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How to keep children calm and focused during COVID-19
By Dr Leila Masson, Specialist Paediatrician and author of "Children's Health A-Z"

With children and adults working and studying at home due to COVID-19 I am receiving a lot of enquiries on how to help kids, teenagers and their parents stay focused.

The basics of a healthy diet, restful and adequate sleep and exercise are a must. You cannot supplement yourself out of a poor diet, cannot take enough "uppers" to overcome lack of sleep and you simply cannot get enough blood pumping through your brain without moving your body.
Research on preservatives

My number one recommendation to improve focus, concentration and memory is to always follow an additive free diet. What does this mean? Avoid unhealthy artificial flavours, preservatives and colourings in food. The research on these additives is clear they can make children hyperactive, uncoordinated, irritable and distracted.

While training to be a paediatrician I was warned not to believe parents who claimed their children climbed the walls after drinking orange soft drinks and eating flavoured lollies. Then a seminal paper published in the Lancet in 2007 proved preservatives and colourings in foods do in fact affect children's behaviour and attention negatively.

A meta-analysis of 15 trials found widely distributed food chemicals are neuro-behavioural toxins and best avoided. For practical tips on an additive-free diet and lifestyle check out Tracey and Joanne's website, course, book and podcast discussing the impact of additives on children's health.

What should your child's diet look like?

They need to eat at least five servings of vegetables a day (a serving is whatever fits into their scooped hand), two servings of fruit, at least one serving of nuts and seeds and one of legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas) and only whole grains, no white flours. Cut out the sugar. Now your children will have the nutrients their brains need to learn and be calm.

How much sleep is enough?

Enough quality sleep is essential to ensure children wake up rested and happy and can focus and pay attention. Here are some general guidelines:

Exercise

Exercise gets the blood pumping around the body and the brain. It also makes your brain release the neurotransmitter dopamine which is essential for focus, attention and motivation. Research has shown children who struggle with self-motivation, focus and attention have lower levels of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. Take regular active breaks, a short walk or run around the block, jump on a trampoline or skip rope, do some star jumps or throw a ball to improve "executive function".

Exercise also reduces anxiety and stress and of course helps fight obesity. Gyms are closed, school sports are not happening, no swimming classes either but it only takes a little bit of imagination to make up your own exercise regime. You can find all kinds of kid-friendly classes online from karate to Zumba etc.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness exercises are a great way to reduce stress and anxiety and calm your brain. There are countless apps available my favourite ones are Smiling Mind and Calm. Get the whole family to do a 10-minute mindfulness exercise daily and you will see everyone become more settled.

What else?

Here are my top tips:

1. The Pomodoro technique: Named after a tomato shaped kitchen timer this encourages regular breaks to use your brain optimally. Set a timer and study for 25 minutes, then take a 5-10 minute (active) break – stretch, jump, walk or do breathing exercises. After 3-4 sessions of 25 minutes take a half hour break.

2. Listen to the right music to get your brain waves into study mode. Some people find listening to classical or baroque music helps them concentrate, music with lyrics may be too distracting. Others look for more subtle ways to hack their brains and listen to music electronically enhanced to sync the brain into a state of deep concentration. I love the app brain.fm which plays music with different rhythms to help you focus.
Neurofeedback therapy indicates gamma waves, the fastest brain waves are great for peak concentration, focus and cognitive function. Alpha waves get your brain into a calm and relaxed mode, best for learning new things. Beta waves are good for sustained focus and problem solving. Just try out what works for you.

3. Spaced repetition: the Japanese Anki is a smart flashcard system you can download for free. It helps you remember new facts by making you recall them at spaced intervals, to maximise retention and recall.

4. Supplements for concentration, also known as nootropics cane be helpful if you have a teenager studying for exams. Here are my favourites:

a. pycnogenol, pine bark extract – an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory effects. It may increase BNDF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) needed to grow new connections between brain cells. I like the high dose Enzo Professional.

b. MIND Lab Pro – is a combination of bacopa monneri, pycnogenol, citicoline and a few other nootropics to help you focus and concentrate.

c. Omega 3 fatty acids make up the oils in the brain cell membranes and help with communication between cells and brain processing. I like the algae oil from nuique.com.

I hope these tips help you create sustained periods of calm and focus in your home.

Dr Masson is the author of Children's Health A to Z: Help you child get better and stay well naturally and is presenting in Week 4 of the 2020 ACNEM Online Conference.

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