Children have a natural curiosity. They’re built to learn. So, even during challenging—pandemic—times, we can help them create the right conditions for, and remove obvious obstacles from, getting the most out of their innate need to learn.
We can help instill in our children a sense of confidence and satisfaction through a combination of psychological, behavioural, and nutritional approaches to create an optimal environment to facilitate learning.
You have the power to make learning fun and interesting, starting from an early age.
Set achievable goals
Children need to know that what is expected of them is achievable. Instilling confidence allows them to build on existing skills and reduce anxiety, so they’re not afraid to take the next step.
Match materials to their abilities
Make sure the learning material is appropriately matched to their ability, and reinforce their efforts with praise. If kids need extra help grasping basic concepts first, it’s worth scaling down the material until they have a good mastery of the foundational concepts.
Share your own passion
Sharing material that you’re personally interested in or excited about can also help draw them in, as children feed off and respond to your energy. If you love science, or literature, or history, involve your kids by reading children’s books on these topics.
Tell a story
Children love narrative, so use materials that tell a story to pull them in, such as a children’s-level biographical tale or a historical event told as a story. If your child expresses an interest in their own topic, find resources that expand on this.
Children thrive on routine and predictability. Mrs. Prezelj, an experienced elementary school teacher for more than 30 years, says that “the entire first month of the [typical] school year is spent establishing routines.”
Create consistent study times
To create a habit or routine, set a consistent time of day for studying and schoolwork. This will help to head off arguments and resistance. The same goes for bedtime and outdoor time, both of which are important contributors to optimal brain functioning.
Problems with schoolwork?
When asked about resistance to doing schoolwork, Prezelj says it’s important to get to the root of why the task is difficult for them. When you know the root of the problem, it’s much easier to find a solution.
- Is it because the material is too hard and they’re frustrated?
- Is it because they find it hard to sit still for long, and they need frequent short breaks?
- Is it because they’re tired, perhaps because they didn’t sleep well?
- Is it because there are too many distractions around them?
Lifestyle for a healthy nervous system
Cognitive function depends on regulation of the nervous system through physical activity, sleep, nutrition, and limited exposure to artificial stimulants. A wealth of data shows that ensuring adequate sleep and physical activity is crucial for sustained attention, impulse control, emotional regulation, and working memory.
Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines
The recommendations for children and youth aged five to 17 years are
- at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day
- no more than two hours of recreational screen time per day
- nine to 11 hours of sleep per night
Playing outside is important
A 2018 review of 68 studies found that “exposure to urban nature compared to urban built environments improved multiple measures of cognitive function or development, including attention or attentional capacity and working memory.”
Sugary drinks and snacks, which are associated with cognitive dysfunction, also act as temporary stimulants. The large National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys found that the highest sources of energy (calories) for American children and teens was from “grain desserts,” pizza, and soda, which are low in beneficial nutrients, but high in solid fats and/or added sugars.
In animal models, these dietary factors are associated with “behavioural impairments in multiple cognitive domains, including anxiety-like behaviour, learning and memory function, reward-motivated behaviour, and social behaviour.”
In another study, early childhood consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with lower mid-childhood verbal scores, while fruit consumption was associated with higher cognitive scores in early and mid-childhood.
Clearly, food matters
To help support more stable energy, mood, and attention, start by reducing sources of refined sugar, including soda, fruit juice, desserts, and candy.
It can also help to increase foods that have blood glucose-regulating effects, including whole fruits, fibre-containing grains such as oats and brown rice, and proteins. In children who are pickier eaters or of a thinner build, providing healthy snacks may help stabilize blood glucose.
When supplements can help
Supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D has been shown to improve cognitive function in some children. Always check with your health care practitioner to see if supplementation is right for your child.
A meta-analysis of seven randomized controlled trials (RCTs) including 534 youth with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) found that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids improved ADHD clinical symptom scores. In three RCTs, omega-3 supplementation improved cognitive measures associated with attention specifically.
Another meta-analysis of four RCTs involving 256 children with ADHD receiving treatment with methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin) found that adjunctive supplementation with vitamin D improved ADHD total scores, inattention scores, hyperactivity scores, and behaviour scores.
Recommended screen times by age
|Age||Daily screen time|
|Under 2 years||No screens|
|2 to 5 years||≤1 hour|
|5 to 17 years||≤2 hours|
The importance of limiting screen time
A cohort of 4,524 children aged eight to 11 years were evaluated according to the three parameters outlined in the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth.
The study found that adherence to screen time recommendations (no more than two hours per day) was associated with better cognitive function. Meeting both the screen time and sleep recommendations was associated with less impulsive behaviours on all dimensions.
Excessive screen time at younger ages (three to five years) has been associated with poorer performance on developmental screening tests assessing behaviour, cognition, and social development later in life. For older children, while devices are certainly important learning tools, they should be used judiciously.