When I was a child there weren't many options for entertainment after school or on weekends: I could walk to a friend's house. I could watch TV on our 13 fuzzy channels. Or I could read. And so I read, and read, and read — hours and even whole days would pass with no interruptions. I didn't have any choice but to concentrate.
Nowadays children are trying to learn in a world full of distractions. There are the distractions they want (TV shows, video games, text messages from friends), and the distractions that find them no matter what (notifications from apps, mum talking on the phone in the next room, text messages from family). A kid getting a few hours to read or work on homework with no interruptions sounds like something from another era.
A team of researchers at the Brookings Institution recently argued that constant distraction is eroding children's executive function, a term that the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard defines as "the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully."
To get an idea of how to help kids improve their executive function and build their ability to concentrate, I spoke to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Claire Cameron, two of the authors of the Brookings research.
Use Screen Time Judiciously
For kids aged two to five, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than an hour per day of "high-quality" programming. "The only good research [on kids' TV shows] is on PBS programming," says Dr. Cameron, an expert in early childhood education at University of Buffalo Graduate School of Education. "Not all screen time is the same — there was a study that showed that preschoolers who watched Sponge Bob Square Pants had deficits in attention" compared to kids who watched a slower-paced show or spent time drawing. The frenetic pace of many cartoons disrupts kids' ability to concentrate. So that hour of screen time should be something like Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers.
For older kids, limiting mindless texting, browsing, chatting, and game playing can be difficult, especially when they have their own smartphones. But parents can still set limits — Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, recommends designating screen-free time, like dinner, for both kids and adults, and taking the phone away during homework hours. The AAP suggests keeping some "media-free zones" in the house, like bedrooms.
For teenagers, Dr. Cameron recommends that they help set the limits: "Work with teens on a mutually agreeable set of rules that the teen helps enforce. So it's not an a rule imposed by parents, but a conversation. There should be some screen-free time in the household, and the teen should probably be allowed to say when that time makes sense for them."
At the very least, encourage older kids to mute their notifications and alerts when they're trying to concentrate. "Turn off the noise," says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek.
Have a Conversation About Multitasking
Digital natives might think they're natural multitaskers, but 98 per cent of them are totally not. It might help to show your kids the research on how lousy most of us are at doing two (or more) things at once. "The bottom line is that only about 2 per cent of us are 'supertaskers'," says Hirsh-Pasek. "The rest of us have diminished capacity — we lose about 30 per cent of our productivity — when we try to multitask." (Here's a good breakdown of the costs of multitasking from Psychology Today.) So you might remind your kid that he'll get through Macbeth faster, and understand it better, if he puts the phone, TV, video-game console and barking dog away for the duration of the time he's reading.
Plan (and Re-plan)
Ill-considered impulsivity is the enemy of executive function. "Adults are impulsive too," says Hirsh-Pasek. "We rip through answering the emails just to get them off our desk." But children (and adults) are best served when they pause and consider exactly what they want to do, both in the moment, for the day, and for the long-term. Says Hirsh-Pasek, "I have a two-year-old granddaughter, and I encourage her to think first, then count to three, and then act."
This is the "self-regulation" part of executive function, and it has both social and academic implications. For older kids, "You want the ball on the playground? Think for a moment about how you can join in. And when things don't go your way, calm yourself down, take a breath, and make a decision," says Hirsh-Pasek. This helps kids approach their activities intentionally, rather than careening from stimulus to stimulus, and also helps them be flexible when plans go awry.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard has published some helpful activities parents can do with children to help them build executive function. They're divided by age, from babies to teens, and include games like Simon Says or Go Fish to help small kids remember information and plan out next steps. Simple clapping or rhyming games build on memory and execution.
For older kids, both the researchers and Harvard recommend old-fashioned analogue pursuits that require sustained concentration, like martial arts, dance, musical instruments, or drama. "If you're involved in a play after school," says Cameron, "you're not on your phone during that the time. You're building up the ability to ignore all the texts that are piling up."
Teens should ask themselves: Am I in charge of this device or is it in charge of me? "Just because someone texts you doesn't mean you need to look at it immediately," Cameron says. "If you're not looking at your phone for a while, presumably you're doing this other thing that you enjoy more or is better for you." If you teach your kids to reply to their messages in batches, rather breaking focus every time the screen bloops, their self-control will improve.
Be a Good Role Model
"Put your own phone away during dinner," says Hirsh-Pasek. Pay full attention in conversations and meetings. Let your kids see you reading or working on projects that interest you by turning off your devices for a decent stretch of time. And for god's sake, don't text and drive.
The world of digital distraction is new to parents too, and we might be having trouble navigating our own short attention spans or social media addictions. But it might be helpful to think of managing digital distraction as a kind of hygiene issue, says Hirsh-Pasek. "Our job as parents is to take some of the noise out. If you walked into your kid's room and it was so cluttered you could no longer find the notebooks, [you would help them to declutter.] The room doesn't have to be pristine, but we have to help them clean up. We need to give kids the tools they need to succeed in a world that's cluttered."