Six expert tips for helping kids focus on Zoom
Ways to work with short attention spans and wiggly kids.
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If you’re like most parents of distance learners in grades K through 3rd, Zoom learning is probably making you tear your hair out. My first grader falls out of his chair, on average, four to six times a day; a friend’s son turns off his camera and dives into his toy box any time his parents leave the room; and my mom group has a long text exchange of photos of our children in “creative” seating options ranging from hanging upside down in their chairs to crawling into a fetal position under their desks.
Studies have shown that, even for adults, video conferencing is draining and a challenge for our attention spans. This happens in part because we are forced to focus more intently on conversations in order to effectively absorb information, not allowing for external social cues to help us piece together information. For small kids who lack fully developed self-regulation skills, and have shorter attention spans, this likely results in boredom, meltdowns, and attention-seeking behavior.
“It’s important to know that this is hard for everyone,” says Leah Hiller, MA, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist and a former elementary school teacher based out of Los Angeles, CA. “We’ve spent the last decade saying screens are bad and putting time limits of 20 minutes on them.... I don’t consider sitting at a computer for an extended period of time an appropriate goal to measure success.”
Hiller also points out that this is a particularly anxious time, making for underlying difficulties even for the most preternaturally focused child. “Anxiety steals attention. If your kid is struggling to focus, understand that we are living in a really scary time and big feelings are to be expected.”
While there are a whole host of challenges that come with distance learning there are some strategies that you can work on with your child to help them maintain focus to help make for a more positive learning experience overall.
1. Set up different levels for learning
When we all learned that we’d be distance learning at least through the fall, sales in children’s desks went through the roof and photos of artfully decorated learning spaces flooded our Instagram feeds. While we bought those structured seating arrangements with the best of intentions, if we expected our kids to stay confined to their new desks all day, we were likely setting ourselves up for failure.
Hiller points out that when children are in a typical school environment, they move through different stations and learning areas throughout a classroom, organically engaging in learning at various levels. In the classroom teachers incorporate floor time and standing activities at certain work stations, allowing kids to get much-needed proprioceptive input. That input helps keep their mind and their muscles engaged, thereby increasing their attention span for what’s being taught.
Both Hiller and Tara Waugh, founder and director of Astare Learning, an individualized supplemental learning company that specializes in helping high needs children, recommend you find a way to give that kind of variation in your home: a standard sitting option, a standing option, and a floor option. A standing option can be as simple as having a portion of the dining room table that is the “standing section” to taping learning assignments to a wall so your child can take a break from sitting during certain lessons.
Both Hiller and Waugh also suggest investing in a slanted clipboard for floor learning. Hiller says that the clipboards allow for a child to move themselves to the floor, either leaning against a wall, or laying on their belly. She says that allowing a child to lay on their stomach to learn can have enormous benefits when trying to help them with attention issues.
“I encourage laying on the belly and a slanted clipboard is perfect for that… When children lay on their bellies in a prone position they receive more muscle input throughout their bodies, which can help with attention and focus,” says Hiller.
While she recommends being flexible and finding what works for your child, she says to stop short of allowing children to recline on a couch where they normally watch TV or curling up in bed. “If it’s a place where they might take a nap, it should be off limits.” says Hiller.
An option that we've been using is the Kinderfeets wooden balance board, which allows for kids to have stabilized movement while standing, a floor-level sitting option, as well as an area to recline, without getting so comfortable they aren't able to pay attention.
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2. Create a distraction-free learning area
It probably goes without saying, but an area that has minimal distractions will help your child maintain focus on the tasks at hand, no matter if it’s online learning or if it’s focusing on their homework. If your child’s work station is in a main area, make sure the dog is kenneled, the ice machine is out-of-order, and foot traffic is kept to a minimum.
If learning takes place in their bedroom, make sure the desk is clear, distracting toys are put away, the bed is made, and nothing in the immediate environment will tempt them to tinker or play. Waugh recommends an organized environment, headphones, and--if needed--a cardboard partition to help minimize visual distractions to help your kids stay focused.
As far as seating goes, both Waugh and Hiller say wiggle seats and alternative seating options can help but to keep an eye on if they are actually working or if they are turning into an added distraction. For many, an active chair or wiggle seat can help a child engage their core and improve their posture. If your child falls off their wiggle seat numerous times a day, however, it’s probably a sign it’s not working for them.
“For some kids a wiggle seat is just right, but if you notice that your child is constantly falling out of their seat, they might be getting more sensory input than they need and it’s time to reevaluate things,” says Hiller. “There is no one size fits all. It really depends on your kid. If anyone is telling you ‘do exactly this and do it for every kid,’ they are wrong.”
3. Give sensory input
Sensory input can help either wake up a tired kid or refocus a child who may feel like their system is overloaded, and it helps all kids feel more connected with their bodies. Both Waugh and Hiller recommend giving a constant stream of low-level sensory input throughout the day.
Starting each morning with a quick burst of activity can help a kid click into the expectations of the day. Find what works for your child: a really good stretch and a few minutes of GoNoodle might be good for some, while an intense scooter ride might be what’s needed to help another kid burn off extra energy. “Having a morning routine that involves good physical activity can have benefits that last for an hour or more of learning soon after,” says Hiller.
