Teacher Tip: How to help your child stay focused - St Joseph's Narrabeen

Teacher Tip: How to help your child stay focused

“How can I help my child stay focused? I am struggling to get them to pay attention to their school work.”

Jade Browett, leader of our Learning Support team, has some great advice.

“This is a common question or frustration for parents, even outside of Home Based Learning. Remember, the environment for learning at home is very different from the St Joseph’s School environment. It’s a hard one to replicate. The most important aspect to focus on here is that your child’s body needs to get massively kicked into gear before any learning can occur.

Getting up, getting dressed, walking or riding to school, playing on the playground before they enter the classroom are all important steps and crucial to being able to sit and attend to a task in the classroom.

Compare this to their current morning routine: Waking, eating, sitting in front of their screen to start the school day, maybe directly after watching cartoons for the morning, while you sort your own work out… sound familiar? Hey, we are all in this together, we are in survival mode, I totally get it!

But I just want you to have a think about this – think about these changes to their normal routine that have happened to our children as we have moved to Home Based Learning. It’s been big, really big.  I have a few tips that may help your child – and in turn help you.

Step 1: Before Anything Else – Move.
First thing to look at is the innate need for your child (and us as adults) to expel energy. Before they start their school day, ensure they have had enough time to regulate their bodies. 

  • Jump on a trampoline 
  • Play with the dog outside
  • Why not start the day with a sunrise beach walk (you’re probably up early enough!)
  • If they must stay inside in the morning, do a Cosmic Kids Yoga session or even a 5 minute stretch session if time is tricky. (Here are some great movement suggestions from our PE teacher, Mrs Frost)

Body awareness and movement – and in particular, proprioception and vestibular sense – is something that really resonated with me both at Uni and when I started delving into attention interventions for our children at school. They are really important and essential parts of childhood physical development, and something I know I work on with my own children at home. 

Proprioception is essentially our hidden sixth sense.

It is what tells you where our body is within space. It is how our body parts move without having to look at them. It makes our bodies make sense of gravity.  It’s the reason you can kick a ball without looking at your feet or being able to touch your nose with your eyes closed or even shovel popcorn in your mouth without taking your eyes off Chris Hemsworth whilst watching Thor.

Without properly developed proprioception, kids can push too hard during play with others. They may lack balance and fall off their chairs in class or at the dinner table, or trip up stairs constantly. You’ll often see this as toddler behaviour as they haven’t had the opportunity to develop it correctly yet. These difficulties could also be underlying issues, if extreme, so these are some starting points.

Vestibular sense is also important. This provides information about where the body is in relation to its space around it.

This is the sense that helps you understand balance, and it connects with all the other senses. Without a strong vestibular sense, kids will have no choice but to fidget about, bump into people, get frustrated, experience more falls and aggressive outbursts, get too close to people when talking, and struggle with focusing and listening. Because they literally cannot help it. This needs to be practised – and practised a lot.

In order for your children to learn to listen to instructions, focus on a task and follow directions, they need to develop proprioception and vestibular sense.

This can be achieved through many physical challenges. Hence why health experts bang on constantly about children needing physical exercise in a world surrounded by screens (and screens that right now, we are relying on to help our children learn). 

Without it, kids find it so difficult to pay attention in school because they are simply too distracted by their own bodies and how they work. Putting clothes on, trying new foods, finishing homework all become insurmountable tasks when children don’t have a strong vestibular sense or well-developed proprioception.

Kids need to play, and need to play with risk involved, to support their need of understanding their bodies and its relation with its surrounds.

They need to climb trees, hang upside down,  go rock hopping at Narrabeen pool,  push and pull objects, carry heavy loads (shopping bags from car to kitchen is fantastic), jump on a trampoline and get used to how their body can move. Some children will need more of this than others, and you know your child better than anyone.

You’re probably wondering why I’m banging on about getting your kids moving, when all you want to do is get them to sit still! They will, I promise, but only once their body has had time to regulate and move. Only then can you put the next crucial steps in place and have your child complete a task.

Step 2: Routines and Rewards
Children thrive on routine, predictability and boundaries. That is another reason your child works more effectively in a school environment than at home. Schools need predictability so children know what to expect.

They need rules, routines, boundaries, reward systems and behavioural consequences to function effectively in this environment.

If a child knows that morning tea is when the big hand reaches that 12, they know that a reward of playing with friends and eating a snack is on its way. They also know that this will be delayed by the teacher if they don’t finish their task. Simple cause and effect.

Step 3: Giving Children Control
Children, like adults, like to feel in control. Let them have some control over their learning. At St Joseph’s, our children set some of their own Learning Goals. You can do this at home too. 

  1. Sit down with your child and talk with them about their school work, rather than dictate what needs to be done. Explain that education is the most important part of their ability to learn and grow – it’s non negotiable to continue to learn. Ask them to set a goal or two for their learning. 
  2.  Let them feel they have control over their learning.  Ask them to write out their daily plan, have them decide how long they will work on English for, ask them to decide upon their goals and reward systems, and even consequences. If they set the rules, they have to abide by them. We do this at school too.
  3. Set a realistic timeframe and provide strategies to help push them through the task with the use of a ‘keeping on track’ system or first/then chart (you can try this resource). Decide upon some rewards you know your child likes. 
  4. Ensure your child understands the task, set time to explain this to them and have them repeat it back to you rather than them saying “yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what I’m doing.”
  5. Use positive reinforcement and praise often. 
  6. Reward the learning behaviours you want to see

Reward Ideas: Rewards need to start with high frequency and value. You can slowly roll this back, but don’t make them too timely. For example, a Year 2 child needs quick and frequent reinforcements to hold their interest. Don’t forget consistent positive verbal feedback and praise: “I’m so proud of you”, “You are doing such a great job”, “You have really improved.” 

Best practise is to set up a simple reward chart (you can use this resource) /and provide positive reinforcement and reward often. 3 ticks across a 10 minute task = a jump outside on the trampoline, 10 minutes of lego, 3 smarties (whatever gets you across the line). You can increase/decrease the time to suit.

Don’t be afraid to start with a highly extrinsically rewarding experience for your child. I know I went through an entire packet of Mint Slices with my son during toilet training. He was sorted in three days (and stills loves a Mint Slice at 14!) I’m not exactly condoning junk food as a reward, but if you are really struggling to get your child motivated you need to kick start it however you can, and slowly pull that back once they start succeeding!

In a nutshell:

  1. Get your child to MOVE MOVE MOVE before they start their task and give them regular moving breaks. Have them stand at the kitchen bench and allow them to move at that spot to complete work if it helps. 
  2. Make sure they understand the task/s
  3. Have your child set their goals and timeframes
  4. Set up reward systems and keeping on track systems (you can find an example here)
  5. Keep it positive and give lots of praise and encouragement
  6. Look after yourself. You need motivation too, set your own reward system for yourself. (I have set a highly motivating 6pm reward for myself!)” 
First Then Next resource Reward Chart resource I Can Stay on Track resource Check out the full Teacher Tips Series Get to know the St Joseph's Narrabeen teaching team
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