[59] Improving your child’s focus and concentration, with Dr. Thomas Dannhauser

Improving your child's focus and concentration

The ability to concentrate is the key factor in determining overall school, university, and career success. It is, therefore, crucial for health and wellbeing.

About Dr. Thomas Dannhauser

Dr. Thomas Dannhauser is a medically qualified consultant and research psychiatrist with more than 20 year's clinical experience in the NHS, and 15 years researching the brain. He is the founder of Smart Start Minds, which provides a pioneering combination of comprehensive concentration health screening, unbiased attention testing, the most advanced neurofeedback training methods and psychological methods. This approach is so successful, maximising key learning skills, physical and emotional health to help students reach their full potential, that Smart Start Minds can guarantee lasting results.

What we explore on the show

  • The three factors that affect your ability to concentrate (and which one you can do the most about)
  • The importance of short-term motivations in keeping young people focused on their studies
  • The optimum way to study to improve concentration, get results and avoid burnout
  • Why access to technology during study time is a bad idea
  • Plus much, much more…


Websites and resources mentioned in the show

Smart Start Minds Website – quote ‘extraordinary50' to get 50% off your concentration assessment.

Smart Start Minds Facebook page

Smart Start Minds LinkedIn page


Podcast Transcript

Lucy: Welcome to the School Success Formula Dr Thomas Dannhauser.

Thomas: Hi Lucy. Thank you very much for inviting me to your podcast.

Lucy: And it's absolutely fantastic to have you here. So firstly, Thomas, could you tell us a little bit about how you came to be helping students and people in general, but particularly students to focus better, and concentrate better?

Thomas: Sure. Um, for, for me it's quite a personal story. Um, I was doing my PhD in Mental Health Sciences at University College London and I was studying brain functioning during attention tasks and my sister called one day and told me that her son, so my nephew, had been diagnosed with ADHD and she wanted to know if there was a newer solution that would have less of the undesirable effects, uh, that medication have. So I looked into the available research and we found this technique which is called neurofeedback training and it looked plausible to me from a scientific point of view, although it was still very new, so we decided to travel to Switzerland where we were trained by some of the pioneers of this technique and she went back to South Africa where she was living at the time with her son and started training him and I brought it back to the UK and started doing some research and 15 years later we helped him. Um, we've helped more than 20,000 students with the, with the product that we built around it and we are now planning to find a way to offer it to all of the students in the UK, so preferably starting with, with the young ones, so when they, when they start in year one. Um, so that's really shall I say the shortest summary that I can give of my, of my journey.

Lucy: Wow, that's amazing. So what was the personal impact on your nephew?

Thomas: So, so he, I mean he struggled quite a bit, uh, um, before he stopped getting help and the, you know, the outcomes for, for people with Adhd, you know, varies but it can be quite poor. But considering what he started with, he's doing remarkably well, you know. So he has managed to complete school is completed further studies and you know, he's working full time. Let's put that into perspective for you. So if you think about people – let's not just not talk about ADHD; ADHD is useful to talk about because it's an extreme example and it's useful for, for research and of course to help people with ADHD specifically. If you talk about the wider population, you talk about the 20 percent of, of, of students who struggle most to concentrate, for them the, the risk of unemployment and, er, living in poverty is 22 percent.So… so, you know, I think it's a, it's always a good outcome if you can help someone to actually, you know, to have a, um, in many ways an ordinary life shall I say, which is extraordinary for people who struggle with concentration problems.

Lucy: Yeah, that's fantastic. I've actually interviewed someone on the podcast before about ADHD and helping children with that condition to actually improve educational outcomes. And so it's really fascinating that your work has really helped those kinds of children as well as those who are more neurotypical. Um, so tell us a little bit more about how your process works and how you go about thinking about and helping a child to actually improve their focus and concentration.

Thomas: So I think an important point to, to, to understand is that the, so when we talk about ADHD, we say the prevalence is say up to six percent depending on where you, um, where you read. The… It doesn't, it's not binary, it's not that suddenly people have ADHD and then you know, one, one notch further they don't; it's a gradient. So we, so people's attention, yeah, they're on a scale. So we, we found that the first sort of problem that, that parents have and that schools share as well is that they don't actually have a measure of a child's attention ability and, and that's yeah, that's quite interesting because everything that you do at school depends on your attention ability. So the assumption is made that children can concentrate and then suddenly when they start struggling to learn that, you know, a closer, closer look is sort of warranted.

