive-through for french fries and chicken nuggets.  The problem is, kids need all the nutrients found in brightly colored vegetables and fruits as well as whole grains, lean protein and healthy fat. Kids do not need the hydrogenated oil and lack of nutrients found in deep fried chicken and potatoes. Their brains cannot operate on white foods alone. In my years of practice as a children's therapist, I have observed that child clients who are fed a healthy diet have an easier time grounding and focusing, and have an easier time adopting new skills.

In this age of hand-held, desk-top, and big-screen technology, it's incredibly challenging for parents to set limits. Too much watching and interacting with a screen may very well stimulate the brain so much that the body and the brain get out of sync with one another creating disorientation, hyperactivity or disconnection from others. Limit how much time your kids spend in front of the screen, please.

Kids need to move their bodies. They need to run, play, dance, swim, roller-skate, pogo-stick, ride a bike, throw a ball, catch fire flies, do some yoga, and climb and slide on the play ground. It's what kids are naturally wired to do, yet our society has taken away the opportunity for this to occur naturally. So, parents have to make time and insist kids find fun ways to move every day. Parents will benefit from joining in the fun.

Lastly, kids need to relax. I am concerned we tend to over-program our children in our society. We often find ourselves rushing here, rushing there, scheduled to the hilt. We all need down-time. I like to recommend families designate an hour after dinner to digest food and hang out - technology free. Unstructured, unplanned time. This might be the hour a child decides to spontaneously sketch the tree outside the window, brush the dog, or go outside and lay in the hammock.  Provide time where your child is not pressured to do anything in particular, but is not allowed to flip on a computer, a smart phone, a video game or a tv.

If after all of this your child is still struggling to focus to the point academics and social experiences are suffering, call and set up an appointment with a licensed children's therapist.

Best wishes on your parenting journey. Drop me a line and let me know how it's going.

Marilyn Kontrafouris-Eleftheriou RN,MN August 31, 2011 at 11:25 AM
Hi Lynn, You make some excellent points. What you sow into your child's life, will yield what you harvest. As you know, there will be children and adults that will have problems even after instituting these excellent strategies. My article today is on ADHD. It gives parents and friends some things to look for in a child with ADHD. The treatment of ADHD incorporates many of your mentioned interventions. Great timing.
Marilyn Kontrafouris-Eleftheriou RN,MN August 31, 2011 at 11:32 AM
One more thing, my article "Sleep: The New Therapy of Choice" gives some information on sleep requirements in children and some interesting facts about sleep.
Lynn Louise Wonders, LPC, RPT-S September 02, 2011 at 01:42 AM
Thank you Marilyn! Turns out there is recent research in New England showing a tie between poor quality of sleep in children and faux ADHD symptoms. I will be writing further articles on this topic as it applies to so many of our kids and parents in society today.

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