Is your teen constantly being called out for daydreaming or staring out of the window? Is your teen disruptive in class and unable to complete his work because he struggles to concentrate? Does your teen struggle to stay focused on the task at hand? 

Concentration in the classroom is essential for learning to take place. The teen years are difficult for all parents. For those parents who are in a constant battle with their teen over school work, the level of stress rises. 

Do you feel like you have done everything in your power to help your child, but he still can’t concentrate at school? You have engaged the help of every conceivable tutor, therapist and teacher. But have you looked at what is happening in your home and at your kitchen table?

CAUSES OF CONCENTRATION DIFFICULTIES IN TEENS

Worldwide, the prevalence of ADHD in children and adolescents is 3.4%1. Researchers are still uncertain about the underlying causes of the behaviours seen in ADHD, including difficulty concentrating at school. 

Making the decision to medicate your child is tough. Many parents want to avoid going down that route. They want to treat the root cause, rather than the symptoms.

The first place to look is in the kitchen. When it comes to difficulty concentrating at school it is essential to look at what your child is eating for breakfast. If your teen is in the habit of skipping breakfast or still enjoys sugary, refined breakfast cereals, it may be time to intervene1.

A sedentary lifestyle also has big implications for your child’s ability to concentrate. Recent research shows that physical activity is linked to cognitive ability in children. It can be any form of exercise. The important thing is that your children move more2.

Technology is a big contributor to the lack of exercise. The modern teen is exposed to an excessive amount of blue light from cell phones, tablets and video games. Blue light has an impact on your child’s ability to fall asleep at night. Quality of sleep is also affected. The result is insufficient, poor quality sleep. The tiredness that follows the next day makes concentration in the classroom very difficult3.

Emotions and mental health cannot be ignored when we are looking at the health of our teens. If your teen is worried or anxious about something that is happening at home, or they have experienced trauma, they may find it difficult to concentrate in class4.

Medical conditions such as an underactive thyroid, iron deficiency and anxiety may cause difficulty in concentrating. Certain medications can have the same effect. Addressing these underlying causes may solve the problem.

With all of these possibilities, where do you start trying to improve your teens concentration at school? The easiest place to start is in the kitchen.

Why Can’t My Child Concentrate At School

DIET AND CONCENTRATION DIFFICULTIES IN TEENS

The link between ADHD and diet is still a bit controversial. However, a poor diet may result in your teen showing similar behaviours, even if they do not have ADHD. If the brain is not receiving enough energy and nutrients, focusing in class is going to be difficult.

Research has shown that children with ADHD tend to have a poorer nutritional status than those who don’t have ADHD. A typical Western diet that is high in saturated fats and refined sugars has been implicated in ADHD-type behaviour. On the other hand, a diet that provides plenty of fibre, folate and omega-3 fatty acids helps to prevent these symptoms5.

When sugars and refined carbohydrates are eaten they are rapidly absorbed into the blood. This causes a rapid spike in blood sugar. In turn insulin is released from the pancreas in order to bring the blood sugar levels back to normal. As a result, when your teen digs into the cookie jar, he has a sudden spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid drop in blood sugar. Your brain needs sugar to function at its best. If there is not enough, you start finding it difficult to focus on what you are doing.

Furthermore, in susceptible children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other problem behaviors, scientific data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, artificial colourants6. 

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Did you know? The European Union requires food products containing any of 6 shortlisted artificial colourants to include a warning statement on the label that “[the color] may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” (Food Standards Agency 2011). These artificial colourants are Tartrazine, Quinoline Yellow, Sunset Yellow, Carmoisine, Ponceau 4 R, and Allura Red which are present in lots of products like breakfast products and even in medicines and health products but of course not used in Bioteen. 

Now, imagine your teen has run out of the house in a big rush, not having allowed himself time to have breakfast. Or he sat down to a bowl of refined, sugary breakfast cereal. By the time he sits down at his desk his brain is out of fuel and the battle to concentrate begins.

WHAT INFLUENCES THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN?

Human beings are susceptible to the environment in which they live. Your teen and his rapidly changing brain is going to be influenced by2:

  • Genetic and hereditary factors
  • Home environment
  • School environment
  • Nutritional status
  • Sleep patterns
  • Stress – physical, mental, economical and psychological
  • Drug use
  • Sex hormones

With all these factors involved in shaping who we become, it is no wonder that everyone is unique. Even siblings don’t have the same experiences as each other.

Why Can’t My Child Concentrate At School

NUTRITION STATUS AND THE BRAIN

You can control some of the factors that affect your teen’s brain development and functioning and some are completely out of your control. One of the key areas that your input matters is what food you make available to your family.

