If you have ever received a phone call or email from your child’s teacher or principal to inform you that he is having behavioral problems at school, you know the feelings of stress and helplessness that ensue. Parents want their kids to succeed but as soon as a child steps into the classroom, parents relinquish the accountability to their kids. However, implementing the following top 3 habits to help your child focus can prepare her for a great day even when you are not there to help!
Balance their blood sugar with a solid breakfast
Eating the right breakfast is the key to maintaining mental focus and consistent energy throughout the day (1). While foods like cereals, breakfast bars, toast and bagels are easy, these foods kick off an energy roller coaster all day and result in increased behavior issues (2). While sugar can sabotage the day, skipping breakfast is just as damaging. When children struggling with attention disorders experience a drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) below <75mg/dL, they experience a significant decrease in cognitive behavior and performance. Hypoglycemia is not only experienced after long periods without food (too much time between dinner and the next meal), for some children it can be the unintended result of eating a high carbohydrate meal. This occurs when a child eats a high-sugar/refined carbohydrate meal causing the body to surge insulin. Many people then experience a severe drop in blood sugar, “reactive hypoglycemia”, resulting in fatigue, poor focus, and irritation.
Providing breakfast foods that are high in protein and healthy fats while low in carbohydrates results in balanced blood sugar, less distraction, greater satiety, and “brain-healthy” nutrients. Follow these guidelines to get started.
|Nuts and seeds||Commercial cereals|
|Non-dairy milks and yogurts||“Protein” bars|
|Whole vegetables and fruits||Grain-based pancakes and waffles|
|Eggs and lean meats (Lox, chicken sausage, etc.)||Bread and bagels|
|Beans and lentils||Hashbrowns and potatoes|
|Moderate amounts of whole grain such as oats, farro, brown rice, and quinoa||Muffins, pastries or scones|
|Grass-fed butter, olive oil, flax oil and coconut oil||Packaged/processed breakfast sandwiches|
|Small amounts of maple syrup or honey||Refined sugar|
|Water or herbal tea||Juice or sweetened beverages|
No Screen time
Screen time has immediate adverse effects for children, teens, and adults struggling with attention disorders (3). Many parents notice that their child’s behavior changes during and after screen time, however parents that are supporting a child with an attention disorder may notice a more significant shift in their child. Children are better able to self-regulate when they notice the subtle cues within their body before their thoughts or feelings get out of control. When a child is engaged in screen time, their ability to “hear” and respond to those cues is muted due to distraction.
Removing screens from the normal routine can be difficult, however, by helping your child to notice the differences in how they feel with and without screens, it is easier to get them on board. Encourage your child to check in with their mind and body after a screen session and make note of any adverse sensations or behavior. Give them the same opportunity after a less stimulating activity like playing a game, playing a sport or reading. Replace screens with activities that promote low-stimulatory focus and/or physical activity.
Create Rhythm and Structure:
Research has concluded after a 50-year study that family routines create rhythm and structure leading to a healthier and happier family (4).
Creating a routine builds consistency and confidence for children. This practice is even more important for kids with ADD because they experience increased challenges related to regulation when life gets stressful or unpredictable. By implementing a daily schedule, you can reduce frustration and distraction. Having structured time for chores, homework, mealtimes, etc. reduces agitation, commotion and overwhelm.
Make it count in the morning
Don’t wait until after school to organize your day, create a solid morning routine so your child starts the day off feeling calm and collected. Many families find it most effective to start planning the night prior. Laying clothes out, packing a lunch and making sure homework is already returned to the backpack means there is a lesser chance of conflict and stress the next morning. Give your child the responsibility of following their plan by setting an alarm clock, creating reminders on a digital calendar or cell phone, and placing a schedule or checklist in their room so they can track their morning progress.
Be realistic about time
Help your child succeed by being realistic about timelines. For instance, if your child normally takes 10 minutes get her coat and shoes on, schedule 15 minutes to prevent stress and give her some breathing room.
Engage your child’s help
Your child is much more likely to stick to structure if he has had a “say” in the planning process. In fact, your child may be able to shed valuable light on the times of day and activities that create stress or distraction. Let your child build the routine with you and then keep him accountable for following through.
Put the schedule on paper
By writing the schedule down and posting it in a location that is easy to view, you will have a helpful reminder at your fingertips throughout the day. Depending on your child’s age and personality, they may enjoy crossing items from a list as they complete. Some kids find it useful to set a timer during tasks to prevent the distraction of checking the clock.
Schedule free time
Don’t forget that everyone needs downtime and creating that space helps your child shape healthy habits. If the schedule gets too overloaded with tasks, it may be time to pull back on the obligations. Build small breaks into the schedule between activities as a buffer for tasks that run over or a reward for staying on track. For kids that are used to using screens during downtime, it may be helpful to post a list of alternative “down-time” activities next to the schedule.
The primary reason that routines do not provide the intended benefit of less stress and frustration is because of a lack of consistency and follow through. In the beginning, it can be extremely challenging to maintain discipline around a routine, especially if your child is fighting it. However, putting in the effort up front means big pay off in the end.
Even if you feel like you have maintained commitment and consistency around routine, it may take some time for your child to sink into a new structure and begin to experience the pay-offs. Be patient with yourself and your child, give it time, and eventually it will feel like a normal way of life.
- Pediatrics. 2010 Aug;126(2):214-21. doi: 10.1542/peds.2009-1508. Epub 2010 Jul 5.