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Classical Conditioning Can Help Your Child Sleep and Focus

Associating sensations with common tasks can make transitions easier.

Fragmented attention is one of life’s challenges. You are trying to have an important conversation and you get a text. You are running to the store while simultaneously listening to the news, juggling the kids, driving, and trying to remember a grocery list. You walk in the woods while chatting on the phone.

We call it multi-tasking but there's really no such thing. What we're really doing is rapid task switching. It is cognitively challenging to juggle multiple things. Every time we switch, we experience a loss of efficiency. When writing, for example, research suggests that it will take me at least four minutes to get back up to speed if I stop to check a text or e-mail. It may take me a full half-hour to recover my full.

Things may be even worse for children. Careful time sampling studies of adolescents show that they are more emotionally labile than adults (no surprises there!). But the reason they are more emotionally labile is not the oft-blamed "teen hormones." It's that their task demands are constantly changing. Gym to math to a social studies debate. Then lunch, science, and after school volleyball practice. Homework! And all interrupted by frequent social media updates. They are task switching machines. It can be particularly hard for them to settle down and focus on tasks like sleep or homework that really require it.

How can we help children and teens concentrate when they need to?

Classical condition was first documented by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, a Russian physiologist studying salivation in dogs. Classical condition is an unconscious process by which unrelated stimuli become paired. In Pavlov's original experiments, meat was associated with dogs beginning to salivate. The meat is called an unconditioned stimulus because it's not something that the dogs needed to learn to associate with salivation. When Pavlov rang a bell when he presented the meat, however, he created a conditioned stimulus. The dogs quickly learned that the ringing bell meant that meat would be coming. Soon, when they heard a bell, they began to salivate. Linking a previously neutral stimulus (the bell) to an existing response (salivation) is the core of classical conditioning.

This may seem pretty esoteric, but it can be really useful when trying to help your kids (or yourself) to sleep or settle down for a focused task like homework. It is also useful if you or your child tends to be anxious and just needs to be able to calm down quickly.

Classical conditioning and sleep

Ever since they were little, my children have listened to audiobooks when they went to bed. I was in grad school when my eldest was born, trying to get my dissertation done with no childcare available. His sleep was imperative to my ability to work. To start with, I'd get him to sleep by nursing him. It was easy at first — it took around 5 minutes and would relax both of us. He'd nod off and get popped into his crib and I'd head off to my computer. However, that 5 minutes soon stretched into 10 or 30 or 90. I was cranky and frustrated, and he wasn't sleeping as much either.

Classical conditioning to the rescue. While lying down and nursing him, I started to listen to books on tape (yes, this was a long time ago). Soon, I realized that as soon as I popped in Winnie the Pooh, I would start to get sleepy. And he did too! After just a few days, I could start nursing him with the tape playing, get up, and he was still relaxed enough that he would nod off to sleep on his own. After a week, just playing the tape would put him down. Classical conditioning! What had started out as an association of nursing and cuddling with sleep had transformed into an association of listening to audiobooks and sleep.

This is why specialists working with sleep patients emphasize the importance of routine. You begin to associate turning off your computer, brushing your teeth, drinking that warm milk, saying your prayers, writing in your diary, reading or whatever else you do before bed with sleep. Those previously neutral activities tell your body that it's time to relax.

You can make those associations even more explicit by doing so consciously.

  • Choose strong memorable stimuli
  • Consciously evoke the condition you are trying to trigger
  • Be consistent in their pairing

For example, you can develop sleep rituals to help children go to sleep if they eventually go to sleep. But what happens if your child associates bedtime with lying in bed staring at the ceiling or with being unhappy or with arguing? That's not going to help. You need to form new associations.

One way to do this is to form associations separate from bedtime. For example, lie down in the afternoon with the audiotape while you snuggle together or watch a relaxing video. Use meditation or visualization or deep breathing to really help them into a relaxed state. You might introduce a characteristic smell. NOTHING triggers memories as well as smell. Think of a Crayola crayon or Play-Doh. Does it immediately put you back in kindergarten?

Essential oils like lavender are traditionally used to help people sleep. It may be that they actually help physiologically. But it is certainly the case that if I always smell lavender when I'm relaxing and nodding off, that smelling lavender will come to make me sleepy. Once children have learned to associate those books and smells with deep relaxation, you can transfer that learning to bedtime.

It works for anxiety too. You can also use similar associations of deep relaxation with smells or touch or sound to reduce anxiety. If I always associate the smell of oranges or my own rhythmic breathing practices or warm water with deep relaxation, I can evoke that relaxed response by breathing or washing my hands or rolling on some essential oils in a situation far away from my calm, relaxed living room.

Conditioning and homework

Settling down for concentrated work can be hard. I know for me, it's really easy for me to decide to check Instagram or read The New York Times or check the chickens or do anything other than sit down and just read or write. It takes a while for me to get into that groove. Until I do, my mind keeps running after tangents like a beagle in the brush.

You can use conditioning here as well. This is especially helpful if you have particular tasks that you do all the time: like homework or reading.

What you want is to get into a state that is called flow. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi uses the concept of flow to describe that state where you are one with your work — in the zone. (Listen to his TedTalk on the topic here.) You work well and efficiently when in flow. It also gives you a great sense of satisfaction. In other words, it's exactly where you want your kids to be when they're doing their homework: happy, absorbed, and learning.

To get into flow, you need to be absorbed. It always takes time, but, like sleep, it is a state you can learn to anticipate if you associate it with particular conditions. One way of doing so is to create a musical playlist that you always associate with a particular project. For me, doing my dissertation, it was the soundtrack for Amadeus and Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. As soon as I sat down at my desk, those tunes would come out of the stereo and I knew it was time to work. I could feel myself focus. (Thirty years later, I still feel it when I put those albums on.)

Although music can pull you from full attention, very familiar music can fade into the background. You get the emotional evocation of the stimulus, without the cognitive distraction. Helping children find a motivating but not too distracting playlist of music they always associate with concentrated work can help them mark that this is a special work time and move them into the appropriate state of flow more rapidly.


One of the touchstones of parenting research is the idea that rituals can help reduce anxiety and increase security in children. Rituals build expectations and associations that get us set up for the appropriate emotional states we need. One foundational element of those associations is classical conditioning.