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Volume 4, Issue 4 2020


Volume 4, Issue 4 2020


Natalie Parletta PhD, freelance science writer and adjunct senior research fellow, University of South Australia

If you need one superpower to get through life, it’s learning. Learning helps you walk and talk, it gets you through school and you learn from mistakes. Through learning, you gain knowledge and influence, move forward, unlock opportunities and grow as a person. But learning requires concentration, or focussed attention.

Figure 1: To learn, you need to pay attention and concentrate, which is not always easy.

To understand the power of concentration, think of a magnifying glass: when you catch the sun at just the right angle and concentrate the rays onto a piece of paper, it will burst into flames. Without that focus, the light just scatters aimlessly.

Focussing the mind doesn’t always come easily though, and some people find it harder than others – especially when there are biological impediments, sensory intrusions or distractions. This article will explore the factors involved and ways to improve concentration.

A high order function

Focussing or concentrating uses the prefrontal lobes of the brain’s cortex, and is known as an “executive” or higher order function, thought to be unique to humans, that takes time to develop throughout childhood and adolescence.

It forms a basis for myriad other tasks such as studying, reasoning, problem solving, memory, ignoring irrelevant information and even doing well at sport. Focussing the mind can also bring inner peace through mindfulness, or meditation.

This takes practice and persistence to develop, and can be nurtured with good study habits, breaks from computer, phone and television screens, and fun and games.It also relies on essential nutrients for healthy brain function, a balanced diet, good sleep and physical activity.

Figure 2: Good study habits are important to help avoid distractions and concentrate.

Good study habits

Oxford Learning suggests that doing one thing at a time is important to focus attention on the task at hand. Multi-tasking, like checking your phone while studying, makes it harder to immerse yourself in the topic.

If it seems overwhelming, it can help to break tasks down into smaller chunks – it will feel more manageable and easier to focus. Feeling a sense of achievement when each smaller task is achieved can also boost motivation to tackle the next one.

Making a list of goals can help identify what you need to focus on, such as doing reading for English and then sums for maths homework.

Setting a regular routine will help as well, including regular breaks – ideally going outside for a stroll in the fresh air – that will help get rid of pent up energy or frustration and clear the mind for the next task.

Removing distractions, like mobile phones, disorganised desks or television in the background, is important for maintaining concentration.

At school, it can help to sit at the front of the classroom or away from known distractions like a window or chatty friends. Where this isn’t possible, try other ways of dealing with distractions, like closing your eyes and taking some deep breaths.

Fun and games

We all focus and learn better when we’re interested the topic, so it can make a big difference if the learning material is related to something that excites you, or is presented in a stimulating, interactive form.

Figure 3: Interactive computer games can be engaging and help concentration and learning.

Doing puzzles like crosswords and jigsaws can create light relief outside of study time, improve problem solving skills and develop the ability to focus.

Learning through games, using graphics, animation and audio, has also been shown to improve concentration – people learn better when it’s fun and engaging. One example of this is turning the classroom into a gameshow, with the teacher has host and students as competitors.

Other approaches are educational card games. Some video games have been designed for learning and can engage players so well they forget they are actually learning. Studies have found that game-based learning can help academic achievement, motivation and classroom dynamics.

Diet and nutrition

You probably didn’t expect to see diet here, but the brain is a bodily organ, just like the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs and as such, it needs a healthy environment to work properly.

That includes the whole range of essential nutrients – and the brain has even higher needs than the rest of the body for its development and tireless work in supporting cognition, memory, mood and behaviour.

Although it’s only around 2.5% of the body’s weight, the brain uses a quarter of the body’s oxygen and blood supply at rest – and when it’s active, like when reading or solving a puzzle, that jumps to half.

So, providing good nutrition is a critically important, but often overlooked, foundation for healthy learning in childhood.

Which nutrients?

Several different nutrients help deliver blood and oxygen to fuel neural activity, including the B vitamins and omega-3 fats.

An array of different nutrients further support the synthesis and activity of neurotransmitters – the brain’s communication system – among many other vital functions in the body and brain including attention and concentration.

Zinc, for instance – found in shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts, eggs, vegetables and wholegrains – is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to good health. As well as supporting immune function, growth, development and reproduction, zinc helps the developing brain and is an essential co-factor for more than 100 enzymes – hard-working proteins that catalyse virtually all chemical reactions in cells.

Iron is an essential mineral responsible for carrying oxygen to the body and brain – and it is the most common deficiency. Anaemia from iron deficiency affects up to a quarter of infants and many more suffer low levels without anaemia. Insufficient iron has system-wide impacts and in relation to the brain has been associated with poor cognitive development and behaviour, including hyperactivity.

Iron-rich foods include fish, eggs, dried beans and lentils, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds – and contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that vegetarians have lower iron levels than non-vegetarians.

Iodine, found particularly in fish and seaweed, is so important for the developing brain that deficiency results in severe mental retardation. Mild deficiencies are common in developed countries and have been associated with poorer cognitive function.

Magnesium, rich in dark leafy greens and other vegetables, bananas and almonds, is another important mineral that is essential for every tissue and cell function in the body. It supports healthy immunity, is important for nerves, muscles and the heart, and helps brain development, memory and learning.

Low magnesium levels have been reported in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and limited studies – one in conjunction with Vitamin B6 – found less hyperactivity and sleep disturbance in children after magnesium supplementation.

Figure 4: A variety of healthy foods provide a range of essential nutrients that help with attention and learning.

