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My boys (aged 7 and 9) have had issues with self-reminder and focus. For almost two years now, we have had regular habitual processes to help create the same habitual behaviour in them, but we are still struggling with this, primarily due to focus and self-reminder practices.

So, for example, we have 3 sets of lists to do each day:

Morning List (wakeup at 7am):

  • Get dressed (uniform on school days, regular clothes and "not just underwear!" on weekends/holidays)
  • Breakfast
  • Wash bowls
  • Brush teeth
  • Makes beds

After School List:

  • Change out of uniforms (not just underwear!)
  • Unpack bags
  • Shoes and socks away

Before Dinner List (starts around 5pm):

  • Tidy rooms and beds
  • Tidy Lounge Room
  • Make lunches for tomorrow (for school days)
  • Showers

After dinner is wash plates and brush teeth.

Once these have been done we allow them to go back to what they want to do - play, read, watch TV (depending on the time and if their previous behavior allows), etc. However, the only way we seem to get a consistent effort on these tasks is with involved management from us (parents). Obviously there are some days when focus is entirely absent; attitudes are high, etc., but even on good days, we still find ourselves overseeing part of the process; trying to get the boys to think about what they should be doing.

What I have done so far:

  • Written keywords on their hands like "Thinking", "Listening", etc.
  • Spoken about "Think, and Think again", to get them to think about what they are doing, and whether it's what they should be doing (e.g. are they supposed to be doing something else, or are they doing something against the rules, etc), as well as using associative touch to help (i.e. tapping on the forehead when talking about "thinking")
  • Spoken about reward and consequence; and used them as incentive to focus on task (always start with "rewards", then reminded them of potential consequence if non-constructive behaviour continues)
  • Spoken about how negative behaviour makes others feel (this gets an emotional response from them, when they realise how their behaviour upsets us).

For the 9 year old, we have only recently seen this effort paid off - particularly in regard to self-reminder of what is/isn't allowed, and only had to bring attention to "what's the time" when it's time to do lists. However, with the 7 year old, even after going through the entire list of reminders above, (using keywords, reminders, rewards and consequences, etc.), he still needs to be monitored to ensure he is not distracted. At best, he gets his jobs done in 30 minutes, at worst, he needs to be constantly monitored to ensure he gets the List done at all; the former being a rare occurrence and the latter being every other day.

The boys do remember everything we talk about; they can tell me what we talk about when we quiz them, but I'm starting to feel like maybe the monitoring is part of the problem, particularly with the 7 year old. He only does "what he's supposed to" if he believes he's being monitored (i.e. he doesn't want to get caught not doing what he's supposed to be doing). The incentive to do what he's supposed to is "not to get in trouble". We do reward good behaviour, and lately I have been micro managing that as well - when something good happens, a reward is given (if he does his list quickly, he can watch TV, or play outside). When something bad happens, a consequence is given (if he takes something he's not supposed to, he loses his toys for the afternoon, or misses out on dessert after dinner); usually an immediate response to the behaviour, to tie them together.

But again, after at least 12 months of all of this effort; adding to the list of things we do to inspire thought process and focus, we still have to remind and monitor the effort (or lack thereof) to ensure it gets done.

What can we do to help build focus for chores?


Post note: the 7 year old doesn't have issues with focus when it comes to his own activities; he will spend hours playing with Lego, building structures and vehicles, and again with painting and colouring; he has also been involved in outdoor activities, but only loses interest if he doesn't do well.

For example, we go to archery every fortnight, and he will spend an hour with me to complete half of the course, but depending on his performance, he might give up anywhere between the 5th and the 15th target, and I have to entice him to continue with potential rewards ("you might hit the next one, just got to remember what we practiced!" or "If you do the whole course, you get a softdrink and chips for lunch, remember?"

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Don't force it.

I feel a constant mistake I make parenting is subconciously putting adult expectations onto my kids, and being frustrated when they cannot live up to them. You might be at risk of doing the same.

Kids are highly motivated by what they want and not much else. To get them motivated by what you want, you have to amp up the incentives and consequences, and this can easily go to far. If you go too far with extrinsic rewards (money, ice cream), they lose their strength and you have to keep offering more. Going too far with consequences can become damaging for them. Save the extrinsic rewards and consequences for non-negotiable things, like crossing the road safely.

Kids' brains are under-developed; they don't know why they do things, or why they can't remember things. It just is, and while you can train them a little bit at a time, if they aren't ready, they aren't ready.

The flip side of this is, don't stop expecting more from them. Set the expectations to be just a little beyond what they can comfortably do, and then be patient with them. When they nail the next thing, make sure they know they've done what you want, and that you're pleased with them. Genuinely - no sarcasm.

The balance between forcing and not forcing, and finding that healthy pressure requires constant judgement. It depends on the child and on the day, and dozens of other things besides. You have to continuously assess, step forward, step back, reassess. No-one can tell you the right amount, and you can expect to make your share of mistakes.

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