How can I help my child focus?

It is common to hear from parents that their child is having problems focusing. There are several factors to take into account as to why their child may have difficulty. Often children are not getting enough sleep or proper nutrition. Other times the difficulty may stem from not being developmentally ready to handle the work expected of them at school. This occurs frequently when a child is one of the youngest in their class and often needs an extra year of development to “catch up” with their peers. It is best for a child with focus issues to be fully examined to rule out any medical causes for their attention issue such as sleep apnea or absence seizures. In addition, a child may need to be evaluated by a psychologist and undergo psychoeducational testing.

The following are ways parents can help their child focus.

1) Sleep- A proper amount of sleep each night is important for a child’s brain to function at it’s best. The following hours of sleep are a general guideline:

Preschoolers 3-5 yo 10-13 hours

Gradeschoolers 6-12 yo 9-12 hours

Teens 13-18 yo 8-10 hours

2) Nutrition- Neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other, are essential to maintain proper attention and focus. A diet rich in proteins such as lean meats, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products, complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, and a variety of fruits and vegetables are essential to the process of making neurotransmitters.

The goal is to encourage your child to fill half their plate with fruits or vegetables, one-fourth with a protein, and one-fourth with complex carbohydrates.

Zinc: helps to regulate the neurotransmitter dopamine. Zinc levels have been found to be low in some children with focusing issues. Foods high in zinc include beef, spinach, pumpkin seeds, and shrimp.

Iron: is a key cofactor in the making of neurotransmitters. Supplemental iron can be dangerous if too much is taken. Iron levels need to be checked before starting a supplement. Eating iron-rich foods such as red meat, red beans, dark chocolate, and leafy greens can increase iron levels without the risk.

Vitamin C: helps to make neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. Foods such as oranges, red peppers, and kale are high in Vitamin C.,

Vitamin B: Deficiencies in B vitamins, particularly B6, can cause irritability and fatigue in children Adequate B6 levels can increase alertness and decrease anxiety-like symptoms. Foods high in B6 include wild-caught tuna, bananas, spinach, and salmon.

Magnesium: Magnesium is also used to make the neurotransmitters involved in attention. Magnesium is known to have a calming effect on the brain. Magnesium can be found in foods including dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and beans.

It is also possible to take a daily supplement if nutritional goals are not met in a child’s dietary intake. However, supplements can become dangerous if taken in excess, so it is best to always check your child’s levels of each vitamin before you start a supplement.

3) Behavior Therapy- Often children with focus issues benefit from behavior therapy. This strategy aims to reward desired behaviors and helps to eliminate undesired behaviors. It should be the first line of treatment for children under 5 years old and should be considered for all children. Cognitive behavior therapy uses strategies to eliminate irrational or negative thought patterns.

4) Exercise increases the neurotransmitter dopamine and therefore helps maintain attention. Yoga and mindfulness are especially effective in doing this. In addition “Green time” 20 minutes a day also helps with attention fatigue so it’s important to get outside each day.

5) A medical food that provides omega-3 that is able to pass the blood brain barrier has shown significant improvement in focusing in some children. It is available by prescription.

Treatment for each child should be individualized. With the proper balance of sleep, nutrition, behavior therapy and exercise each child can begin to focus better. It is important to monitor symptoms to see what works and adjust accordingly.