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The Science Behind Focus and Distraction

Focus. Ignore your brother so you can finish your work. Pay attention. Are you listening? How can you play video games for hours but need help focusing on your homework? If any of this sounds familiar, keep reading. As parents, these phrases are often on repeat. Phrases we hope that, if repeated often enough, will result in the necessary and appropriate behavior modifications.

It’s perplexing to see our kids determined, dialed in one minute, then disruptive, and distracted the next. Is it their environment? Are there too many distractions around? Should they be listening to music while doing homework? Are they spending too much time in front of a screen? Are they not interested in school, or is school too hard? Studies have shown that too much exposure to digital distractions can decrease the ability to stay focused, retain information, and concentrate on tasks. Maybe that’s the problem? Should I have them checked for ADHD or some learning issue? 

The questions that flood the mind of a parent whose kid is wrestling with attention and focus are endless. 

Parents everywhere want to know what they can do to understand their children better and help them do better with distractions and staying on task.  Without constant prompts and reminders  

To learn more on this topic, Brain Balance’s Dr. Rebecca Jackson recently sat down for an insightful conversation with Dr. Joaquin Anguera. Dr. Anguera is an Associate Professor of Neurology at USCF’s Weill Institute for Neuroscience.  The goal of the conversation was to share scientific insights into the science of attention and what’s needed to stay on task AND remember to turn in assignments. 

Dr. Anguera shared that some kids are more easily distracted than others, and getting them back to where they're supposed to be starts with a better understanding of focus and distraction. 

The Difference Between Focus and Distraction

For a long time, it was thought that focus and distraction were essentially the same things— two sides of the same coin. But after almost two decades of work, we now know they are actually two different coins. Focus is the ability to direct our attention, ignoring everything else. And distraction is when we have pulled our attention away from a task or thought, and our attention is shifted elsewhere. 

Both focus and the ability to block out distractions are needed for our kids to thrive at home and in the classroom. 

Life with kids is a constant stream of disruption, and distractions come in many different forms. It doesn’t matter where or when—home classroom, activities, or even in the car moving between all of those—we ask kids to focus on the task at hand. Even amid the barrage of distractions thrown at them. Those distractions can come from external sources such as other students or environmental distractions. It can also come from internal sources such as stress, worries, fatigue, or even a lack of interest in the subject. Left unchecked, that stream of disruption can hurt a student's ability to focus and learn.

But to answer all of our questions and to find the appropriate plan requires parents to look beyond the mere elimination of distractions in hopes our kids will find focus. But instead, Dr. Anguera challenges parents to look more closely at what is known as cognitive control— choosing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors based on current task demands and suppressing inappropriate or disruptive behaviors.

Understanding Cognitive Control

Cognitive control comprises three building blocks: attention, working memory, and goal management (sometimes called cognitive flexibility). So when we think about how our kids pay attention or avoid getting distracted, we have to consider each factor of cognitive control—each working together and building on one another.  While most people are familiar with the concepts of memory and attention, goal management may be a layer of cognitive control you haven’t yet considered for your child.

  • Attention
    This is our ability to stay focused on a given task. So when your child is sitting down to complete a homework assignment or trying to level up on the latest video game, they must provide appropriate and intentional attention to that task. This is often the part that frustrates us as parents. It’s the inconsistency. Our kids will spend hours focusing on a video game but lack focus on the homework assignment due first thing in the morning. 

  • Working Memory
    This is our ability to recall information we just heard or saw. It includes correctly repeating what someone just said or summarizing a section or chapter of a book. It speaks to how well we comprehend what is happening right before us. It not only answers the question, “Did you hear me?” It answers, “Did you listen?” Working memory is the idea that you can hold information in your mind for a short amount of time and then manipulate it.

  • Goal Management
    Goal management is directing your actions and attention to achieve a desirable result. It requires switching between focused tasks to doing something else, but then knowing when to switch back to complete the original task. As adults, we can switch seamlessly without much, if any, effort. But for our kids, we often don’t realize this skill must be developed and practiced. Think briefly about that last homework assignment your child forgot to turn in. It’s so frustrating. You and your child went to sleep riding high on the feeling of accomplishment, and you both took on the herculean effort to stay on task, focus, and get the work done. But he forgot to turn the assignment in. As parents, we are left perplexed. How in the world could this have happened? It’s all about goal management.

As you look at each of these aspects, there is a reason we call them building blocks. They are not isolated. Instead, they build on one another—and it begins with attention. Let’s go back to the homework assignment for a minute. To do that, we need to go back to the classroom. The lesson for the day is given in class, from which the homework assignment is derived. Not only will your son or daughter forget the assignment without the proper attention given in class, but they may not even remember the lesson. So without proper attention, working memory doesn’t stand a chance. 

