Posted by Dr. Matt Hand on Apr 27, 2021 5:58:29 PM
When it comes to attention and focus, many kids need a total paradigm shift. Instead of abiding by the surface-based approach that has become the norm, it’s essential to consider underlying factors that contribute to children’s lack of focus and address each one holistically.
Improved mental focus in kids can help promote calm behavior, a heightened ability to cope with occasional stress, and improved social skills. Strategies to help kids focus include an integrative approach to diet, nutritional supplements, and exercise, incorporating thinking games and activities, creating a distraction-free environment, and establishing routines with adequate breaks and naps.*
While these aren't always cause concern, the following could be signs of low focus:
The good news is that there are plenty of pure, simple, and highly effective strategies you can use to help your children cultivate better attention, focus, stress-related coping skills, and social savvy.
The following four strategies can be used independently or side by side, depending on the specific age, personality, and needs of your child. Any new supplement should be discussed with your integrative pediatrician.
A whole foods diet should always be the foundation of the body’s nutrient status, and supplements can be used to fill in nutritional gaps or provide beneficial dosing as needed.
The first step to help kids focus is to omit refined sugars, food coloring and dyes, and as many artificial ingredients as possible. If a nutrition label has a long list of difficult ingredients to pronounce, it’s usually best to avoid that product altogether. Instead, stick to the corner of the grocery store where the vegetables, fruits, fish, meats, and healthy fats live.
Especially beneficial for attention and focus are magnesium-rich foods like dark leafy green vegetables (spinach, Swiss chard, kale, and others), pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and cashews. Wild salmon and other fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, eggs with vitamin A and choline, brightly colored fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants, and oysters and pumpkin seeds with zinc are also excellent choices.
Magnesium plays a key role in healthy stress response, and inadequacy can occur in both children and adults due to stress and depleted nutrients in the soil, among other reasons. Children are even more at-risk for magnesium deficiency since many magnesium-rich foods aren’t common kid-friendly food, especially dark, leafy green vegetables.
Supplementing with magnesium is generally considered safe for both the short and long term. Magnesium also supports adequate and quality sleep, which is important for focus.*
Low zinc status has been associated with poor immune health, impaired heavy metal detoxification, and lack of alertness and focus. Zinc inadequacy is also seen in other brain problems in adults and plays a role in dopamine-related brain signaling.
Be sure to check zinc levels and work with your doctor before considering a zinc supplement, as dosage for children is usually quite low and might need to be balanced with other nutrients, like copper.
B vitamins are one of the most commonly used supplements to improve focus and attention in children, although there is some controversy over their efficacy and which B vitamins are best.* Research suggests that low B-vitamin status in pregnant mothers could be passed onto children, possibly contributing to attention and focus problems down the road, making it key for expecting mothers to get plenty of folate.
B6 has received special attention for enhancing kids’ focus, as it helps to convert tryptophan into serotonin, a brain chemical largely responsible for a calm and happy mood.*
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a major player in healthy brain development.* Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in particular comprises part of nerve cell membranes, and studies show that inadequacy could be linked to trouble learning, behavioral difficulties, and lack of focus.
DMG is an amino acid that adds to the methyl pool and may optimize mitochondrial function at a cellular level.* While more research is needed, some integrative doctors have seen success. with this nutritional supplement for general cognitive and neurological health in kids and adults.*
Another important strategy to improve your kid’s focus is reorganizing their day-to-day activities and routines. Unfortunately, the common scenario of sitting all day in a classroom simply doesn’t work well for some children, so ensuring they have plenty of free, creative, unstructured time during and outside of school is essential.
Depending on your child’s age, thinking games like puzzles can be helpful, along with memory and sequencing games. If your child is very active and energetic, finding opportunities to encourage quiet time is important. Let your child experience boredom, challenge them to sit quietly, and teach them relaxation techniques, deep breathing, and positive visualization.
Plenty of physical activity is crucial—research shows that movement in the classroom greatly helps students to focus. This might include running around at the park or playground, getting involved with sports or other organized activities, or having a backup plan on rainy days, like red-light-green-light, freeze tag, or freeze dance.
It’s also well worth considering kids’ gut health in cases of poor focus, attention, mood problems, and lacking social skills. Gut microbiome imbalances can contribute to all of the above, as certain gut bacteria produce chemicals that affect brain neurotransmitters. A diet low in fiber and nutrients, stress, and many other underlying factors can contribute to poor gut health. Working with an integrative doctor or nutritionist to evaluate gut health and develop a personalized plan can help.
When it comes to improving kids’ focus, you must consider and implement strategies that include dietary changes, possible nutritional supplements, exercise, and attention-building exercises and activities.* Addressing a potential gut imbalance is also important, and you’ll want to make sure you’re seeking out the guidance of an integrative pediatrician.
Every child is unique, and finding the best ways to support individual nutritional, physical, emotional, and mental needs is a multifaceted process. While changes might not happen overnight, they are far more likely to be sustainable when all root causes are taken into account.
By Dr. Matthew Hand, DO, Pediatric Nephrologist
 DiNicolantonio, J. J., O'Keefe, J. H., & Wilson, W. (2018). Subclinical magnesium deficiency: a principal driver of cardiovascular ... and a public health crisis. Open heart, 5(1), e000668. https://doi.org/10.1136/openhrt-2017-000668
 Oner, Ozgur, et al. “Effects of Zinc and Ferritin Levels on Parent and Teacher Reported ...” Child Psychiatry & Human Development, vol. 41, no. 4, 18 Aug. 2010, pp. 441–447., doi:10.1007/s10578-010-0178-1.
 Takeda A. Zinc homeostasis and functions of zinc in the brain. Biometals. 2001 Sep-Dec;14(3-4):343-51. doi: 10.1023/a:1012982123386. PMID: 11831464.
 Schlotz W, Jones A, Phillips DI, Gale CR, Robinson SM, Godfrey KM. Lower maternal folate status in early pregnancy is associated with childhood hyperactivity and peer problems in offspring. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2010 May;51(5):594-602. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02182.x. Epub 2009 Oct 28. PMID: 19874428; PMCID: PMC2862762.
 Mousain-Bosc M, Roche M, Rapin J, Bali JP. Magnesium VitB6 intake reduces central nervous system hyperexcitability in children. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Oct;23(5):545S-548S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2004.10719400. PMID: 15466962.
 Stevens LJ, Zentall SS, Abate ML, Kuczek T, Burgess JR. Omega-3 fatty acids in boys with behavior, learning, and health problems. Physiol Behav. 1996 Apr-May;59(4-5):915-20. doi: 10.1016/0031-9384(95)02207-4. PMID: 8778886.
Subscribe to get email notifications about the latest Davinci blog posts