Thomas: So we think that it should be the other way around. We think that children's attention ability should be determined before they start mainstream schooling and that we should then optimise the attention ability of those who clearly are going to struggle with learning. I want to tell you how accurate the predictions are with that. So, so in the last eight years, um, some fascinating studies have been published that have followed people up for up to 50 years. So from around two to three years old up to 50 years and they all show the same result. And that is that your concentration ability or your attention skills is the main determinant of academic success, the likelihood of going to university, the difficulty of the degree or course that you will select, your seniority in your career. And for men it predicts their lifetime earnings at the age of 47. So you can imagine they do the studies up to 50 years, so they followed them when they last published up to 47 years and at that stage, the difference between the top 20 percent of concentration performance and the lower 20 percent in current UK terms was £380,000.

Lucy: Wow. Okay. That's really putting a number on it, isn't it?

Thomas: That is. And that's why, you know, that's that. That's why that work is so compelling. So, so what's, what, what, what you know now I discovered this myself as you know, but I wasn't told this at medical school, we only discovered this in the last few years, is that the things that parents think are important for their children's success, such as how much money they have to spend on private school and tuition, you know, how clever the parents are, how you know, how, how aspirational they are, how hard they push their children and the school that they go to, the teachers they have and the resources of the school, all of that combined accounts for less than just their concentration ability. And you can measure this very accurately from the age of three and a half onwards.

Lucy: So, you know, in the job that I do and you know, I see so many parents are really aspirational for their children. And I often hear, you know, that there's problems with focus and concentration, but I see parents throwing money at all sorts of other solutions and um, it's fascinating that your focus and concentration makes such a big difference and, but I can believe it. And you know, I often say to people, you know, that it's not the school that's going to make the difference. It's the actually your child actually getting down to it and focusing on what they need to do that's gonna make the real difference. So your science is backing up, you know, my experience there.

Thomas: Yes. It's, it's, it's very interesting. So, so what we find is in a working, working closely with teachers in schools is that children who have a lot of support while they are learning, so during school they find it difficult when they go into the adult world, shall we say, where that support is not available and the other way around. So children who are from disadvantaged communities but have superior concentration skills, they find their way, you know, to, to better to better things. So, um, and then there's quite a few studies that have actually, that have looked at that.

Lucy: I heard something the other day about students, who go to private boarding schools, erm, struggle a lot more when they go to university because there's no longer that level of structure and imposed upon them that that was at school. Whereas students, who go to comprehensive schools, where there's a lot less structure, particularly outside the core school hours, they actually find it a lot easier to adapt university life. So it's basically the same thing we're talking about there isn't it?

Thomas: That's it, yes. So, so they'd become independent learners. So irrespective of the circumstances they find a way. Um, so, so, so, so I actually, so, so if, if I explain to you, I'm a, a consultant psychiatrist and, and I, I worked for many years mostly with adults and I realised that even for older adults, you know, because people are now concerned about dementia and your ability to concentrate sort of affects your life all the way through. So um, as a, as an individual and as a company we decided that we want to focus on improving the one thing that we think will make the most substantial difference to any child in terms of learning. So if we can teach them this one skill, it will have the largest effect on improving their potential. So that's why why we've decided to start Smart Start Minds and that's why we focus on concentration if you want to put it that way.

Thomas: And to answer your question about how we go about it, the, when you think about someone's concentration ability, you want to start thinking actually really what happened to them before they were born. So children who are born with low birth weight or premature are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with a concentration problem, usually ADHD. So we want to find out with our screening process that we do, which is, uh, which is questionnaire-based if children had any physical health problems up to the stage where we see them, that could explain why they might struggle to concentrate. And for the same token, we also want to know about emotional health problems. And so I don't know if you, if you're aware, but children can be exposed to obviously a large number of emotional stresses, but there's already a list that is ranked that will tell you how likely a stressor is to cause emotional symptoms. Did you know that?

Lucy: No, no I didn't.

Thomas: Yeah. So, in the right hand it's, it's fairly easy to start making predictions about if a child might be affected by, you know, depression or anxiety. So for instance, losing a parent, you know, say if they die and that's the highest risk for a child developing an emotional problem, then next to that is parents divorcing, then it's a child having or sorry, a parent having a chronic serious illness. So if I, so, so getting back to what you were going with your question about how we go about it is we collect all of this information during our evaluation to get as accurate picture as we possibly can of what might have affected a child up to that stage in terms of their attention and what potential there is to fix things that will have a quick results to improve their, their attention and then what we add to that, which has become more important recently is environmental factors.

Thomas: So if you think about Internet and gaming addiction, you know, that wasn't the same concern a few years ago because of the availability and how these games are designed now, social media and they're highly addictive. And in our, uh, at our training centre, the largest number of… the largest proportion of teenagers come to us have a problem with Internet and gaming addiction. So that's, you know, so that's how they develop an attention problem. But if you put these together, so the physical health, emotional health and environmental health, then we get a very good idea of, of, of what, what, uh, what happened in the run up to somebody presenting to us and I also want to stress is that the majority of our clients, the vast majority don't have ADHD. Most of them are aspirational children from aspirational families who just want to do the best that they can. Um, and we still pick up regularly pick up with our return screening, uh, uh, system, uh, things that can be solved at the very significantly improve, uh, improve attention quite quickly.

