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Retrieve and Create Focus

Focusing on Schoolwork in the age of the iPhone

Digital tools like computers, tablets and smartphones are incredible and exciting portals to deep learning and knowledge, especially for children. With a single click of a search button, children have access to the remote mountains of the Himalayas, the latest scientific research, documentaries on the Mars expedition, and on and on; a seemingly endless amount of information about anything and everything.

A digital native in his natural habitat.

Yet, as any parent knows, these very same devices are often the source of the 3Ts : Tears, Tantrums and Time-outs, especially when children are asked to stop their digital screen time and focus on their homework.

Naturally, digital devices often become the target of the ire of many a parent: blamed for destroying the attention spans of today’s children, for distracting them from focusing on their studies, from family conversations, and the source of many exasperated sighs: ‘Can’t you go a single minute without being on your phone?’

We know the situation looks dire where homework is concerned, parents, but there are in fact, very simple solutions to support children in remaining focused and on task in this era of digital distractions. But first, let’s understand today’s digital natives and how their brains are wired.

“Homework is so boring!”

Have you ever noticed a baby trying to “swipe” a picture in a magazine? If so, you know their young brains have had exposure to smart devices. Every tap gives them a response of sounds, colours, and fast-paced action - a big dose of sensory stimulation for their growing brains to process. The baby’s brain will quadruple in weight by age 6 (Brown & Jernigan, 2013), and should the same baby continue to have high-levels of exposure to media, as many American children do, up to a whopping 7 hours a day (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010), she or he may begin to feel like this high level of stimulation is normal, and in comparison, real life just doesn’t move quickly enough. Additionally, the developing brain needs to work harder to absorb this overload of information and sensory input. This increase of brain activity will make it harder for the eventual child to focus on one task.

The greater the contrast between their media and their school tasks, the more difficult it is for children to focus - no wonder kids today find it so challenging to concentrate on schoolwork! Black and white and static, mere books can’t really compare to the colourful world waiting for them in their smartphone, ready to come alive with just a touch.

It is not just parents who are affected by children’s short-attention spans. Even teachers, with their years of pedagogical training, report that their biggest problem area for students is attention span, and that their students’ ability to persist through difficult tasks seem to be decreasing (Common Sense Media, 2012) - they simply do not have the focus. Prominent psychologists such as Daniel Goleman have even suggested that children need to be taught concentration abilities as part of the school curriculum.

And Dr. Goleman may have the right idea, as focus is in fact, a thinking skill, and like all skills, needs to be practiced and developed. The parents and grandparents of children today were born before the technological boom and had the advantage of having fewer distractions growing up. This gave them environments which helped them develop focus and longer attention spans. As a result, they could more easily start and maintain attention until their task was complete, compared to many children today of the same age.

These findings tell us that we simply cannot teach children the same way their parents were taught. Instead, today’s children need assistance and opportunities to hone and develop focus.

Ban or Manage?

The answer however, is not to ban digital devices. In fact, digital devices can offer many positive learning experiences if their roles are managed well. The digital connections children form are a healthy and an important part of the social and emotional fabric of their worlds. Children don’t want to be left out of the latest social media news, or left behind when everyone else is gaining levels on the same exciting app.

Instead, here are some simple strategies parents can use to improve focus or to make digital devices part of healthy family dynamics:

Stretch that Focus. Make it a family-ritual to play focus-boosting games that require attention and good listening skills. Memory and concentration games such as Memory, Red Light, Green Light or Simon Says can be very beneficial when building these skills.

Work with, then stretch, children’s natural attention spans. Train children to incorporate tech breaks during homework or study time. For example, if they are able to spend 20 minutes on their homework uninterrupted, they can have a 2 minute break to satisfy their electronic communication cravings. Following that, the devices should be turned off for another 20 minutes of focused study. Over time, extend these periods to 30, 40, or 50 minutes as needed. Remove devices during this time and provide a timer to help them keep time.

Gamify learning. Sometimes, mimicking systems children are familiar with can help. Imitating basic game strategies offers many solutions that parents can use to organise study time, with the key concept being : sustained attention with frequent rewards. When children play smartphone games, they go up short levels which allow them to collect rewards and points, and the brain releases a rush of the “pleasure chemical”: dopamine (Paturel, 2014). Similarly, parents too can make homework or study time into an exciting, funny and active time.