However, let’s suppose she makes it all the way home with the assignment in hand, notes that remind her of the instructions needed to complete the assignment, and the newfound knowledge to complete it correctly. But your daughter has other goals in mind. She has friends to chat with, social media to scroll through, and a favorite show to watch. Tasks that are important to her become the priority, and because she cannot pivot between tasks, trouble in school is on the horizon. 

At-Home, Short-Term Solutions

Now, I know what you might be thinking. “There is just too much to worry about, too many things that can go wrong. How am I supposed to remember all of that to help my child?” Don’t worry because now that you are armed with some knowledge, Dr. Anguera provides us with some critical tools for the journey. Remember, when it comes to our kids, the learning never stops. They are always developing, always getting smarter, and hopefully will always need our guidance in some form or another. So here are three steps you can take today to leverage the science behind being more focused and set your student on a path of greater success and happiness. 

  • Mitigate distractions
    Every one of us is different when it comes to what distracts us. Our kids are no different. So you will have to experiment to determine if they need absolute quiet, soft music, an empty room, or a space with items to stimulate the mind. Some kids will lose track of time when focused; others must be timed. Whatever the rhythm is, the goal is the same: to mitigate distractions—to discover not just how to stay focused but to learn what distracts and to steer clear of them. As a parent, you may have to experiment a bit, try a few things, and see what works. But once you find it, stick with it.

  • Goal alignment
    As parents, it is so easy to set the rules, the goals, and all the tasks in between to accomplish what you, the parent, deem necessary and important. This makes it easy for us to forget that our kids have goals too. How often does your child have your undivided attention when they tell you about their day? Then your phone lit up with an email. You looked at your phone and completely lost track of what your child told you. This is goal misalignment. Your child had one goal, you had another.

    As we teach our children the art and science of focus, we need to agree on goals. Yes, your child has homework and chores to finish after school. But they also have friends, video games, and favorite shows to watch. To set your child up for success, discuss these goals and work together on how both goals can be achieved. For example, they can chat with friends or watch a show - their goal, after they finish their homework - your goal. Together, you and your child will achieve better results with goal-directed behaviors. Discussing and agreeing on goals will make focusing easier.

  • Redirect Distractions
    So now, magically, all distractions have disappeared, and your child is wonderfully and joyfully dialed into every task. Right? Wrong. You know it, and I know it; distractions happen. We live in a world full of them. Even as I write this, I am finding myself distracted by my wife making breakfast and the emails coming in on my phone. Not only do we need to help our kids set goals and mitigate distractions, but we also need to help redirect when distractions happen. Many of which are out of our control. For example, in our neighborhood, we live under the flight pattern of the hospital’s life flight. Our house can be rattled several times a day by very fast and low-flying helicopters. It’s incredibly distracting. We notice it, experience it briefly, and then get back to focus. But it’s not automatic; we have to remind and redirect. Bringing attention to your child’s inattention can help increase their awareness of where they are directing their focus, and misdirected focus can make chores and homework assignments drag out longer than necessary. 

Long-Term Solutions

This all sounds simple enough, right? Perhaps. You may try each of these and discover a helpful formula for kids to block out distractions. If that’s the case, great! We are thrilled to be a part of that journey. But for other families who have tried these tips and more and still find their child has difficulty blocking out distractions and focusing on important tasks, Brain Balance is here to help. 

Research Shows Brain Balance is Effective

Research has shown that trouble focusing or blocking out distractions is tied to weak connections or information pathways across different regions of the brain. The good news is that these information pathways in the brain can change and develop in a way that may improve these symptoms.

A Harvard study found that Brain Balance's non-drug cognitive training program significantly reduces ADHD index scores, discernible changes in hyperactivity, enhanced cognitive attention, and reduced oppositional behavior. The study revealed comparable results similar to those of a low-dose drug often used to treat the symptoms of ADHD.

Brain Balance exercises and activities are uniquely designed to help strengthen and build new pathways by combining physical, sensory, and cognitive activities. More efficient information pathways in the brain can improve cognitive tasks (focus, memory, learning, comprehension, reasoning) and executive functioning (behaviors, emotions, organization, self-motivation, and problem-solving).

Our program and experts can help your family dial in the right tools to unleash your child’s potential. Let’s talk more about how Brain Balance can help your child. Fill out the form and share your story with us. One of our knowledgeable team members will reach out to discuss your child's personalized plan.

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