Lucy: So presumably the environmental factors are the easiest things to fix because you, I mean, you can't put it right if someone's lost a parent as a young child and um, you know, mental health problems are notoriously difficult to treat, aren't they? So environmental factors are the easiest thing to fix?

Thomas: It is actually in some ways, I'll tell you a story because we spoke about stories earlier. So I went to see one of our clients at home when we were building out our new training program, the Concentration Plus training program, and I went to this young, uh, she was seven years old, young girl's home and met with her parents and as I walked in the house and the television was on very loudly so her father apologised and he said that her grandfather who has dementia and watches the television all day long, he's hearing impaired and it doesn't matter how many times they tell him to turn it down, he forgets so and I immediately thought, you know, it'd be difficult to study with that, you know, in the background, especially if it's speech because people naturally listen to speech. And he then showed me her, her study environment and it looked like they took great care because they'd put her on a special table in the dining room. But in front of a display that had, you know, there must have been 100 family photographs there. So that's the thing that she was looking at when she was studying, so between the distraction from the, from the, from the loud television and all of these memories that are triggered every time that she looks at these photographs, you know, I think that she found that harder than most children to concentrate on her work. So what we did with her, this, we just moved her to an upstairs room and I asked him just to get some ear plugs for her and that really made an immediate difference. So we have a, a list of things like that that parents can look at on our website under the section called ‘tools', which I'll tell you about later, which are really quick fixes, but a but a steady environment. So the sitting at the same place and sterile, you know, so that there's no real distraction in your vision is a good start.

Lucy: Fantastic. Okay. Well my next question was going to be whether you have any tips or exercises that people can do to improve focus and concentration. So we talked a bit about the actual study environment and I know that's something that I get questions a lot about from parents and one thing I advise students to do is to create a vision board to kind of inspire them and keep them motivated. So in the context of what you've just told me, would you advise them not having that where they can actually see it while they're studying, but just having it easily accessible when they actually need a pick me up if you like?

Thomas: Yeah, I would, I personally would, would separate the two. So I would say have the vision board somewhere where you go and sit and you actually think through it and you imagine it and you start building it, you know, in your imagination. That's, that's the mechanism behind the visualising success, shall we say. Um, I think in terms of, of, of when you are studying, I would suggest the list of, you know, a checklist of what you are doing so that you have it broken down and the motivation comes from ticking it off and going, I've done that, I've done that, I've done that. So, so that would be my, that would be my advice in terms of that.

Lucy: Okay. So in terms of a study environment, I mean a lot of things, you know, stationery and all the kind of study aids that people have are quite colourful or quite pretty and I think people think that's quite motivational. Do you think that's actually helpful in terms of concentration?

Thomas: I think it's helpful in, in acquiring them to sell them if they are, um, you know, if they're bright and they're catchy, you know, a trip to the, to, to, to the stationers, and my daughter likes Smiggle, you know, it certainly, you know, motivating too to actually get to get it. But I don't think that that's enough to actually, you know, to see it through. Um, so, so I think the motivation is very important. Um, so the, there's a, this, there's a uh, a very good TED talk in a book by, I think it's Simon Sinek, which is about… Start With Why. Yeah. And I think it's the same for everyone at every age. So if you can, if you can, if you can put a child in the picture as we say with why it's important for them to study, then they will be motivated. And what's very interesting about is that children obviously do not have the same experience that you and I have. So to try and to motivate them with, you know, big life goals, is not going to work. They simply can't imagine it. So it's got to be more proximal goals.

Lucy: So, what age children are you talking about there, are you talking about the year ones that you're focusing on working with? Because most of the people listening are going to be families with teenagers. So, and at that point people are starting to think about the kind of longer term goals, aren't they?

Thomas: Do you know this, our experience is that they don't. And I'm, I'm, you know, I, I, I, I'm actually quite surprised about this. So. So when we do our training program, the Concentration Plus program, we do more than training concentration, you know there's a substantial amount of, of, of coaching in there as well. Because, you know, we, we've got to fix the why shall I say, to, to, to, to motivate young people and when we asked them what do they want to do in life and what their plans are and if they know what it will take to get there, I'm, I'm mostly surprised at how poorly informed they are. And so we'd actually run a few workshops to offer, um, motivational skills and sort of, I'd say planning skills to teenagers. I'm, I'm not, it's not my area of expertise, so, you know, so, so don't quote me on it.

