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The Benefits of Mental Workouts for Kids and Teens

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"My child just can't stay focused."

I've heard this over and over again as I've been touring the country talking about my book Focus. Parents are worried.

My response: Of course they can't. And there's something you can do about it.

First, the science. The brain is the last organ of the body to finish growing. It does not become anatomically mature until the mid-20s. During that time circuits for everything from managing your emotions to staying concentrated are strengthening. And while they are still growing, the external signs of this are a child or teen who can't stay concentrated and who gets easily emotionally upset.

That's normal. Of course some kids have an especially hard time focusing and managing their distress. That's where a new understanding of how the brain grows can help. "Neuroplasticity" is the term brain scientists use for the way the brain gets shaped through repeated experiences - the more repetitions of a given behavior, the stronger the circuitry for it becomes. That applies to focus. And it turns out the brain's circuits for focusing is intertwined with those for recovering from emotional upsets.

I visited an early elementary school in New York City's Spanish Harlem neighborhood, where most of the students lived in housing projects and came from poor, often chaotic, families. You'd expect the classrooms to be equally chaotic - but when I observed a second-grade group, they were calm and focused.

The secret? A teacher told me they try lots of methods, but one of the most important is their daily "breathing buddies" session, where each child lies on the floor, puts a small stuffed animal on their belly, and watches how it rises as they breath in, and falls as they breath out. They count one-two-three on the in breath and out breath, and after just a few minutes of the exercise get up feeling calm and focused.

Studies of the impact of similar mental workouts find that it not only helps kids focus on their school work better, but children act more emotionally mature, better able to handle upsets. The technical name for this skill is 'cognitive control'. Research finds this single ability predicts a child's adult financial success and health better than either their IQ or their family's wealth.

The same concentration game can be adapted to older age groups - even for teens. There's a special need for such help in the teen years, because of a gap between key brain systems in their growth rate. In teens the reward system leaps ahead, making them more impulsive and distracted, while the systems for thinking about consequences - and inhibiting that impulse - lags behind.

Whatever the age, the effect is the same: kids become better able to concentrate, feel calmer, and are less distracted and impulse-driven. Teacher's love kids who have these abilities: it makes them ready to learn.

Educators can incorporate easy mental workouts in the classroom with a series of Focus posters, also from More Than Sound.