The importance of focus and self-control for young children

Focus and self-control are essential skills for life. Learn why they are so important and how you can help children learn and practice these skills.

Support your child's development of focus and self-control.
Support your child's development of focus and self-control.

Today’s world is busy. There are so many things to remember, juggle and keep up with. Even young children have a lot of information to juggle, especially as their attention span is a moving target throughout their early development. This is especially difficult on young children who are still developing the skills they need to remember and manage everything on life’s ever-growing to-do list.

The ability to focus and control involves the developing executive functioning skills including the ability to pay attention, learn and remember rules, and the self-control to not act on initial impulses. Studies have shown that children who have developed executive functioning skills often do better in school and are more likely to be able to achieve personal goals as they mature.

Focus and self-control

In “The Mind in the Making,” author Ellen Galinksy explains what focus and self-control really mean. Focus and self-control consist of four different skills: focus, cognitive flexibility, working memory and inhibitory control.

  1. Focus refers to attention and involves being alert and “orienting.” Orienting refers to the ability to focus one’s attention on the specific tasks that will help them accomplish whatever their goal is. Concentration is also a big part of focus as children get older.
  2. Cognitive flexibility means someone is able to change the focus of their attention, change perspectives and even adjust to changing situations, priorities or demands. This is really the ability of your brain, thinking and acting to adjust to things that happen.
  3. Working memory is like a holding cell in your brain where you hold information that you can continue to change and update as needed. When your working memory is developed, you can hold information in your head, add to it, cross things off when they are completed and think about what you need to do to accomplish each task. Working memory also helps us relate ideas or experiences to things you have already learned or previous experiences.
  4. Inhibitory control refers to the ability to stop yourself from doing things. These skills are useful when you are faced with a difficult task that you are tempted to give up on, helping you act in appropriate ways and simply stopping and taking stock before you act. Exhibiting inhibitory control necessitates control of attention, emotions and behavior. It could be as simple as the ability to block out your neighbor’s conversation while you try to read your emails at work.

Supporting the development of focus and self-control

Try these tips from Michigan State University Extension for helping build your child’s focus and self-control.

  • Bring control and calm. Being able to control bodies, emotions and actions is a skill children need to learn. You can help young children learn these skills by realizing what methods help them calm and re-center and encourage them to employ those methods when they need them or when they are staring to lose control.
  • Make it a game. Lots of games or activities can help children practice focus and self-control. Games like I spy, guessing games, red light-green light and musical chairs are all great ways to help children practice skills for focus and self-control.
  • Encourage your child’s interests. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to get lost in your hobbies, and yet it can be so challenging to stay focused for even 10 minutes on a work task that you dread? We have a much bigger capacity for focus and self-control when we are interested in the task, and it is much easier to be engaged and enthralled in something that interests you. Help your child follow their interests and encourage them to invest time in exploring those interests.
  • Read. Reading stories to young children that encourage them to listen and focus can help them develop these important skills. Find stories where children can finish familiar phrases or refrains and ask them questions about the stories during and after you have finished the story.
  • Support pretend play. When children pretend, they have to use working memory to remember their “character” or other characteristics of their story. They also use cognitively flexibility in their creative expression during pretend play.
  • Plan and do. Help children make plans and stick to them. Encourage them to decide on a plan of action, follow through with it and then check in with them afterwards. 
  • Keep them guessing. Play games that don’t follow normal rules or expectations, or change the rules halfway through. These types of games keep children on their toes and require them to pay attention in order to remember what they are supposed to do.

You can help your child develop the essential life skill of focus and self-control, and set them up for success.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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