Learning to Focus

Focus.  It’s coming up a lot lately with the parents and teachers of the students I tutor.  He’s having a hard time focusing.  She can’t focus.  He needs to work on focus.

How exactly do you talk to young children about focus?  What is it and how do we do it?  For the past month, one of my students and I have been on a quest to answer these questions.

Sam (I’ve changed his name to respect his privacy) and I started with a pretty general discussion about what focusing means and why it matters.  Sam knows a lot about it and really grasps the importance!  We then made a t-chart – what focus looks like and what focus sounds like.  I then had Sam choose two things on the chart to notice during our session.  He picked looking at his work and using math words.  Sam was able to give himself positive reinforcement for focusing by recording a tally mark each time he noticed himself doing those two things.  Pretty simple!

Focus T-Chart

The following week Sam and I talked about what we might talk about during a tutoring session.  The inner most circle says math because most of what we talk about is math.  The next ring contains things like school and homework because we usually talk some about those things.  The circle furthest out has the things that we talk briefly about, mostly at the beginning and end of our session.  Additionally, I pointed out to Sam that if I saw him at the park we would probably only talk about the things in the outer circle and maybe spend a minute or two talking about school.  We wouldn’t talk about math at all!  For that session, Sam tallied each time he noticed himself talking about math.  He got quite a few tallies!


The next session I had with Sam started off with a bang.  He had an important task.  He needed to count a large number of toothpicks while eating raisins and answering my questions in only one minute.  Sam managed to count 8 toothpicks after loosing count several times.  Next he tried counting the toothpicks again, but this time he was able to focus.  No raisins and no questions.  He counted 47!  We talked about how only doing one thing at a time makes the task easier and quicker.  On this day Sam got to make a tally each time he found himself doing only one thing at a time.

Record sheet

These activities accomplish two tasks.  Sam is learning what it actually means to focus.  Next time his teacher says, “Sam, you need to focus on your work!” he will know that means to keep his eyes on his work or to do one thing at a time or to talk and think only about the task at hand.  In addition, Sam is learning to notice when he is focused.  He is giving himself positive attention for learning a new skill.

I think the reason why this is helping is because it is explicit.  We aren’t necessarily born with the ability to do the things we are asked to do.  Sometimes it needs to be spelled out.  And a little positive reinforcement coupled with independence never hurt a kid!  You can modify these activities for use at home with your child.  Spend 5 minutes before you start homework time talking about what focus really is and how to do it.  You can also send a post-it to school with your child (along with a note for the teacher so it doesn’t get mistaken for something it’s not!) and have him or her keep track of when a specific focusing skill is being used.

Let me know how it goes!