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What Helps Kids Focus Better -- and Why They Need Help

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The other day a kid rode by, texting while riding down the street on his bike. Then, I saw a group of kids in a fast food joint having lunch. Instead of talking and just having fun together, they were each absorbed in a tablet or smartphone. They may as well have been alone.

A middle school teacher complains her recent crop of students haven't been able to understand the textbooks nearly as well as those in previous years.

Technology -- tablets, texts, Facebook, tweets, you name it -- has changed childhood. And that has huge implications for how our kids' brains develop the ability to pay attention and learn.

Kids learn best when they can maintain sustained attention, whether to what a teacher is saying, their textbook or their homework. The root of learning is keen focus; distractions kill comprehension. But the new normal for young people continually interrupts their focus with distractions.

This is particularly alarming in light of very strong research results showing that a child's ability to resist the temptation of distraction and stay focused predicts how she will fare financially and health-wise in adulthood. Some call it "self-control," others "grit" or "delay of gratification." It boils down to the tenacity to keep your eyes on your goal (or schoolwork) and resist impulse and distraction.

Neuroscientists tell us this crucial mental ability hinges on the growth of a neural strip in the brain's prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, which connects to circuitry that helps manage both attention and unruly emotions. This circuitry grows with the rest of the brain from birth throughout childhood and the teen years.

The more a youngster can practice keeping her focus and resist distraction, the stronger and more richly connected this neural real estate becomes. By the same token, the more distracted, the less so.

This mental ability is like a muscle: it needs proper exercise to grow strong. One way to help kids is to give them regular sessions of focusing time, the mental equivalent of workouts in the gym.

I've seen this done in schools, with second-graders becoming calm and concentrated with a daily session of watching their breath, the basic training in bringing a wandering mind back to a single focus. And parents who help kids do this at home will be doing them -- and their prefrontal cortex -- a favor.

Learn some guided exercises to help young people sharpen their attention skills with my CDs Focus for Kids: Enhancing Concentration, Caring and Calm and Focus for Teens: Enhancing Concentration, Caring and Calm.