YOU HAVE TO CONCENTRATE! Who among us never heard that exhortation in grade school or from our parents? Of course, it is genuinely difficult for children to ignore distractions and dedicate themselves to a task at hand. Yet school counselors and cognitive therapists see the inability to concentrate as a widespread learning problem. Some straightforward steps can improve concentration power--for students and adults.

Parents can first help children learn how to concentrate by being good role models. If you are working on an assignment or project, show your children what you are doing and how you will break the task into manageable pieces. Then let them know why you do not want to be disturbed.

When it is the childs time to work, show them how to implement a few simple rules. Most important is to create an optimal work environment--a quiet space devoid of distractions such as background music, television images, conversations, toys, and sibling and pet traffic. The stimulus filters in the brain--the thalamus and the limbic system--are not always able to screen out such disturbances.

If a task is complex, such as a huge jigsaw puzzle or a time-consuming construction project for school, help children figure out how to divide up the work. Explain the value of focusing and completing one piece at a time, instead of trying to grapple with the entire job at once. After the student is under way, he or she may be quite content to work independently, converting what was just learned into his or her own persistence. Remember that a childs capacity to concentrate is considerably less than that of an adult, so adjust your expectations and possible criticism accordingly.

Quiet Rules

Other tactics, noted below, will also be handy. Adults might consider adopting the measures as well. Too often we fail to follow such simple and time-honored tips. We allow ourselves to be bombarded with interruptions and check e-mail too frequently, believing we can juggle many tasks simultaneously. It is an illusion to think that we can parcel out our attention so finely. Recent research has demonstrated that our brains really cant handle multitasking effectively--doing different things in parallel, with the same level of concentration toward each demand [see The Limits of Multitasking, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND, Premier Issue, 2004].

Motivation. Before beginning a work session, ask yourself why you want to take on the particular task. Your motivation will increase as soon as you are clear about the goal and payoff, which in turn will keep you focused. Concentration disorders in children are often motivational problems in disguise. Consider that many students claim it is hard to memorize vocabulary lists, even though they have no trouble retaining the complicated names of Pokmon characters or dinosaurs.

Emotional tugs. Tumultuous feelings can readily divert your attention. Try listing all these feelings on a piece of scrap paper--just writing down the words can clear the distractions from your mind.

Diet. When our brains work hard, they burn large quantities of the sugar glucose. A steady nutritional supply throughout the day, from more frequent but smaller meals of foods such as fruit, yogurt and full-grain bread, may improve your focus better than the blood-sugar spikes and dips associated with heavy meals and long fasts in between, especially if you are consuming sugary drinks, cakes and white breads.

Physical activity. Frequent physical activity increases oxygen and glucose supplies to the brain. If you have been sitting at a desk for too long and feel you are fading mentally, get up and take a walk.

Praise. After a productive spell of concentration, praise yourself. Even more so, praise your child. The brains reward centers will produce dopamine, eliciting a sense of happiness, which will encourage even greater focus next time.