Malnutrition has an impact on the brain’s development. Insufficient protein and energy has been shown to be linked to poorer cognition scores than in children whose brains receive optimal amounts of energy and amino acids from protein3

There is also a possible link between overweight and obesity and poorer academic performance and cognitive performance possibly due to disruptions in insulin sensitivity and blood glucose metabolism. In a human scientific study4, researchers from the University of South Carolina have described such an association in 8–16-year-old children and adolescents, whereby an increased body mass index (BMI) is associated with reduced cognitive performance.

Specific amino acids that have been shown to be beneficial in supporting the teenage brain include L-tyrosine which is a precursor to the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine and nor-epinephrine. These neurotransmitters help to regulate your mood. 

L-theanine is an amino acid that is naturally present in tea leaves. L-Theanine has been shown to help reduce anxiety by modulating increasing alpha waves in the brain that are associated with a focused and relaxed state. Considering the psychological stress can affect your teen’s brain development, ensuring a regular intake of L-Theanine can be useful in managing the stress response. L-Theanine is provided in several Bioteen products, from a highly bioavailable form called Suntheanine®.

Another amino acid of significance is acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR). It is widely distributed throughout the human body, including the brain, blood-brain barrier, neurones, and astrocytes. ALCAR is involved in energy generation in the brain, in addition to acting as an antioxidant to protect cells in the nervous system. 

Essential fatty acids have long been known to be brain food. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are dark oily fish. Lesser amounts are found in nuts, seeds, avocado pears, olives and some plant oils. They have a role to play in the functioning of the nerve synapses, or the spaces between the nerves through which chemical messages pass from one nerve to another4.

Iron is an essential nutrient for the transport of oxygen around the body. It is a structural component of haemoglobin which is part of the red blood cells. If iron levels are low, the brain does not receive enough oxygen and development is slowed. Correcting iron levels has been shown to improve cognition in both children and adults3,4. 

One of the most prevalent minerals in the brain is zinc. It plays an important role in the synthesis of DNA and RNA. It is also involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats3

The B-vitamins are involved in the release of energy from the food we eat. They are involved in the metabolism of the brain’s primary source of fuel – glucose. They also play a part in the structure and function of cell membranes and nerve synapses3.

DIETRY CHANGES TO BOOST CLASSROOM CONCENTRATION IN TEENS

With this information in mind, it is clear that we need to look at the whole diet and not just components of what we eat. Your teen needs to eat regularly throughout the day in order to meet both his energy and his nutritional requirements. 

The diet needs to be well balanced, providing food from all of the food groups. That means he should be eating meals that contain carbohydrate, protein, healthy fats, fruit, vegetables and dairy.

But, perhaps most important is to always start the day with a good breakfast. If you and your teen can’t manage to get up early enough to make breakfast, you could consider a supplement shake that is convenient and easy to make on the run especially before any cognitively demanding situation. 

The supplement shake you choose should be nutritionally balanced.  Ideally It should provide protein, healthy fats and slow release carbohydrates to ensure that your teen’s brain has all the energy it needs to function at its best. 

CONCLUSION

The modern teen is living a busy stressful life. In the daily rush good nutrition is often forgotten. The result is concentration difficulties and problems in the classroom. Don’t let your teen leave the house without fuelling up. 

Even if you don’t have time to cook breakfast, you can easily make sure that your teen is well fueled at the beginning of the day by following some of the breakfast recipe ideas on our Bioteen Recipe Page.

REFERENCES

  1. Ríos-Hernández A, Alda J, Farran-Codina A, Ferreira-García E, Izquierdo-Pulido M. The Mediterranean Diet and ADHD in Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2017;139(2):e20162027. (PubMed)
  2. Donnelly J, Hillman C, Castelli D, Etnier J, Lee S, Tomporowski P et al. Physical Activity, Fitness, Cognitive Function, and Academic Achievement in Children. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2016;48(6):1223-1224. (PubMed)
  3. Foerster M, Henneke A, Chetty-Mhlanga S, Röösli M. Impact of Adolescents’ Screen Time and Nocturnal Mobile Phone-Related Awakenings on Sleep and General Health Symptoms: A Prospective Cohort Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2019;16(3):518. (PubMed)
  4. Oh J, Lee M, Bae S, Kim E, Hwang J, Chang H et al. Psychiatric Symptoms and Clinical Diagnosis in High School Students Exposed to the Sewol Ferry Disaster. Journal of Korean Medical Science. 2019;34(5). (PubMed)
  5. Chou W, Lee M, Hou M, Hsiao L, Lee M, Chou M et al. Dietary and nutrient status of children with attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a case-control study. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2018;27(6):1325-1331. (PubMed)
  6. Weiss B. Synthetic Food Colors and Neurobehavioral Hazards: The View from Environmental Health Research. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Jan; 120(1): 1–5. (PubMed)