This is a segment from the Child Panel of Ask An Expert that was part of the recent Brain Summit presented by Erin Matlock. Viewers communicated via chat, email, or called in to ask questions. The panelists were Sheila Allen, Pat Mattas, and Mariam Herrmann.
Erin: The first question, my question is this: As a teacher, I am often challenged by students who lack ability or willingness to focus. Are there techniques that can be practiced for developing focus and staying power on tasks that require sustaining attention on one thing? Let’s start with Sheila…
Sheila: Wow, that’s a question that could take me all night to answer. Let’s start out with the environment. I’m big on creating an environment that is conducive to attention, and that means minimizing distractions in the environment and even minimizing diversions within the environment. I like the idea of keeping things simple visually. I like the idea of playing around with music to create a sound environment conducive for learning and attention, and lots of times that’s music roughly within a 60-80 beat-per-minute range. Right off, I think about the Sound Health Series that was created by Advanced Brain Technologies, and I would so very strongly recommend experimenting with the concentration album in the classroom. I use that so much, and recommend it, and get such good feedback about it.
Just a couple of other things related to the individual, I really like getting a sense of how long somebody truly can pay attention, and if it’s five minutes, then making that five good minutes and then having a break afterwards for a little bit of movement, something that is motivating and otherwise engaging for a child. If it’s unrealistic to keep track like that, then I also think that it’s important for kids themselves to start developing an awareness of whether they’re paying attention or not. Oftentimes, they’re hearing from somebody else that they’re not paying attention, but what does it feel like to pay attention and what does it feel to not be engaged? I really like the idea of promoting self-awareness, working on self-awareness, and making sure that the materials that are provided are focused, and organized, and easy to follow, and that the instructions are very simple, and clear, and straightforward for whoever it is who needs to be paying attention.
Pat: In terms of managing the defocus in the classroom, I think it should be said that a lack of focus is symptomatic of something deeper going on. While these measures might work for the moment, I really think a child who is demonstrating that type of defocus needs to be addressed at a deeper level, something outside of the classroom, something that perhaps the parents could be made aware of. There’s many ways to handle it in a private way just to help the teacher to get through the class and maybe to give a little more strength to this particular student.
What I do is I start every session with exercise, and the child and myself follow along. You synchronize with them, and it brings about a lot of focus because, number one, you have to replicate what the individual is doing on the screen. The music is gentle behind it and it’s very rhythmic, and it just causes a calming and a focusing. It’s very good to prepare a child to learn. I’ve found a very specific exercise prior to any teaching is really effective to prepare the ground.
Mariam: I would approach this question slightly different because I recognize that there’s so much vocabulary around attention, and it means so many different things to different people. I think we have to recognize executive function covers a broad view, and one of those areas is attention. A lot of times, executive function is misnamed attention. It also includes how a child regulates their emotions, if they can inhibit, if they can initiate, how they organize and plan, self-monitoring – are they aware of what they’re doing and how they’re doing – and then the working memory piece. I think all of those areas are specific things that I would address if I ask some questions to see exactly which part of the attention it is that they’re seeing and how to address those individually. In my practice, I look at those specifically.
Another thing, as I work with teachers, I recognize that there’s a lot about the classroom environment, as Sheila also mentioned, too, that makes a huge difference in whether a child feels a part of the classroom or engaged. Maybe they come to the classroom not prepared, and they don’t have the skillset required to address what’s going on in the classroom. If things are going over their heads, then, of course, we’re not going to be able to attend for very long because it takes too much of our focus time, of our cognitive reserve, to keep focus. That burns up pretty fast in a classroom.
I would really want to look at the child’s skill set and are they prepared for what it is we’re talking about. Is the challenge equal to what it is they can do? As Pat mentioned, those body things like sleep, or nutrition, or what they have is a really important part, too. I think in education we need to look at are the kids involved. Do they feel like they understand the purpose? Why am I sitting here? Some kids feel like they’re just jumping through hoops. That there’s no meaning to what they’re doing. It’s the smart ones who can attend and who have good memory, that are going to wear out first in that kind of situation.
I think attention is very broad, and we have to look at it more specifically per individual in order to really know how to target and address that. As far as strategies in the classroom, I often tell people little things, calling attention to the child, giving them multiple opportunities to try things on their own, and having them summarize back what was said, and clear expectations. All of those kinds of things really help make the experience something that they’re wired into, that they’re more a part of.