To help kids pay attention throughout the day, Hiller recommends activities and tools that help with proprioception, which is heavy muscle use sensory input. Proprioception plays a large role in self-regulation, coordination, body awareness, and the ability to focus. She says you can work on proprioceptive input with small, inconspicuous tools to keep kids focused without being disruptive.
“When you work the oral motor tools it helps the body maintain focus. Anything that’s oral whether it be chewing or creating some sort of resistance—so that means chewing gum, sucking on a water bottle, or chewing on a bite valve.”
She gets her daughters packs of chewing gum to get through online learning, and whether they are learning at home or in a classroom environment she recommends Camelback water bottles. Their strong bite-valve holds up to continuous gnawing of sensory-seeking mouths and allows kids to work the muscles in their jaws without drawing negative attention to themselves.
Another means of working on proprioceptive input is by working muscles in the hands. Hiller likes giving clients modeling clay like Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty, which snaps, stretches, and easily molds, or Prismacolor kneaded erasers. Both keep hands busy while helping kids quietly focus.
“The putty and the erasers are small and they’re not distracting. Kids can just play with them while listening in. It’s so helpful to have tools for your hands and tools for your mouth and they work because the kids can get that input while still having their eyes on Zoom,” says Hiller.
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4. Lay out the ground rules for breaks
While most schools allow for short breaks between subjects in online learning, getting a kid back and focused after those breaks can be a challenge for many. Waugh says the key to making breaks work for you, instead of against you, is having a plan. Break time shouldn’t mean a child runs to their playroom or bedroom to play with their toys. Instead, come up with an acceptable box of toys for school time that they can dig into and use during the school day.
Waugh recommends that breaks only consist of specific, pre-agreed upon activities that will help your child reset for the next subject, but won’t suck them in and create resistance. Her kids use a doorway swing set that easily folds up and goes away after the school day is over. We like this one from Gym1, which allows you to mix things up with a swing, a trapeze, and a climbing ladder. Waugh also likes small trampolines and recommends toys like blocks or Legos. Physical activities like animal walks, jumping jacks, hopscotch, and games of Simon Says can all give kids excellent sensory input in short bursts.
“What we don’t want is an activity that will suck them in that they’ll have a hard time pulling themselves away from. If you know you only have 10 minutes, find activities that can can be enjoyed and completed within the allotted time,” she says, adding that you should try to make sure that the activities are structured and even set boundaries of how far kids can be from their designated learning environment.
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5. Give rewards
While it may seem that schools wouldn’t ask something of kids that they aren’t capable of, both experts we talked to said that it’s not typical for kids to sit through three hours of Zoom and asynchronous work.
“The general rule is a child should be able to sit for their age plus or minus two minutes," says Hiller. That means a 6-year-old should be able to sit and focus for about five to eight minutes without a break; Hiller says that anything beyond that is a gift. In order to help kids get through sessions of learning that can run 20 to 30 minutes, she recommends creating break cards or tokens as sort of “get out jail free” cards that kids can cash in when they need to take a breather and regroup.
How many break cards you create will depend on your child’s age and abilities, but she currently gives her kindergartner four cards that she can “cash in” over two and a half hours worth of Zoom.
Over the course of a work day, adults get up, walk around, stretch their legs, and refill their coffee to get a brain breaks. Hiller says those breaks are healthy but our ability to take them and both remove ourselves from overstimulation while being able to return and refocus is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to kids. “We need to teach kids how to take appropriate breaks,” she says. What that means is laying out clear guidelines of what is acceptable during a break and what is not.
Hiller recommends her clients create a menu of acceptable break options with their children, so they know what's acceptable right out of the gate. For example, a break can be a potty break, a snack, or a few minutes bouncing on a trampoline—it cannot be a time when they start a new game or art project or lay down on the bed.
Parents should also includes clear timelines that are consistent with each break and use highly visual timers to keep kids on track. Hiller recommends anything from a sand time to a timer on your laptop or phone that incorporates visual and auditory elements, like this pirate-themed timer which has a stream of visuals and music that you can set to keep kids on track.
For her daughter in kindergarten, Hiller always checks in and tries to help her make good use of the breaks, letting her know that once she goes through all the cards she won’t get more for the day, so they need to be used wisely. For older kids, you might consider having them adhere to the rules of the cards and if they follow all of the rules and return when the timer goes off, without complaint, they earn the next card for the next 45-minute allotment of time.
6. Celebrate small gains
Times are tough right now. Allow yourself, and your child, to revel even in small successes. Waugh recommends token boards or other external rewards to help motivate kids to build up their stamina for sitting still. She likes to create token boards with a child's input where you can come up with motivations together. She recommends you start small and celebrate even the most minor of victories in the beginning.
“If it’s a small child, focus on the immediate and give the rewards throughout the day. If the expectation is you have to sit through the morning meeting, every 10 mins they sit through they get a check mark. If you get through morning meeting and three checks they get a small reward as a treat,” suggest Waugh.
When giving rewards, Waugh cautions parents to be flexible. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this. This is a new skill for kids where, up until now we were doing everything we could to keep them off screens. Celebrate small gains to build up to larger ones.”
Waugh also says to remember that what works one week might not work the next and to allow yourself some grace when something that used to work starts to fail. “Recognize that the effort is worth rewarding, not the end result. Don’t focus on the fidgeting, instead reward that they are sitting,” she says. “Observe them for their effort and pat yourself on the back for yours.”
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