Many children who experience concentration problems also lack structuring skills when it comes to school work. As a matter of fact all young children, especially foundation phase children in primary school, need structure to help them organise better, have more control over the tasks they have to do and experience a sense of calmness and competence. When a child’s life is chaotic and unpredictable and their surroundings are just as worse, they will find it extremely hard to get a grip on how to complete assignments in an organised fashion. Their mental processes are also disorganised. They tend to struggle to get their thoughts in line and to mentally structure the tasks in an orderly way. Their approach is haphazard, chaotic and sometime frantic – and even more so for children who already have a bio-chemical imbalance that causes their concentration and meta-cognitive problems.
What children with any kind of concentration difficulty need are lots of STRUCTURE. Before we go into the practicalities, let’s take a look at the composition of the concept “structure” and what it doesn’t consist of.
Now let’s look at each characteristic of the concept structure in more practical terms:
* Structure means consistent routine
This is a well-known fact among parents and teachers alike. If you want to help a child focus better and experience confidence and stability then a predictable time schedule is crucial. A child experiencing a set routine is a much calmer, more disciplined kid than when decisions regarding daily routine are frequently changed by parents who live on the whim. A child needs to know what will happen next and to be reminded of this prior to the switch in activity, to be able to adjust their mental processes to switch from one activity to the next. When they do not know what to expect they get very upset when transitions are enforced on them and in general it creates a feeling and experience on emotional and mental level of disorganisation and uncertainty.
Here are a few pointers to make sure a fixed routine is adhered to:
* Structure equals organisation and planning
Children with concentration problems are prone to not know where to start with an activity, especially if no-one ever took the time to teach them this. For such a child it will not help to only say: “Go and do your homework now!”. He does not know where to start. It may seem common sense for an adult to know that we start by organisation the books, work place and stationary before starting to work, but for a Grade 1 child this is totally new. You have to show them the steps of how to organise things before working, for example tidying the desk where you’re working, putting the books in a pile in order to what needs to be done first to last and making sure all stationary like sharpened pencils, erasers, rulers, etc. are ready within the outstretch of an arm. When these things are not set out, it not only wastes time starting to look for them or first having to sharpen a pencil, but it is also a source of distraction which breaks up the flow of mental processing during complex tasks like writing and maths. An organised desk space will go a long way in helping to inject structure into your child’s life. Later in this blog I will talk more about the mental processes taking place during organisation and planning of a task.
* A clean organised environment resembles structure
When I see how some people live among clutter and high piled containers and sometimes plain junk in their homes on television, I wonder how the poor kids must create a sense of organisation and order in their lives. Vision is one of our primary sensory input systems that impacts hugely on what goes on in our minds. Visual images demands attention and although adults in dire circumstances where they have no control over what the environment looks like, can certainly train themselves to think more positively, it is very difficult to do so for a young child. Here I’m not talking about the parents’ monetary status in term of where they live, but I’m referring to what it looks like regarding rubble and disorganisation at their homes, and especially where the child has to do homework. A child cannot focus on his work properly if the visual images of high piles of stuff on the table or lots of things not being put away or ordered in places where they are out of the immediate visual field, have a constant demand on his attention.
The work space needs to be clean and organised to foster the ability to sustain attention while doing school work. Make sure all unnecessary books, papers, stationary, etc. is packed away so that your child can start with a clean space to start organising the things that he will use during the homework session. Make neat piles of the books he will need and you can even order them according to priority as mentioned above. Make sure all the stationary equipment is set out and ready for use. Put off the television and radio and make sure that the work space is free of unnecessary distractions. If your child works better while listening to classical or relaxation music, then let him put earphones on to listen to this. I will discuss the impact of music on concentration in a subsequent blog.
* Well-developed executive functions is part of structure
Children with concentration problems may experience any or all of the following problems regarding executive functions:
On the left hand side I’ve included a visual representation of what is involved in a project like assimilating a poster on wild animals. This would obviously be an assignment for young children (in primary school).
