Focus, focus, focus: A life skill that all children need

Learning life skills, such as focus, may be as important as learning the ABCs.

How focused are you? Does your life seem rushed with too much to do and too little time? Are you caught up in facts and figures for your job? Add, on top of that, all the things you need to teach to the children in your life.

In our busy lives, where multi-tasking seems a daily requirement, it is sometimes difficult to stop and focus on things that are important or meaningful. Author Ellen Galinsky reminds us that teaching children life skills can be just as important as teaching school readiness skills such as learning facts, figures and concepts.

One of seven life skills highlighted in the book, Mind in the Making; the Seven Essential Life Skills that Every Child Needs, is “focus and self-control.” As parents and caregivers of young children, it is good to pause and think about what this actually means. The Oxford dictionary defines focus as: an act of concentrating interest or activity on something. How in the world can you teach a toddler to focus? Happily, your opportunities are many!

Focus and self-control are taught through daily interactions and the behavior we model for our youth. Michigan State University Extension suggests several easy ways you can assist children with focus and self-control.

  • Be observant. Pay attention to when and how your child calms down when upset. Talk about what you see. “I notice that you took some big breaths when you were crying and it helped you calm down.” “You seem to concentrate on your puzzle more when the television is off.”
  • Promote games that require focus and concentration. It isn’t necessary to purchase expensive toys when you probably have all the tools you need right in your home. A deck of cards can become a memory game. Noticing colors and textures while shopping can teach a child to become more observant. “I see your cereal comes in three different size boxes.” “I bet you can find something in this aisle of the store that is shaped like a rectangle.” “Your name begins with a ‘J’. I wonder how may J’s there are on the front page of our shoppers guide.”
  • Read stories. Explore books that promote interest and listening skills. Ask questions about what you have read that will make a child focus on a character’s feelings or emotions. Have your child repeat phrases in a favorite book, such as “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?”
  • Promote computer and television use that supports focus. Children are going to watch TV shows and use computers and hand-held technology. This is ok, as not all technology is bad. Parents and caregivers can provide guidelines for use of this technology that support their values and will encourage children to focus. Use a television program as a discussion about a particular topic that interests your child. Encourage them to learn more about the subject and to focus on different points of view.
  • Limit distractions. It is difficult for adults to concentrate on multiple things at once and is even more so for young children. Focus is easier to have and teach if you limit the noise, distractions and “stuff” that gets in the way of concentration. Background noise, including television that is playing to an empty room, is difficult to ignore. Turn off the radio in your car if you are trying to have a conversation with your child on how their day was at day-care or school. Ignore, shut off or silence your phone when you have something to discuss, a movie to watch or a project to work on.
  • Provide support. The role of a parent or caregiver is to provide tools and model behavior but also to support your child in his choices. “Did you want one story tonight or two?” When your child insists on three after he chose two, it is important to support his first choice and assist him in accepting consequences for inappropriate choices.

Focus and self-control improve with normal development but even your youngest children will benefit from learning these basic skills. Try some of these techniques today, as it is never too late to begin to help the children in your life learn these important skills. 

For more information on caregiving or family issues that affect you and your family, visit the MSU Extension website. To contact an expert in your area, visit, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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