Dad Tips: Teaching your kids focus and self-control

The importance of teaching children self-control and focus

Child reading book isolatedIn her book, “Mind in the Making,” Ellen Galinsky discusses the seven essential life skills all children need to be well-rounded and ready for in school and life. The first essential skill she outlines is focus and self-control.

Galinsky’s study revealed that 35 percent of 10 to 18 year olds (5th through 12th graders) felt stressed often or very often. These children also felt their parents were themselves frequently stressed. Stress can be induced by multiple reasons, but a common account is that there is just so much going on in daily life: multi-tasking, scheduling conflicts, multiple commitments and distractions.

Unsurprisingly, it can be difficult for children to pay attention to one task when there are so many others competing for their attention. This is especially true for children who have to spend their days in several locations ranging between home, day care, school, relative care, running errands and riding in the car. Researchers find that such ongoing stress makes it more difficult for children to focus and maintain self-control.

Conversely, children who can successfully manage stress better have better focus and are able to maintain self-control. Focus, which includes paying attention and concentrating on a certain activity, is particularly important when children are young. According to a 2012 study conducted at Oregon State University, children who pay attention, follow directions and complete tasks generally do better than their counterparts later in life.

Self-control refers to having power or control over one’s own actions. It is about the ability to resist distractions, regulate one’s own emotions, inhibit impulses, delay gratification and plan ahead.  It also means that an individual is able to distinguish right from wrong. Children who do not make choices about their own behaviour, but instead rely on other children, parents, teachers, or adults to make choices for them, do not learn self-control. These children may follow others’ bad choices and not take responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour.

Studies indicate that kids with poor self-control and planning abilities are more likely to have aggressive behaviour problems (Raaijmakers et al 2008; Ellis et al 2009). They are also more likely to experience anxiety and depression (Martel et al 2007; Eisenberg et al 2010). Over the long term, impulsive kids are more likely to become obese, more likely to smoke, and more likely to become dependent on alcohol or drugs (Sutin et al 2011; Moffit et al 2011).

Dad Tips

In this world of distraction and external influences, it is important for dads to help their children develop focus and self-control. Here are some suggestions:

Remove distractions
Media is one of the biggest distractions of the modern age. Limit your children’s time spent consuming media. Do not allow television and gaming systems in a child’s room. Make their room a place for productive activities. Other distractions such as the presence of other siblings may make it difficult for children to focus on an assignment or household chore. Give a task where they must learn to work together or choose solo activities that separate them.

Teach children to deal with wanting something they can’t have
Often, young children are easily upset when their needs or wants are not met immediately. Almost daily, children encounter many objects, toys and activities that they are attracted to. Many children will not know how to handle their frustration when told “no” or “later” by their dads. Teach children skills to handle feelings associated with wanting something that they cannot have. Ask them to say “I would like to have ______ but I can’t right now. Next, get them to think about what alternative choices they have, such as finding something else to do, waiting their turn, or doing chores to earn money to buy one. Choices empower children by enabling them to be a part of decision making processes. Finally, encourage them to act out their best choice.

Play games that require attention
Games can teach valuable skills to growing children. A productive game requires attention and self-control. Dads can try playing a memory game with young children using objects, such as toy cars, that are already have around the house. Collect three to five small toys or objects and describe each one to your child as you place them in a line on the floor or table. Tell your child to take their time and look at each one carefully. When they are finished, have them turn around and take one object away. Ask them to turn around and identify the missing object. Other possibilities for games targeted at older children include “Charades” where strong communication is required.

Set time for homework
Homework is an excellent way to help children pay attention and focus. It requires them to sit still for an extended time and concentrate on a problem. A good time frame for homework is two hours after school. This allows children time to play and wind down. Scheduling time immediately after school makes it difficult because they have already spent hours sitting at school.  Designate specific areas for homework and studying. During a homework session, watch for signs of frustration. If little or no learning is taking place, step in and simply halt the homework for the evening.

Give kids a break
If you ask people to complete two tasks in row, both of which require self-control, their performance on the second task is usually worse. Why? One popular account is that as self-control gets used up during the day, people lack the energy to keep going. Another account, proposed by Michael Inzlicht and his colleagues (2014), is that our brains are designed to seek a kind of balance between hard work and seeking out easy rewards. An individual who sticks with the same old work routine without taking a break is likely to miss important changes in the environment. By taking time out to play and explore, individuals increase their chances of discovering new opportunities.  Both accounts suggest that if you ask kids to go straight from one unpleasant duty to the next, their self-control is likely to suffer. Giving kids a break can help them re-charge and enhance their learning. Studies suggest that kids learn faster when lessons are shorter and separated by some downtime.

Keys to helping your children develop focus, self control will require sensitivity in the selection of age-appropriate goals for children to develop these life skills, adopting flexible approaches and changing strategies as your child develops greater independence and capacity for self-regulation and responsibility.


  1. Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind in the making. (1st ed., pp. 1-50). New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  2. Spencer, C. (2013). Success skills for children: focus and self control. Parenting.
  3. Innis, G. (2013). Children learn focus and self-control through daily interactions. Michigan State University Extension.
  4. Teaching Young Children Self-Control Skills: Information for Parents and Educators. The National Association of School Psychologists
  5. Dewar, G. (2011). Teaching self-control: evidence-based tips. Parenting Science.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

Categories: Ages and Stages

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