Thomas: I'll tell you my opinion about it. I think that that life has changed very fast and that the traditional roles are either not attractive or are changing again so fast that teenagers find it difficult to think about what they want to do. So if you think about, you know, professions in a way, do they want to become a something? I think it's more useful in a way to think about what do they want to be doing in terms of, of contributing to society. So when I speak to teenagers, I said, you know, what, what motivates you? So we had a, one of our recent clients, she said that she likes defending people and so she finds that she, you know, if somebody is falsely accused at school in, if something like that, that, that, that she's, that she's moved by it. It wasn't difficult to actually to say to her, well why don't you, why don't you think about studying law because that is so, so, so it's, it's finding examples like that that really gets to the core drivers for the teenager that is it.

Thomas: And some of them don't have them, you know, despite us looking really hard and it's not because there's anything the matter with them, it's just, I, I personally believe that you have to have some forming dramatic experiences to, to make you think about life in a different way. So that, that, uh, you know, that sort of trauma that makes you grow. So, you know, if, if parents say to me, they know their child, you know, they're going to take a gap year and it's because they know they don't have a focus yet or they're not motivated by something, I think that's a very good idea because it's good to go and see the rest of the world to see how privileged you are in the UK. Um, and then you, either want to help somewhere else, or you want to protect what you have, but it's very closely related to concentration.

Thomas: So, so if, if you have someone who is highly motivated but really struggles to concentrate, they'll still do relatively well in life because motivation can overcome a, um, poor cognition or just concentration. Many success stories of people who have dyslexia who do very well. It works the other way around as well. So if you are a student with, with superior concentration ability will do well despite not being really motivated to do so. They don't care if you know these are, you know, we all know them. They are students that just seem to do so well. They don't, you know, they're not really particularly interested in it. It's just easy for them to do. The question you've gotta ask is when it does get hard, who will keep going?

Lucy: Yeah. Well, that's interesting because actually the morning we're recording this, I've just had a discussion in my Facebook group with parents about students who, you know, whether whether they, whether their children actually, you know, a really resilient when things get difficult or if there's sometimes resilient or if they just give up in the face of difficulty and um, it's really interesting seeing that and saying, you know, it's growth mindset, isn't it, whether, whether the ones, you know, when they hit something difficult, whether they're going to push on and push through it or whether they, well, it's partly growth mindset isn't it or and it's partly down to motivation, but I think the two go quite strongly hand in hand because if, if you, if you, if you really want an outcome, you're going to push much, much harder to achieve it aren't you and therefore have more of a growth mindset around it.

Thomas: I agree with you. It's, it's, it's interesting. So the work that the, that we've developed most on our side is around self talk. So when you talk about mindset, your mindset develops through your speech, your internal speech and internal conversation that you have and the… and that conversation, that self talk you by-and-large inherit from your parents and the people who you are closely associated with, with when you were young, and then as you get older, the people you spend a lot of time with .

Lucy: That's fascinating because you don't actually know what's going on inside somebody else's head. How do you inherit that?

Thomas: So the way that self is talked about it, and I'm going to summarise some groundbreaking work that was done by professor Russell Berkeley and in the US, he, he is an expert on ADHD and on on related cognition. Now a child develops speech because they make a sound that they get rewarded for. So it gets reinforced. So if they make a sound, it sounds like ‘dada'. Then there's smiles and encouragement and they'll do it again. And as they keep on making sounds that approximate words that we know, they get more encouragement. And that's how all of us learned to speak. At at, at this stage of development, children say everything out loud that they can speak and that they think. I usually tell people, I say this was a very obviously my daughter because she didn't stop talking for about two years around the age of four to five yeah, so there, you know, you knew what she was thinking because she said it and then there was so, so children learn that there's some advantage to either speaking quietly or speaking internally and that speech, that internal conversation that that you have when it relates to a regulating your mood and directing your attention and your actions, it's called self talk. Now if you have a little girl, she runs and she falls down and she grazes her knee and she runs to her mother and she's crying and she says, I'm hurt. And her mother says to her, “Darling, let's have a look… Well, there's no blood. It doesn't look broken. How about we clean it and we have a cup of tea and see how you feel after that.” So whilst the mother is calm and she was doing that and she's saying that the little girl is internalising that. So the next time when she falls and her mother is not there, she repeats what her mother said, she said, no blood, it's not broken, I'll wash it and have a cup of tea. Now if, if you have a different mother and she has more of a, a, a, a catastrophic reaction and says, you know, it's really terrible. I don't know what to do, you know, let's take it to a and e and, and it becomes, er… So let's say that there's more activity than, than might be required, then the child will learn different self talk phrases around getting hurt and what is required. So it's incredibly powerful. So with motivation and with concentration, you can actually, you can find out how somebody directs their behaviour and their concentration with self talk by making a task hard enough. So, um, you know, you, before you and I started today, the equipment that you use didn't work as you intended it to work. So you started talking about it. So you, uh, what to be say externalising your self talk because it supports it. So, so the research that looks into this says that if you make any task, even though it's familiar to someone, if you make it hard enough, they'll start talking out loud.

