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Strategies to help kids focus at school

Allow extra time

Try to resist the impulse to gear up and go, go, go; instead, deliberately allow extra time for everything. “Let your child’s body adjust to the new rhythm of waking early, getting to bed earlier, and having less free time,” says Susan Stiffelman, MFT, a family and child therapist and author of Parenting Without Power Struggles (Morgan James, 2010). “And keep your schedule as light as possible for the first month or so.”

When it comes to getting back on a routine after three months of summer, even a couple days of good sleep helps a lot. “In theory you would start going to bed earlier a week or two ahead of time, but that’s very tough when it’s the end of the summer,” says Stiffelman. One sure way to get the kids to bed earlier is to get them up at 6:30 a.m. for a few days in a row.

Encourage free time

Encourage play. It turns out that running—as well as skipping, dancing, and tag—is as good for your kids’ brains as it is for their bodies. A recent study in England of more than 1,000 elementary-age children found that kids who did 15 minutes of aerobic exercise in the classroom and then took cognitive tests at the school day’s end did better on the tests than those who didn’t exercise. “This could change the way we think about exercise in schools,” said Justin Williams, MD, of the University of Aberdeen.

Even a few minutes of play in the back yard or a jog around the block with the dog before or after school can pay off, says Stiffelman, who emphasizes the importance of unstructured play outside. “Kids need to play and blow off steam—they need time to be children—and that is not the same as organized athletic activities.” Most free time should not be spent watching TV, which she says can make kids irritable. Studies have linked excessive television watching with attention disorders and poor performance in school.

Develop strategies for focus

Be strategic. Strategies developed to cope with ADHD and sensory integration (SI) issues may serve any child who needs help relaxing or focusing. For instance, before sitting down to do homework, have your child do a brief “heavy work” activity, such as carrying bags of groceries or stacking hefty books. If settling down for sleep is an issue, consider a white-noise machine or use calming aromatherapy scents, such as lavender and chamomile. As a back-to-school gift, make a small lavender sachet that your child can tuck into his pocket and squeeze or smell whenever he wants to feel centered and soothed.

The U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines on teaching kids with ADHD recommend dividing work into smaller units, a strategy Stiffelman says works great for most kids. “I recommend ‘chunking down’ homework and study time,” she says. “Ask the child, ‘How long do you think you can focus?’ And then set a timer, probably for five- to seven-minute spans at first, then gradually lengthen that time.” Other tips: Create an uncluttered, quiet workspace; involve the kids in making checklists or daily activity schedules.

Eat more nutrients

Most parents don’t need anyone to tell them that sugary treats can make their kids act crazy. But added sugars lurk in everything from yogurt to canned fruit, and refined-carb snacks like crackers and pretzels offer few nutrients and break down quickly in the body. Kids need foods that contain “speed bumps,” says Kelly Corbet, an educator, author, and CEO of “Speed bumps are things that slow the entrance of sugar into the bloodstream—think fiber, protein, and good fats.” Start the school day right with balanced choices such as whole-grain oats with dried fruit, or homemade granola

Snacks make up a large part of any child’s daily calorie intake, so make them as healthy as the meals you prepare. Pack carrot and celery sticks, red pepper and jicama slices, or sliced fruit, along with a protein-rich spread such as nut butter or hummus, suggests Patty James, a certified natural chef and coauthor of More Vegetables, Please! (New Harbinger, 2009). Try swapping out that sugary granola bar for an orange and a handful of almonds.

Because omega-3 fatty acids help with brain function, incorporate foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, olive oil, and fatty fish into your child’s diet. If your child doesn’t like fish, consider supplementing with an omega-3 supplement or fish oil capsules.

Walk the talk

Walk the talk. Last but not least, take a long, honest look at your family’s general level of chaos. If you are panicking because you’re running late, it’s hard to expect your children to be calm and focused. Kids model their behavior after adults, and stress can lead to impatience, frustration, and anger. “Relax,” says Stiffelman. “Try not to let your stress or anxiety rub off on your kids.” Easier said than done, right? Start by reconsidering the tips outlined above and realize they apply to you, too. Eat a healthy, protein-rich breakfast and snacks, work up a sweat, and take regular breaks. And if you’re organizationally challenged, consider posting a large family calendar and designating baskets or folders for each person’s school papers and stuff. Put on soothing music while you’re helping with homework or doing your own work; you may be surprised at the positive ripple effect even small changes can make in everyone’s mood.

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