CARE TALK: Helping young children to focus

CARE TALK is a monthly advice column in Aurora Magazine where a registered psychologist offers answers to common questions around mental health and counselling.

Q:  I work in a preschool and despite my training in early childhood development, I sometimes find it difficult to support children who become distracted easily, and in turn, end up distracting other children. I would like to help these young children prepare for school and am interested in some quick techniques to help all children focus to the best of their ability. I do encourage fun and playtime during the day but when it comes to taskoriented activities, I would like some more ideas on how to help children focus. Any suggestions?

A: Although every child is unique in his or her learning style, there are some things you can do which will benefit all children in the room; and there are other things you can do which will help children who find it difficult to “regulate” on their own. Each child’s brain development occurs at different rates and it may be easier for some children to sit still and focus while there will be others who constantly fidget, walk around the room, take a long time to complete tasks and find any excuse to be out of their seat. Try some of the following:

 • When providing instructions to children, help them break instructions down. For example, if you say “It’s time to pack up now”, you would break it down further by going up to the child and prompting them to think of what to do first. For example, “What do you need to do first?” and then you would say, “And what is next?” Reward the child by verbally praising them for taking the steps even if you needed to prompt them.

• If you notice children becoming distracted, gently remind them to get back on task and you may consider using a physical prompt – eg say their name and ask them to tell you what they were supposed to be doing or walk up to the child, lean down to their level, touch them on the shoulder and remind him or her of the task.

• Allow regular intervals of “downtime” before things get out of hand. For example, after 20 minutes of concentration, perhaps allow children to do something calming such as colouring, or completing a physical task for the teacher. These grounding activities allow the child to refocus.

• Fidget toys or anything fiddly that can be played with in their hands are also useful for grounding. This may work well when the teacher is engaging in “talking” where the child is required only to listen – such as when the teacher is reading to the class. Having something in the child’s hands such as play doh or a small squishy toy may actually improve the ability to focus on what is being said.

• Transition times can be extra difficult for children, so when returning from outdoor play, it may be useful to engage in a non-demanding activity first eg colouring, focusing on breathing or a fidget toy.

• Provide positive reassurance when children engage in positive behaviours and do this publicly so other children also see this.

• For the children who have difficulty staying on task, be prepared with a variety of prompts and tools in advance. Look for cues that the child is becoming “dysregulated” and use one of the above positive approaches rather than a punitive one. It can be difficult for many children to know why they display difficult behaviours so in the first instance, supporting the children regulating themselves is better than punishment.

• If you are noticing a child physically expressing an emotion (such as sadness or frustration), help him or her to name that emotion (emotion coaching). Then you can talk about what might make them feel better. There are some great tips on teaching websites that can also help you to support children’s learning. Have a look at the Kids Matter website,, as a starting point.

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Assistant Director and a registered psychologist.

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