How to Achieve Brain Fitness for Kids without Medication

Do the following statements sound familiar? If so these brain fitness for kids tips may come in handy in your household.

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“Johnny has a lot of potential, but he has trouble following directions.”

“I really did do my homework, Ms. Johnson, but I can’t find it!”

“Johnny, we are on number seven not number two. You need to pay attention.”

“Oh, we had math homework?”

If you are the parent of a kid like Johnny, you may find this article helpful to you because nothing is more frustrating than knowing that you have a capable child, but his grades don’t reflect that! Even if your child does fine at school, the ideas included below might improve his or her brain fitness and performance.

PHASE ONE

The first things to check off when trying to help your inattentive child are purely physical. Make sure to include a diet of brain fitness for kids “super foods”, adequate sleep and exercise, and brain-engaging games.

Diet

Various experts seem to agree that certain foods can help to improve your child’s brain fitness and functioning. Correcting a deficiency in any of the following nutrients may mean an improvement in your child’s brain functioning, thereby improving his or her chances of academic success in school:

Antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E include fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans, and legumes. In her WebMD.com article, “Eat Smart for a Healthier Brain,” Carol Sorgen asserts that a cup a day of blueberries, for example, in any form (e.g., fresh, frozen, etc.) can help to improve your child’s capacity to learn as well as in motor skills. Other good sources of antioxidants include other berries, sweet potatoes, red tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, green tea, nuts and seeds, citrus fruits, and liver.

Choline is needed for brain and memory development. Eggs and nuts are sources of choline.

Folic acid deficiencies, according to nutritionist Sue Gilbert in her article, “Six Nutrients for School Success,” can cause children to be tired, irritable, and forgetful. She suggests raw fruits and vegetables, especially orange juice and spinach.

Glucose, or blood sugar, must be in a child’s body in adequate amounts in order to fuel his or her brain. Gilbert’s strongest suggestion is that a child should never skip breakfast. She maintains that glucose remains in a child’s body for only four hours, so children need to eat every four to five hours each day.

Iron-anemic children have shorter attention spans and are not able to persist when tackling more challenging tasks. Even the slightest decline in iron can affect a child’s brain functioning. Gilbert recommends red meat, tuna, salmon, and chicken at least three times weekly. She also suggests dark leafy greens, broccoli, and legumes.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids have many health benefits, but it is important for memory and brain functioning. Found in cold-water, fatty fish, its best sources are oily fish such as salmon, herring, and tuna (Limit tuna amounts in younger children to avoid high mercury levels.). Other sources include avocado, olive oil, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and walnut oil.

Vitamin A helps to optimize brain fitness for kids. Include dark green and deep orange and yellow fruits and vegetables.

B Vitamins help the body to release the energy in glucose. Without it, changes in children’s personality, such as “aggressiveness, hostility, and depression”, may manifest. Gilbert suggests fortified breakfast cereal as a great source of B Vitamins. The article, “Improving Your Memory: Tips and Techniques to Improve Memory,” on the HelpGuide.org website stresses that B6, B12, and folic acid all help boost memory. The B vitamins are found in spinach and other dark leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, strawberries, melons, black beans and other legumes, citrus fruits, and soybeans.

Zinc is important in the communication between nerve cells. Deficiencies in zinc are linked to cognitive impairment. The best sources of zinc are meat and seafood. Zinc can also be found in peanuts, wheat germ, whole-grain cereals, pumpkins, and squash seeds.

Sleep and Exercise

Adequate sleep and exercise are keys to brain fitness for kids. Experts may vary in their determination of how much sleep is enough, but the consensus seems to suggest that recommendations like these from WebMD.com are typical:

3 - 6 years old: 10 - 12 hours per day (may include naps for some five-year-olds and younger)

7 - 12 years old: 10 - 11 hours per day

12 - 18 years old: 8 - 9 hours per day (WebMD.com asserts that many teenagers might require more sleep than in previous years; however, most teenagers do not get these suggested amounts of sleep each day.)

Just like the need for adequate sleep, the importance of exercise cannot be discounted in keeping children’s brains fit. In her parentingscience.com article, “The Cognitive Benefits of Exercise for Children,” Dr. Gwen Dewar writes about studies that suggest that physically fit children have better executive function, the part of the brain that helps kids pay attention, plan, and ignore distractions. Parents should make every effort to incorporate physical activity in their children’s lives. The physical education classes in school should be just the beginning. Expose them to various kinds of sports and dance to ensure that they are getting enough exercise.


PHASE TWO

Brain Training Games

Another way to boost brain fitness for kids is to engage them in specific kinds of games. Some games can help them to concentrate better.

One game addresses visual impulsivity. People are able to concentrate better when their eyes are focused on a task. When eyes move from the task, the person may lose attention. When people have little or no control over this, it is visual impulsivity. In his Your Family Clinic article, “Eye Exercise to Increase Attention and Reduce Impulsivity,” Daniel Moore, Ph.D. describes this test to try with your child: (1) Hold one of two different-colored pencils in each hand about 16 inches apart in front of the child. (2) Tell the child to look at a specific-colored pencil. (3) After one or two seconds, tell the child to look at the other colored pencil. (4) Vary the amount of time between directions to switch focus.
If the child has visual impulsivity, s/he won’t be able to follow your instructions.

If you suspect that your child has visual impulsivity, you can use the test itself as a game. Try giving points if your child can follow instructions for eight trials (trial = 1 look at the pencil as you have instructed). Try the exercise for five minutes at first, and then work up to ten minutes. You can increase the difficulty by asking the child to look at one pencil while s/he is still looking at the other pencil.