Lucy: That's fascinating, because yeah, I was recently working with my website developer and we had quite a big problem on the website that we were developing and um, I was on the phone with him and he was trying to work out on the phone and I would have been talking through what I was doing, but he was absolutely silent. I was like, is he still there? What's he doing? Kind of panicking because he wasn't actually talking about what he was doing, but he was obviously dealing with it in a very different way to how I would deal with it.

Thomas: Yeah. So, so the, I think the most useful concept of attention concentration as we call it, it is the conversation that you are having in real time about your environment and about what you are doing. So if I'm, if I'm doing a new task, it's a lot of speech because I've got to go through the instructions and the word for word, you know, say for instance you're talking about a website that's completely new to you, you've got to find out what everything is,you've got to learn the names and there's a lot of speech, but when you know how to do something, you can use shorthand for it and it becomes telegram style. So if I have to ask you to explain how you make a cup of tea and you know, in a very short sort of like a summary, you would say you get a cup, you get a tea bag, you add water, you have to take it out, you add milk. So, so that's the shorthand. And so if you're thinking about how you work on attention, because we, we, we want to help teenagers who are working. So say they're doing a task, you know, they're doing, say they're doing a uh, they've got to write an essay. So their concentration on it is the story that they are telling themselves in real time about what they are doing. So if they start off by saying, okay, I've got to do this essay because I don't want to be late. Okay, so there's your motivation, they don't want to be late, they want to avoid a poor outcome. It could be different if you say because I want to get a distinction. And so that's the high level why. That's why they're doing it. And then you go to the next. I said okay, so I've got it, I've got to read the, you know, the work that's set, I'm going to read the instructions. So they read the instructions and then they start developing the story around it. So say for instance they've got to write an essay about concentration. They'd go “okay, so what do I know about concentration? Not that much. Maybe I should go and look at some information. So maybe I'll start on Wikipedia.” So, but even if they are not saying that out loud, if you asked them to say it out loud, they would just be saying it out loud, but that's the story that they are, that they are telling themselves and when that story gets interrupted by a message from Whatsapp or somebody coming in, then that's the distraction.

Thomas: So, so that to me is a very useful way to explain attention to people. So even if you do an attention task like, uh, like we used to test attention, um, there was a little story about it so you don't have to talk a lot because it's a very easy task, but it's very boring. So you've got to make up a story that keeps you in the task. Otherwise you get distracted. So, so think if people understand that. And so, so, so, so if you start a task and you say, what is the story here for me, then I think it will make it easier. But you've got to practice it.

Lucy: Yeah, I know I can relate to that. So some of the tasks that I have to do my work, I find boring. Like setting up processes and systems and things like that. I, I, I have this overview of what I want it to do, but actually making it happen, clicking on links and buttons and copying and pasting and doing all those things I find really tedious. But I have to keep that end goal in mind and to make myself do it. And I, you know, it, it, it's that end goal that really, really keeps me focused and makes me keep it done. And also the idea that I can do something more interesting when I've finished so is that the kind of thing that you're talking about there?

Thomas: That's it. So the why is every time, so if you're doing it and you get, you get demoralised, or bored, why am I doing this? Oh yeah, it's because I'm going to achieve this, which is absolutely worth it. And that bit with the self talk – that again brings us back to, to self talk in, in relation to, to, to um, managing your retention and your and your emotions… If you, if you're saying to yourself that this is really boring and I don't like it, then that will become true so the more you say it, the more it will become true if you make it neutral. So if you just say, I'm just working on this to complete it, then then that's what you do. There's a, there's a, a, a, a very interesting study that we found recently because we are developing an elite sports solution based on the neurofeedback training and the studies showed that if you, if you get people to cycle, you can improve the power output. So there so, so how far or how fast they can do it by 28 percent by simply changing this self talk from negative to positive. So your self talk can be negative. It can be neutral or it can be positive. But if you say to any athlete that you can improve their performance by 28 percent, that is… There is nothing like that. So yeah. So it's absolutely, it's, it's, you know, the power of it is huge. So if you can apply the same thing to, to your studies and to work that you have the, the, the self talk and it's positive, then you will have much better results. There's no doubt about that. And again, you know, this is not something new you can, you know, it's, it's, there's, there's lots of publications and supported going back probably 40, 50 years. What's been difficult is to find a way to actually scale this so that we can share it with more people.

Thomas: So in terms of improving your concentration. So what do we do with our concentration training program is we improve the, the, the muscle, shall I say, the endurance, the ability to concentrate and we improve how you can apply it. And getting back to your question about how people can, people can improve their concentration. There are limits to what you can do as an individual. Um, if you, if you start thinking about the methods that we use. So we, our neurofeedback method enables us to look at specific areas in the brain in real time and how active they are. And the ones we generally look at are ones that should be active during a specific task and by teaching our clients how to activate that area during the task, their attention improves and you… No, that it's just something that you cannot do on your own, but once you've done it, it's like having a, it's like having a coach or like having a personal trainer in the gym. Once they've got you to that next level, then you can maintain it yourself.

