Teaching Focus in a Digitally Distractible World
I was recently asked how to get children to focus these days. A teacher wrote, "I tell them to focus, but tell doesn't seem to help with their recall."
We tell children to focus, and they think they are, until we help them see that there is more to focusing than just listening.
Focus is like meditation that requires one to actively concentrate on a particular item. It requires the ability to block out distracting stimulus, whether it be the children sitting around them or ideas floating around it their heads. It requires a deliberate decision to recall information or events. The first steps to learning how to block out surrounding distractions is to identify what focus feels like and how to apply it in different situations.
What can you do in the classroom?
Mindfulness training is helpful in learning how to block out distractions. Using focused attention during lectures and when observing what they see in the world around them requires training as well.
When asked what happened today at school, most children will reply, "Nothing." In the moment, they can't remember what they did, because they were merely moving through the day, but not focusing on it. If something very exciting happened, they would remember it, but they won't remember the ordinary everyday things.
In an attempt to have children tap into their ability to set an intention to pay attention, I do a couple of specific activities that help them learn to identify what it feels like to apply focused attention.
Every year we take two field trips quite close together. To prepare my students to write about the trips, I inform them their homework assignment will be to recall facts about each station they go to during our visit and record them in their journals. I write the assignment on the board for homework and have them pack up before we go to the field trip. I always suggest they create a movie in their minds as they go through the activities. Once they get home and begin writing, they can always access the movie to improve their recall. They always ask if they can take notes during the day. Because this is an exercise in recall and the use of notes will not support the activity, I do not let them take notes.
The first field trip results in some children writing a quarter page of information learned from four hours of activities, while others write three pages. Without them knowing I am going to do this, I read the journals and attach five "Pegasus Bucks," our school currency, for every detail recorded. I didn't pay for details such as what they ate for lunch, though many children couldn't remember even that. I only paid for concrete details that related to the event.
It was fun seeing the looks on the faces of the children when one boy received $300 for his very detailed accounting of every event they participated in that day. He even included what he saw out the windows as he rode to and from the venue. Today, most children don't pay attention to what is outside, so I decided to reward these details. When his classmates saw the wad of money he received, some responded, "That's not fair." I reminded them they all had the same opportunity to do the assignment as detailed as he did, but they chose not to. I read his detailed accounting to the class for future reference.
The second trip, I gave the exact same directions as the first, except I added one more. I told them in advance that I would pay for every detail recorded in their journals. There is nothing like a good extrinsic reason to pay attention. Every child wrote at least three pages of details because they were motivated by the bribe.
When asked why they were able to remember so much this time, when last time they could remember very little. They responded as expected, "Because this time you taught us how to make a movie." I reminded them that I said that the first time. Another child said, "Because you told us we would be writing in our journals for homework." Yet another stated, "You wrote it on the board for homework and had us get our homework notebooks ready for home, since we would be getting home late." I reminded them, again, that I had said and did the same things the first time. I shared that I only added one detail the second time. Then a child nailed it, when he offered the reason, "Because you paid us." The class indicated he was right.
They thought the money reward was what made it possible for them to write more. It took a while and a lot of questioning on my part to get them to discover it wasn't the money, but what changed was how they focused.
Many younger students have gotten by without focusing in class. They tune in when it is interesting to them and have never discovered what it feels like to be truly focused. They get by being a passive listeners, until the demands on their listening skills become more challenging. When grades are given for lecture recall, many children struggle because they suddenly need to become active listeners. Helping them tap into what it means and feels like to be focused will prove powerful as they matriculate.
Once they can identify what focus really feels like, they need to be alerted to when they need to use their focused listening skill. I have shared the Seven Secrets About Teachers with my students. It reminds them that if a teacher writes something on the board, it means it probably will appear on a test. Teachers don't take time to write or talk about topics, unless they think the information is important. So, that is when one needs apply focus listening.
Focused listening also requires a specific sitting posture. When students set their intention to pay attention, they move to the edge of their seat, lean forward, and make eye contact with the speaker. They repeat every word the speaker is saying and concentrate on their words. If an intervening thought comes to mind, they write it down on Postit Notes to come back to later at a more appropriate time.
There other ways to help children tap into their focus. I have asked the class to pay attention to what they do at recess. After they return, I ask them to share what they discovered. The first time I pay for the details. It is surprising how many share the second time I ask them to do the same task. I don't, however, pay every time. They never know when a monetary reward will occur for completing a task they were asked to do.
In the Home:
Parents can help their children practice focus.
According to Dr. Jamie M. Howard, "Concentration is like a muscle that requires regular exercise to strengthen. Some kids are born “stronger” in this area than others, but all kids can learn strategies and engage in practices that help improve their ability to focus and sustain their attention. This is, after all, a very important skill for kids to acquire—school demands that students concentrate for long stretches of time, and as kids get older they have extracurricular activities after school that require even more concentration. Most children are able to concentrate on activities that are fun and intrinsically enjoyable. It’s the ones that are more boring, difficult or just less enjoyable that really challenge their focus. Yet this ability to concentrate and sustain attention on all kinds of tasks is crucially important, because it helps kids learn and improve, which leads to self-confidence and positive self-esteem."
My homework program trains students how to manage multiple assignments by doing the hardest one first. They learn it is important to take brain breaks to refresh their ability to concentrate. We recommend 15 minute work periods for challenging work. We don't eat an elephant all at once, so we have to break large challenging assignments into smaller parts.
When your children finds something boring, it probably means it is hard. Offering different strategies to help them work through the hard tasks is very important for developing tenacity. They love easy. It's hard that requires more focus.
Dr. Howard also suggests, "Kids can be distracted by “internal stimuli,” like physical sensations or entertaining memories. While a child’s imagination is a wonderful thing, we also want them to be able to clear away distractions and build the ability to concentrate. You can play “I spy with my little eye…” and take turns making observations of various objects in the room, listen closely to the lyrics of a song together, or do some yoga poses and pay attention to how it feels in the body."
Teaching children how to focus in a digitally distractible world is a crucial skill for their future success.