Children with concentration problems also need to learn how to monitor their own mental processes. By teaching them to regularly “check” what they are thinking and if it is still appropriate to the task at hand, will help them a lot to stay focused and complete the assignment timeously. Typically children with concentration problems are scatter minded thinking about a million different things at the same time. Teach them to bring their thought processes back to what they are busy with even if they have to do it a thousand times during the course of completing the assignment. Becoming aware of your own thought processes is essentially a meta-cognitive activity, since you are thinking about what you are thinking. Meta-cognition and the ability to control mental processes by mere decision making are crucial tools for children with concentration problems to be able to function better.
* Visual reminders
Bulletin/notice boards, charts and calendars are all mediums to help create structure. Make good use of them. Try to create priority lists and put them up on bulletin boards near the home work space. On such a priority list tasks can be ordered from most important to least important, for example first study for a test, then work on project, then do maths, etc. These priority lists can also be set up in advance for a week, a month or even a term. By making use of calendars you can make sure that a project or upcoming test does not come as a surprise at the last hour.
Incentives charts to reinforce good homework behaviour, like staying on task and completing work, helps to motivate children to keep on doing what is expecting of them. Children get a sense of accomplishment when they see that the tokens or stars on the chart increases towards a reward. A small thing like a candy bar or a trip to McDonalds will be enough to motivate young children to stick to what is expected. Do not incorporate too many requirements on the chart – just one or two – especially for very young children.
* Logical step-by-step thinking
After organising the work space it is time to teach your child how to approach the different homework tasks. By making lists in a step-by-step manner and putting them up on the bulletin board near their work space you create an immediate source to refer to when they get stuck.
Let’s take an example of a step-by-step list for the completion of addition sums. Doing these sums demand good logical step-by-step thinking. Children with concentration problems find it hard to remember these steps and without a reference to jog their memories you may find that they do not start their work or just stare into space. This is many times not because they are lazy (although in some cases it may be the reason), but because they do not know where to start and which steps to follow. The image on the left indicates the steps that such a list can contain. Put it on the notice board for your child to refer to whenever he gets stuck. You can also create these lists in such a format that your child can tick off the steps as he completes them, so that he knows exactly what the next step will be. After a lot of drilling in this way he should eventually be able to remember the steps by heart. You can also shorten the list by using a word or two under each point when your child is more competent at remembering the steps. If he has a reading problem or he cannot read so well yet (young children), then pictures can be used to indicate the various steps. Be creative, but do make reminder lists.
You can make these kinds of lists with different kinds of tasks on a practical or mental level in school tasks related to reading, writing and maths. By teaching a child to think methodically you’re creating a framework in the mind in which he can now be more focused on what to do instead of diverting his attention to other things because he doesn’t know where to start or what to do next.
By implementing these six structural activities above you not only teach your child how to organise his own life, but you are also creating a non-stressed environment. Disorganisation creates stress which impacts heavily on concentration. So stick to your planning schedule to create a calmer, more in-control experience of homework.
The single most important factor that will impact structure profoundly is without doubt consistency regarding the aspects mentioned above. It’s all good and well if the principles above are done for a week or two, but if you as parent want real results in the form of character building in your child, where the orderly well-organised behaviour that you desire of him will become an intrinsic habit rather than an external enforcement, you will have to realise that it requires a lifestyle change and a certain mind set before you will see any authentic independent changes in your child’s way of approaching tasks.
And this is where the self-discipline formed in a parent since childhood rubs off on a child. Self-discipline and structure are joined at the hip. What you feed the one will influence the other. So make sure you employ the necessary self-discipline in implementing the activities above on a consistent basis. A child can only be helped as far as a parent is willing to influence him effectively.
I hope that these tips and guidelines will help you to incorporate structure more efficiently in your child’s life. Please leave your ideas and comments below. Every bit helps to enrich other people’s lives.
Next time I will address the very interesting topic of chemical imbalance in children with ADHD. Your understanding of the chemical processes in the mind supporting concentration will cast a new light on the array of interventions currently practiced to remedy inattention and ADHD.