Lucy:  Okay. So what I found, and I actually had a go on your bit of kit a few weeks ago and I, I have this thing around my head and I think it was measuring blood oxygen saturation, while I was focusing on a task. Is that right? That's right. Okay. And um, I, I didn't notice. I notice in myself that when I, I, I would almost make a decision to switch focus when I'm doing something and when I was doing this task with this thing around my head, I, I noticed that that's what was happening. Like if I made a decision to look at something else or think about something else, even that's when you know, the, the, the machine would recognise that I, I wasn't fully focused on the task in front of me, so I've always been quite self disciplined. So the question there is how much is concentration down to self discipline and how much is it down to maybe an inability to concentrate? Like what, what's the difference between those things, really?

Thomas: If I can start with what you said about, about you being aware of your concentration and it was, it's a feeling that you know, that you've got to, that you to do that you get distracted. I will say that it's because you have advanced skills already.

Lucy: So that's metacognition, yes?

Thomas: Yeah, and that's good because most people are not aware of becoming distracted. They just find themselves half an hour later on Facebook or whatever the thing might be, but they can't tell you that they made a decision to do that. So when you learn how to focus deeply, then if you get distracted or if there is a distractor, you have to make a decision. You've got to go, okay, well I've got to really decide do I want to be distracted now or am I going to finish what I'm doing. So, so that's very important that as you say, and it is, it is metacognition. How it actually works in your, in your brain is that when you are doing a task then it's almost like gears you know, engage and they are turning, but when you switch to a different task, it's like changing gear. They have to stop first and then they get going again and it's that stopping that we pick up with the, with the device that we use so we can pick up when, when you change focus, so if you get distracted and also if you get tired, so if it just all slows down and we then have the specific training techniques that then teaches you how to remain on task or how to build your endurance.

Lucy: Okay. So that brings me onto my next question and it's something that people come to me frequently with particularly young, sporty boys and huge frustration from parents that they just can't sit still and concentrate. And I always say to people, you know, if there's a very wide range of amounts of time that people can concentrate for and people who are finding it really difficult, I say start with just 15 minutes. But then there are other people that I say can concentrate for an hour. Very few people I find, can concentrate for longer than that without actually taking a break of some kind. Like how long should parents be expecting their children to be able to concentrate for particularly teenagers, fourteen years and up?

Thomas: So what I advise for students in terms of study routine would be to study for 25 minutes. Then have a five minute break and study again for 25 minutes and have a five minute break. Now the best way to practically get this implemented is to work with an egg timer. So you set it for 25 minutes and when it goes off you stop and on a notepad next to you you make a short note of what you were doing and what you've got to do next so that it's easier for you to pick up from there. During the break, it's best to do something physical. So there's even some evidence now that if you have breaks with younger children and they run around a bit whilst actually do doing the cognitive task, the performance is better when they get back. So it wouldn't be looking at social media, it would be just a physical break, have a look at the garden and because if you get involved in social media or anything like that, then you will find yourself an hour later still on Facebook. So then you do the next 25 minutes and then do the break again.

Lucy: This is music to my ears because this is exactly what I tell students all the time. So I'm so pleased that you're backing me up!

Thomas: And that's it, and it might seem too soon. So you could go, “well, I think I can keep on going”. The difficulty is if you go too long then at the end of that your motivation has gone and then it goes, okay, then I'm going to back. So it's more efficient to have regular, uh, so the theory is that you do it more regularly.

Lucy: I describe it a bit like interval training when you're doing kind of exercise and actually doing repeated bursts with less intense periods in between. It builds your endurance and enables you to go for longer, doesn't it, rather than just going all out and then having to give up?

Thomas: I agree. I think it's a physiological mechanism like that and then you know, there are lots of descriptions in the world of people saying that they found their eureka moment when they weren't actually, you know, fully focused on the task because it was, while they were having a break or under a tree or in a bath, so giving yourself your brain that that opportunity to do some of the processing that's not verbal. You know, so in your, in your subconscious so that when you do sit down you go, ah-ha! Actually I can do it much faster or there's an easier way to do it.

Lucy: And that's why sleep is really important as well isn't it, because some of that goes on while you're sleeping as well.

