We all want our children to be able to concentrate, to pay attention in school and at home and to have the ability to stay with a task, read a book or listen carefully.
As parents what can we do to help them grow in these important skills?
First we must look at any barriers that hold back strength in these areas. In our present society there are many distractions, both for adults and children. Some adults have learned to filter out those things that interfere with thinking, with work and with making good choices. It may take years to develop these skills.
Children, by their very nature, are open to all experience, to learning from their environment and to take in all of the information that comes from their senses. In Montessori we utilize this ability by using multi-sensory approaches to learning. Lessons often have components of multiple senses such as touch, hearing, seeing and at times, tasting and smelling and are presented in a quiet, orderly environment which encourages focus and concentration.
Unfortunately, this quality which allows them to learn quickly and well, also results in an openess to distraction. Think about the average home. There may be music playing, a television on, someone on a phone, another on a computer or tablet, electronic games with bells, music and voices and perhaps even more than one of these devices being used at a time.
Visual clutter is another barrier which often goes unnoticed. We fill our homes, workplaces and classrooms with pictures, furniture, clothes, toys, appliances and all the other items we use on a daily basis. Of course we need and want most of these in our daily lives.
One other problem area is the adult habit of interrupting concentration. As supportive adults it is important to recognize when a child is focused on a task: reading, playing, talking, doing chores and so forth. We must try not to interrupt this concentration by asking too many questions:
"How is that book?" "Are you having fun?" "Look, your blanket is crooked." Of course, we mean well and it is good to have conversations with children. Learn to observe and only begin a conversation when the child is ready.
So how do we go about reducing auditory and visual clutter to help our children develop these essential skills?
Electronic devices have become a normal part of our every day lives. I was in line at the grocery store today ( a very long line) and realized how chaotic it was. Electronic cash registers, beeping and blinking on the screen. A separate screen playing music, running ads for products and for the store, customers on cell phones, children playing games on their tablets, voices over the intercom with messages for cashiers and sales people, and loud voices struggling to be heard over the din of all this noise. Not surprisingly, quite a few children were distressed; crying, whining, asking for candy, while their equally distressed parents were trying to settle them down, pay for their purchases and negotiate the electronic card reader, all at the same time.
In our Montessori classrooms we maintain an organized environment with all materials ready to use and in the same place every day. There is a coat rack the children can reach, water and snacks readily available and, other than 1 computer in the elementary, no electronics. Voices are kept at a conversational level and concentration is respected and encouraged by having the students work as long as they wish on lessons and projects. Of course, their responsibility is to work diligently and not disturb their classmates. The result is a much higher level of peaceful concentration.
Our homes must meet the needs of both adults and children so it is a bit more challenging. Try beginning with limiting the use of electronic devices. The American Pediatric Association recommends no screen time at all for children up to two years of age. That's right, no television, tablets, movies, etc. The brain of this age child is developing rapidly. Social skills are being formed and language is being learned at an amazing rate. Screen activities teach the brain not to concentrate as they break focus about every 30 seconds. Children who are in front of a screen are not listening to others, watching for social clues and most importantly, not forming social relationships with others. Between the ages of 2 until 9 or 10 only 1 hour of total screen time is recommended, increasing to 1 1/2 hours after the age of 10.
Provide other activities such as board games, singing, dancing, art and outside play time. Every child needs at least 1 hour of active outside activity to remain healthy. An excellent book about the necessity of outside play in "Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv.
Turn off the television if no one is watching it and remember that even if the children do not seem to be watching, the negative effects still take place if they are in the room. Try to keep phone use to a minimum when children are present. Let them see that face to face conversations are more fun. Children learn to read facial expressions and understand much better when they can both see and hear. Read to your child everyday. Let them see you reading for pleasure. Tell them stories from your childhood! These activities build connection, trust and joy, all of which will help your child to be more connected, concentrated and content.
In the car instead of a movie or tablet game, sing, talk and play verbal games. In the next post there will be ideas for replacing some of the electronic clutter with activities that will help your child to concentrate, understand and stay with a task.
In the meantime, try organizing your child's environment, respect their concentration and encourage activities with others rather than screen time.
Every little step helps and the rewards will be great for your whole family!