One method is to turn homework into a treasure hunt, where children solve clues to complete parts of their homework (this turns homework into a reward!). The physical act of moving place to place, and the mental goal of wanting to complete the series of clues gives your child a chance to focus intensively and problem-solve.

Another method worth trying is the “Side-Quest”, a small mini-game within the larger game that often has little or no connection to the main quest. Mini-games allow the player to take a break from the main quest. This strategy can be used when you notice the child is about to get off track. Ask children to do something out of context of their homework, for example, something fun but silly like chanting or singing the rest of their lessons, or tapping out the number of syllables in key facts. Similar to the side-quest, this strategy allows children to take a short break from the main activity but remain on-task.

Gamification strategies, when applied consistently, prime children’s brains to expect that homework time is a fun time, and parents will see an improvement in attitude.

A Tech Reset. The smartphone is a constant interruptor, tearing adults and children from whatever they were doing to their online activity. Have a “tech break” a day or extended period of time where adults and children will not have access to devices at all. Fill up this time with meaningful family activities, such as getting out in nature, catching a baseball game, spending time at a beach or park. These activities will help parents and children take a break from the mental programming that tells them they need a digital device every few moments.

Set a context in the home for focus. Certain areas in the home are mental “anchors” for certain activities or emotions. Ever been determined to finish up some work at home? You sit down on the bed, turn on the laptop, you’ve got your mental checklist ready…. and in ten minutes, inevitably you’re fighting to stay awake. In this situation, you are fighting the mental “anchor” in your subconscious that knows the bed as a place for sleep, not for work, and the brain is constantly activating the “sleep” pattern. Children have similar “anchors” in the home. Do they play at the same place they study? If so, encourage them to have certain areas in the home that they only use for study or homework so their brain is primed to do so even when they enter the space.

Finally, it starts with us. Is our TV on during meals? Do we text at the dinner table? Are we watching a video on the tablet while the kids are doing their homework? Many of us are guilty of doing so, even if it is work-related. In fact, a 2014 study found that 72% of parents use a mobile device during mealtimes (Radesky, et al., 2014).

However, if parents would like their children to develop a positive relationship with their devices, it is also important to role model preferred behaviour and explain why it is important. For example, parents can make it a point to put away their devices during meal-times, and explain to children, “I really want to find out more about your day, so I don’t want any distractions during this time.” to emphasise their expectations of a tech-free family time. Logging the number of hours of each family member in a “technology diary” can also help parents understand where specific changes need to be made and whether limits should be put in place.

A Balanced Approach

So here’s the takeaway for parents of our tech-obsessed children: Smart devices are here to stay, so instead of fighting them, it is more beneficial to parent-child relationships and the healthy development of a child to teach them how they may manage their device use. This means giving them opportunities to practice and develop attentional capacities to focus as they need to according to the situation.

And so, instead of cutting out digital technology altogether, ensure that during specific situations, the screens should go dark, while in others, children may enjoy their digital devices to their heart’s content.


Lisa Liew is an educational writer and consultant who has developed content for a wide range of educational products. Lisa’s decade of experience with the education industry has taught her one key thing : If you understand the child, you will understand how they will best learn. She believes in simple, yet effective ways of teaching, learning and parenting that will help parents understand and reach children through the ways they learn best. Lisa holds a Master in Education from Monash University, Australia. hopes this article has been helpful to you. Do you have a great idea for helping children focus? Leave a comment below!


Brown, T. T. & Jernigan, T. L. (2013) Brain development during the preschool years.

Common Sense Media (2012) Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America. Neuropsychol Rev. 2012 Dec; 22(4): 313–333.

Kaiser Family Foundation (2010) Generation M2 : Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.

Paturel, A. M. S. (2014) Game Theory: How do video games affect the developing brains of children and teens?. Neurology Now, June/July 2014; Volume 10(3); P 32–36

Radesky, J. S., Kistin, C. J., Zuckerman, B., Nitzberg, K., Gross, J. Kaplan-Sanoff, M. Augustyn, M. & Silverstein, M. (2014) Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children During Meals in Fast Food Restaurants. Pediatrics Mar 2014, peds.2013-3703; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-3703

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