Thomas:  It's very important and for concentration overall, so I know that you're very interested in nutrition, so I'm not going to cover the same sort of ground, but If you think about how things stack, as they say, you've got to have energy on board and then it's how do you focus it so you've got to have good nutrition. Then you can think that you can start having good concentration skills and then you can apply it to learning. So I, I find it interesting because I listened to your excellent podcast on dyslexia. We constantly have clients coming to us and they say they'd been diagnosed with dyslexia or dyscalculia and then I say, “so, what's your attention like?” And they go, “no-one's ever tested that.” Then I say to everyone, I do not believe that somebody has dyslexia, or dyscalculia or any learning difficulty until their attention has been tested because you require attention to learn all of the other higher level subjects and skills. So it's a good idea, again, getting back to what we said initially to actually get a baseline, because I find it interesting with our students who want… who are aspirational, who want to do well with tuition. You say to them, if you want to make the most of tuition, how about you maximise or optimise your ability to make use of it first, because then when you are being tutored, you only have to spend time acquiring the knowledge, not on managing your attention. So that works out better for everyone. Because yeah, we have a lot of teachers and tutors who tell us that what they mostly do is manage attention.

Lucy: It's so true. It's so true. And this is, you know, a lot of people that I work with also have tutors and I think often, and I think some of the work that tutors do is absolutely amazing, but what I hear from families often is it's kind of sticking plaster over a problem and students can become quite reliant on it and parents, I don't want anybody to take offence from me saying this, but it can be like I'm doing something about this problem so it's okay, rather than actually dealing with the root cause of the problem, which is that your child can't concentrate or they don't know how to study or whatever it is that is going on there.

Thomas: And that touches on, on, on, on, on really the why for us and why we're doing what we're doing and what we're developing what we are is because parents are understandably frustrated because there's lack of access to attention tests and to, the expert skills that can provide and can actually get to a very good summary of a child's potential, and that also guidance on where would you start to improve things? Um, so you know, we regularly say to parents, they say can we do the concentration training with you? We say you can, but we recommend that maybe at this stage a better thing would be to do A, B, or C. So for instance, you know the training that we do take a number of weeks before the effects start taking place. So if somebody is six weeks away from their A Levels, that's not the time to start the training. So it's having that, that, that thorough evaluation that you can actually make the best recommendations for parents, but having it available. So what we provide is available online now. We can do it anywhere if somebody has broadband connection then we can do the evaluation can do the training and we, we tell people internationally and in the UK it's interesting how it's going further outside of London as people hear more about this because it is just simply not available.

Lucy: Yeah. Well that's wonderful. I think this is a good time to mention your special offer for the listeners, would you think?

Thomas: So we would like to offer to support your listeners and we will offer a 50% discount on our evaluation for anyone who, uh, who quotes ‘extraordinary50'. So they just say that and they say that they, uh, they heard about us from your podcast, then we'll offer them a 50% discount on the evaluation when they book with us. And we always offer a 100% money back guarantee. If someone was not satisfied with how we do it, then we will refund them in full.

Lucy: That's amazing. So that, that the evaluation is the first step to see where somebody's at in terms of their concentration and then you build the training plan from there. Is that correct?

Thomas: That is it. And, and the outcome of the evaluation, is not always that we offer the training program as I say, if we, if we find a student who has an emotional problem that we think should be addressed either first or at least along side the training program, then we will suggest that, um, because we want to get the best outcomes, it's not that we want to sell concentration training, that's not what we're about. We're about helping children to maximise their potential. And that's why it's, it's, it really is very comprehensive. The parents are usually quite surprised at how much information we collect an an and how much they learn about, about their children when we share it with them.

Lucy: Yeah, it's amazing. Okay. I think we should begin to draw to a close, then. So I just want to recap some of the tips that you have shared with us. So I think one of the biggest things I've taken away is that controlling the environment and making the environment conducive to concentration is really important. So not having distractions in that environment and like in terms of visual distractions, but also we didn't mention it, but things like smartphones with notifications and all that kind of thing. That's really, really important, isn't it?

Thomas: Very important. So, so I'll very briefly tell you about what we know about smartphones, and about social media. We know that the effects are very powerful on attention so that having a phone next to you that is on and it's delivering messages can be the equivalent to being intoxicated. So having drunk alcohol, um, the effect is still persistent even if that phone is switched off and in another room because people learn to naturally to pay attention to, to, uh, to messages from it. You know, if you, if you speak to mothers who have children, they can hear their child cry when you think it's impossible, but they are primed to it. So we know from research that this is what's happening. Uh, excellent study done by a group in Cambridge showed that for in the UK for children at the age of 14, they'll, on average, spend two hours per day on what we call discretional screen time. If they keep on doing that from the age of 14 to 16, they lose the equivalent of two grade averages. So they were Bs average at 14, they'll be Ds at GCSE and if you do it the other way around, so for every hour more that you just read and don't use devices, you're gaining more than a two grade averages at, um, at GCSE level. So that would be similar for A Level. So it's really important.

Lucy: Now, is that because of the compound effect of losing time on studies, but also the fact that you've trained yourself not to be able to concentrate when you actually are studying? So are there two things going on there?