Not to be forgotten, the thousands of polyphenols found in plant foods have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties – both of which are important for healthy brain function. In children, pine bark extract, a potent antioxidant, has lowered levels of hyperactivity and inattention in research trials.

Looking at multi-nutrient supplementation, a broad spectrum of high-dose nutrients was shown to improve attention, emotional regulation and aggression in children with ADHD.

When it comes to nutrients for child concentration and behaviour, omega-3s – found in oily fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, algae, dark leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds – are one of the best researched – and for good reason.

Science is now confirming that our ancestors were not wrong about fish being brain food. The dry weight of the brain is made up of 60% fat – and the long-chain omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is more highly concentrated in the brain than anywhere else in the body.

Worryingly, studies have found that most children do not eat enough of the essential omega-3s, which must come from the diet because our bodies can’t make them. It should be noted that although the body can make DHA from the short-chain versions found in plant foods, the best source is directly from fish or algae.

Much research has shown particularly low levels of omega-3 in children who have problems with inattention and hyperactivity, compared to healthy children. Importantly, a body of clinical trials has found improvements in attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity after supplementation compared with placebo.

Whole diet

Research has also linked whole diet to children’s mental health and cognition and behaviour, but again, effects are not so consistent in children who are already well-nourished.

A study of 14-year-olds found that an unhealthy “Western” dietary pattern was associated with poorer cognitive performance three years later, at age 17.

In younger children aged 3, an unhealthy diet – high in harmful fats, sugar and processed food – was linked to lower IQ at age 8, while a healthy diet was associated with higher IQ.

Effects can also be short-term – it’s well-known that breakfast is an important meal, providing energy to help maintain attention and concentration. Clearly, it’s hard to focus and stay calm on an empty stomach.

Breakfast quality is important though – sugary cereals will send glucose levels rocketing up and then plummeting down again. High fibre, high protein breakfasts are best to sustain blood glucose levels and support concentration.

If children struggle to eat a substantial breakfast, research has shown that a nutritious mid-morning snack can make up for the resulting impact on attention.

Figure 5: A healthy breakfast is important to help you concentrate.

Behavioural food reactions

Poor nutrition aside, certain foods can also promote hyperactivity, which interferes with concentration.

A grouped analysis of 15 placebo-controlled trials found that food additives increase hyperactive behaviour in hyperactive children.

A landmark study in the UK then found that artificial food colourings and the preservative sodium benzoate caused hyperactivity in normal populations of school children (prompting the government to ban those food additives).

Some children can also react to other naturally occurring food chemicals including amines, salicylates and glutamate as well as wheat or dairy foods. It’s possible that altered gut bacteria might be impacting on the digestive tract, so probiotics might be helpful.

When food reactions are suspected, identifying offending foods is complex, involving a careful elimination diet which should be done under professional supervision. However, eliminating highly processed foods with artificial additives is a good start for any child, hyperactive, inattentive, or not.

Physical activity

Being physical active has multiple benefits at any age – and one of those for children is helping them to concentrate, confirming the importance of running around at recess or letting off some steam before doing homework.

On the other hand, sitting and being inactive for too long has been linked to poorer attention, memory and learning.

One reason for this is because physical activity helps to get the blood moving and send hormones, glucose and oxygen to the brain. It also helps develop new brain cells and neural connections from an early age.

In one study, students had better attention and performance outcomes on an academic test after just 20 minutes of walking. Students with physical education classes at school have also had higher numeracy and literacy scores.

Figure 6: Physical activity and nature have multiple benefits and can improve attention and learning.

Ways to get children moving include making physical activity part of the school curriculum, taking active breaks in the classroom, access to equipment and spaces to move during recess, active transport (walking, riding) to and from school, and after school sports activities.

Nature, stillness, mindfulness

Green environments can have multiple benefits for cognition and wellbeing, and one study found that children who walked in nature – a city park – did better than those who walked in more urban environments.

The stillness offered by nature could play a role in this, as mindfulness – gently bringing the focus to the present moment – has been associated with better concentration as well as relieving stress and increasing happiness.

Mindfulness doesn’t come naturally, especially in today’s busy world teeming with distractions, so parents and teachers can help children practice mindfulness meditation – even a few minutes a day can bring profound rewards.

Limit screen time

Increasing research points to the impacts of excess screen time – such as computers, tablets and television – on children’s brains, in turn affecting their memory, attention and language development.

A recent study showed it can also affect their communication skills, problem solving ability and social interactions over time.

Experts recommend limiting screen time and developing healthy habits like watching quality shows and engaging with children to make it more interactive, by talking about what they’re watching and highlighting points of interest.

The importance of sleep

Regular routines and bedtimes, with plenty of sleep, are also vital.

Studies show that getting enough good quality sleep impacts learning and memory, first because sleep-deprivation makes it hard to focus and second because the brain consolidates memories while we sleep. Researchers recommend setting a regular bedtime and avoiding screens for at least half an hour before going to bed.

Figure 7:  It’s virtually impossible to focus and learn without enough good quality sleep.

Student activities

1. Why is concentration important for learning?

2. How can nutrition and diet help with learning and concentration?

3. Why is breakfast important, and what type of breakfast is best?

4. Research different types of games and interactive learning and discuss in groups which ones might help in your classes.

5. How can physical activity help you concentrate better?

6. Think of some ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your day.

7. Come up with some strategies to improve your study habits to help you focus better.

8. Why is sleep important for learning and memory? Refer to the Medical Harvard School resource.


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