Another visual impulsivity game is to sit in front of the child but a little off to the side. Hold an object about 16 inches from the child. Tell the child to use his or her eyes to follow the object without getting ahead or behind the object. Let the child know when tracking is being done correctly. If needed, stop and let the child refocus. When the child is tracking well, move the object in windshield-wiper pattern.

Consider the Relaxation and Positive Imagery Game described in the Empowering Parents article “Five Simple Concentration Building Techniques for Kids with ADHD,” by Robert Myers, Ph.D. In this game, have the child practice imagining himself or herself paying attention in class, which can lead to improvement in that area.

Myers also suggests Mind-Body Integration to help children with self-control by strengthening the neural connections between brain and body. In this activity, have the child try to sit in a chair without moving. The parent would time the child doing this.

The Coin Game in Myers’ article involves these materials: assortment of coins, heavy card paper to cover the coins, and a stopwatch or secondhand on a watch. Follow this sequence with your child: (1) Put five coins in a sequence. (2) Have the child look at the sequence. (3) Cover the coins with the heavy paper. (4) Time the child to see how long it takes for her or him to create the sequence correctly. (5) Continue this until the child can recreate the sequence correctly.

Myers also makes suggestions about commercially-available games to help children’s brain fitness. (1) Simon – exercises and challenges brain circuits so that connections become stronger, and the brain functions better; (2) Memory, by Hasbro; (3) Mosquito Killer – internet game (www.ababasoft.com/kids/mosquito_killer.html); (4) Luminosity – (www.luminosity.com) site with brain games for older children and adolescents; (5) crossword puzzles - to improve attention for words and sequencing; and (6) picture puzzles – looks for what’s wrong with the picture or finds objects within the picture to improve concentration and attention in younger children.
Playing board games is a good way to improve concentration in your children. Chess is highly recommended as well as card games. Its added bonus: more family time!

Another possibility is a video game called Dance Revolution. This critically acclaimed game is available on Wii and in other formats. It is said to boost concentration as well as intelligence. On Smart Kit Puzzle Playground, the article, “Can DDR and ITG Boost Intelligence? The Ultimate Brain Gym” outlines several benefits of this type of game, including “a 7 – 20% greater growth in reading and math achievement; significant patterns of improvement in attention, coordination, reading and language processing among 9 to 12-year-old boys diagnosed with ADHD in a study; significant increases in reading fluency and math fluency among 1500 middle and high school students; and higher scores in broad reading, reading fluency, and math calculation skills among 360 ninth and tenth graders.

Although they are not games, research has shown that attention and focus is improved for children who participate in the arts. According to The DANA Foundation, a gateway to information about the brain and brain research, “Recent research offers a possibility with much better, science-based support: that focused training in any of the arts—such as music, dance or theater—strengthens the brain’s attention system, which in turn can improve cognition more generally.” Let your child explore various areas in the arts, and support interest in an area that your child prefers.


PHASE THREE

ADD/ADHD Screening

If a serious improvement in your child’s brain fitness, focus and attention in school is not noticed after implementing all the previously mentioned steps above, then it may be time to have your child screened for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder. Seek the help of a reputable AD or AH professional. Your child’s pediatrician may be the first person to ask for names of those professional. Another good place to start is the professional directory of the non-profit organization, Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. The CHADD website has numerous resources for more information on this subject and how to find a good specialist.

Neurofeedback

If your child has been found to have ADHD or ADD, using medication to control the symptoms still may not be your next step. A different treatment to consider is neurofeedback. Neurofeedback, also known as neurotherapy, neurobiofeedback, or EEG biofeedback, uses sensors to monitor brain wave activity as the client is performing focus and concentration tasks. Different protocols have been used to treat substance abuse, anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, and a myriad of other conditions. Proponents of this therapy sometimes liken it to calisthenics for the brain, and they claim that, with enough repetitions, the change it produces in the brain’s condition is permanent. It requires a commitment to the training for several months and may include a brain scan to determine where the brain activity needs to take place.

Before, or in addition to, professional neurofeedback treatment, you might want to try some neurofeedback software or neurofeedback-tested games for home use. Journey to the Wild Divine is an interactive adventure gaming series that includes finger sensors. Its product description purports to “increase relaxation, restore balance and vitality, improve focus, concentration, and feel less stressed.” It’s available for PC or Mac.

Another option was described by Barbara Boughton’s report on Medscape.com that in a small “study of ten patients, playing the video game Gran Turismo, an automobile-racing game, increased electroencephalograph (EEG)-measured beta waves, which are often associated with concentration.” Gran Turismo is available for PlayStation gaming systems.

A word of caution here: Playing video games is a form of electronic stimulation. Viewing quick-changing images on television, video games, etc. is tiring for the brain. I highly recommend that children’s access to electronic stimulation be limited to no more than one hour a day, especially on school nights.

Finally, it has been suggested that a couple of study habits can help with concentration and brain fitness for kids including summarizing notes on the day that they are taken. Cornell notes, a type of two-column note-taking includes a summarizing section. When studying and reviewing each day, it might be helpful for some children to have instrumental music in the background. Music with 60 beats per minute has been shown to aid in concentration. Baroque music often has this feature. Consider having your child study with a song like Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in D”. It might bring surprising results.

Now you may try all levels of intervention that are suggested in this article and you still may not see the desired results. However, if you are consistent in applying each level, you should see some improvement in brain fitness for kids. As an educator, I have seen remarkable changes in some of my students who took medication to change their behavior, but I can also understand a parent’s reluctance to medicate their children no matter how effective it seems to be in improving their behaviors. You have to decide what’s best for your family and your situation, but these ideas might be worth trying before you decide to use medication to help your child’s brain functioning.

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