Thomas: Yeah, but I mean I use the word ‘damage' – I think that it damages concentration, because it teaches you a way of concentrating that doesn't work in school. School is not in a sort of… how you get results in school is not about having an exchange every five seconds with somebody else about what they are doing, what they are thinking. It's about being able to focus on work for a prolonged period of time, you know, process it and deliver something new that's generally it, so, so in a way that a lot of people are using mobile phones and social media is, is the polar opposite of how you produce results in school.

Lucy: So you're training your brain to work differently from how it needs to work to be successful in school by using phones.

Thomas: Yeah, so if we think about running earlier, so obviously we were talking about running earlier, so if you learn how to run a marathon, it's different from running 100 metre sprint. So there's different skills. So. And so school is… Getting results in school is not the same as getting results on your mobile phone.

Lucy:  So, what, what, what is your advice to parents around phones then, because there's huge social pressure on teenagers to use them. So I'm asking you to give parenting advice here, but just from your professional viewpoint, what is your advice – should students be using them?

Thomas: Both as a parent of two children and as a professional, I would say that you've got to set strict boundaries on the time that they are used and what they are used for. So for instance, there are certain games that children should just not be allowed to play at a certain age…

Lucy: Such as?

Thomas: So for instance, Fortnite is, again, it's played by a lot of younger children. Where actually, the theme and how it's played is so exciting to them, the most exciting thing is that you play against other people. So it's that interaction that when they get into it they can't really process it so they can play it physically but emotionally can't process it, and then you have knock on effects on their, on their emotions, but also on their concentration ability. And um, so, so I would say that you're going to stick to the stick to the age restrictions on those and even then, some of them are just ill-advised, shall I say? That's another conversation I'm happy to… I'm happy to have it with you if you want to in future to actually to talk about that. But children and cannot do it themselves. That's the bottom line. You parents have got to set the boundaries. It if it, if you were in a, in a situation any parents who are listening, if they're in a situation where they're frustrated with their teenagers because they are, you know, they're not listening to the boundaries that they're setting. Then you know, it is not going to work. You've got to physically put the restraints in place either with some of the new updates that you have or with some software or by physically removing it because the games and the social media are designed in such a way to be a highly alluring and desirable.

Lucy:  I completely agree with you and it's a big struggle that I see with a lot of parents. But it's one of those things where you've just got to give some tough love is, isn't it really?

Thomas: That's it. And, and, and, and to admit that everyone is …it's only a team effort that will win, so it's not even a point to get angry because you know it's going to happen, just put the physical things in place that will prevent it.

Lucy: Okay. Brilliant. So we've talked about environment and not having it overstimulating so that you can actually focus. We've talked about phones, we've also talked about the importance of motivation in maintaining concentration and things like your mindset and self talk. And is there anything else quickly that you'd like to share with parents before we wrap up for today, Thomas?

Thomas:  I think that it's very useful, and I would go as far as to say it's very important to find out what skills your child has in terms of concentration because it will allow you to help them pace their effort and to improve it. Because as I mentioned at the beginning, it is the main predictor of success. So I think that it's time for, not just for parents, but for society and for schools to start paying attention to attention, so we really make it easy for our young people to do the best that they possibly can.

Lucy: Yeah. Fantastic. Okay. So Thomas, where can people find you if they'd like to take you up on the offer of the 50% off the attention evaluation?

Thomas: Yeah, so that's ‘extraordinary50'

Lucy: Yeah. So where did they go to redeem that? Is there a website or what do they do?

Thomas: Yeah, so our website is smartstartminds.co.uk. All our contact details are there. So anyone who either contacts us through the website, or calls us and mentions ‘extraordinary50' will get the discount. On the website there is additional information under the section on tools. The things we spoke about that study routine there's information about nutrition and about study environment. And if there's any, any of your listeners who want to personally speak to me, if you've got any questions, they can do the same – just come by the website and contact us and we will then in get in touch with, with them.

Lucy: Fantastic. Okay. I'll put links to that. And the code ‘extraordinary50' in the show notes so that people can easily find that and refer to it. So it's smartstartminds.co.uk and the code is ‘extraordinary50'. So thank you so much Thomas, for sharing your wisdom and expertise with us today. It's been really insightful and really, really useful for me and I'm sure my listeners,

Thomas: Lucy, thank you very much for inviting me and um, and well done on the good work that you are doing to, to help the young people reach their full potential.

Lucy: Thank you. Thank you so much. Goodbye.

Useful links

How to leave a podcast review for The School Success Formula

My book, The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Take.

Ten Steps to Exam Success download.

Supportive Parents, Successful Students facebook group

Lucy on twitter: @LucyCParsons

Contact Lucy by email: lucy@lifemoreextraordinary.com

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