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    1001 Ways to Build an Attention Span {Part the Second}

    September 1, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    I have been enjoying the participation in the comments of my post yesterday. There were some very good thoughts and ideas there, which, of course, got me thinking about additions to my own list. Here they are, some of them just a fleshing out of the ideas of others in the comments, in no particular order:

    • Keep children well-rested. I was going to suggest requiring regular naps, but then I decided that this really depends on the age and individual need of each child. The point is not to nap, but to get adequate sleep. I don’t know about you, but I cannot think well when I am too tired. Most people cannot, and children are people. Children that have actual sleep problems tend to have behavioral or processing issues. Food allergies, by the way, can interrupt sleep as much as anything else can. Ask me how I know.

      I was recently informed about a book on sleep called Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. I have not read it, but I have heard very good things, including the interesting assumption that children that chronically sleep poorly {like babies who refuse to nap in healthy amounts} become addicted to their own adrenaline as a result, causing them to end up in a vicious cycle of sleeplessness.

    • Feed them real food regularly. I mentioned food before, but I forgot to mention frequency. Children like to eat about six times a day, sometimes more. I have one child in particular that will completely shut down if she is not fed throughout the day, and this includes all snacks {midmorning, midafternoon, and before dinner}. Her snacks are often modest {apples dipped in peanut butter or a handful of dried fruit and nuts}, but she needs them desperately. She cannot focus on anything outside of herself when she is hungry.
    • Maintain a peaceful home. Relational and emotional turmoil is distracting for anyone. Good things can be distracting, too, like a child who cannot concentrate on his studies because he is going camping in two days. Bad things are on their minds, but in different ways. If we want them to learn to concentrate, we should not condemn them to a shifting, tumultuous environment.
    • Give them solitude. This was mentioned in the comments yesterday, but I wanted to second it! Even when they are no longer taking naps, we offer one to two hours of solitude every afternoon. This is a time when they can do all sorts of quiet things: build with Legos, draw a picture, and read a book. I have learned to leave the school books out because both E. and A. will both review when left to themselves. E. will reread every word we read earlier in the day, and A. will use her fingers to retrace the letters she learned to write, or flip through 1 Is One and practice her numbers over and over, taking the time to count each picture.
    • Don’t have too many toys. I am thinking mainly of babies here. Some babies with too many toys, especially if they have lots of bells and whistles, become very difficult children. Likely, they are overwhelmed. I had to protect my children against this, especially my oldest. When he was tiny, he would immediately fall asleep when he played with anything battery-powered. I always assumed it was too overstimluating, and he needed to withdraw. Different children reveal their overstimulation differently.
    • Vacation in nature rather than the city. This is sort of a weird one, and please don’t take it as a criticism if you favorite thing to do is go on a city adventure. It is just something I was thinking about. Everything in the world in general is screaming for a child’s attention. Cities are full of noise and clutter and the name of the game is distraction. For a child who is struggling with attention, a week at the same campground staring at the same beautiful lake {and exploring all the nearby trails, of course, no need to be sedate} might be soothing to the mind and soul.
    • Fill your home with peaceful music. This is something that seems to work at our house. If I play music that is more…harsh…the children seem to follow suit, and they cannot sit still during Circle Time. But when I fill our home with music that is more beautiful, it calms them down, and seems to help them pay more attention during their lessons, even though I have since turned the music off. Opera, hymns, classical, and jazz {not big band, even though we love it} all seem to do the trick for them.
    • Let them choose. This was mentioned in the comments yesterday, along with another concept, which was achieving mastery. I think the two go together, in a way. It would, for instance, be very hard to make a huge attempt at mastery if one’s heart isn’t in it. Allowing children to choose would help. In addition to this, I think of one amazing family I met whose daughter had the huge attention problems I mentioned yesterday. One of the ways in which they helped her was to allow her to obsess over her favorite subject, even to the detriment of other subjects. Obviously, she was a special case, but I learned from watching them. The parents knew that the only other option was no attention at all. Better to develop the skill in one area, and then try to transfer it to another area later on, especially when working with an extremely difficult child.
    • Set the example. During the day, it is hard for me to sit still. I want to jump up every chance I get and change the laundry or pour a cup of coffee. However, my instincts told me this year that my four-year-old needs me to stay right there. If she is drawing, I need to, too. She needs the example more than my oldest did. Not only has this given me a bit of calm, for drawing is more therapeutic than I ever knew {especially when attempting something truly beautiful, like a Raphael}, but I have noticed that her ability to attend almost exactly matches mine. So if I hold out for fifteen minutes, so does she. If I go for twenty, she does, too.

      I began to think about this, and the idea that “more is caught than taught.” Who said that? I cannot recall. But the wisdom is there. The children follow the example of the parents. They do what we do, rather than only what we say. So if we develop our own ability to attend, which is also tied, I think, to our own capacity to delight in the world around us and in the ideas we encounter, this will be contagious, and our children will catch the “bug.”

    • Put less into the day. In traditional school, children can be crammed with a rushing river of ideas, one right after the other. In the homeschool, or preschool, years, we can slow it down. Moving from one thought to another, completely disconnected thought, does not build sound thinking skills. It does not build meditation skills. It does not build logic skills. About the only thing this does is prevent boredom, which can be a useful tool if approached correctly.

      Running older children through, for instance, a day in the average American high school, might mean studying up to seven separate subjects in one day. Students are allotted approximately forty minutes to cover these subjects, and they may be expected to think about many separate ideas within each subject. For the sake of doing the math, let’s say each subject expects four completely separate thoughts. For instance, in Literature, you need to know about Hester’s letter A, and also that Daisy always more white, who you are going to write your next paper on, and whether Orwell or Huxley will eventually turn out to be correct. Incidentally, depending on the school you attend, you may only have read excerpts or summaries of these works rather than the real thing, and so your knowledge and understanding will be cursory at best. This means that, by the end of the day, the older child was expected to think about twenty-eight different ideas.

      Know what? He didn’t think any of these thoughts to completion. And by being rushed through them, he was taught that none of them really matter anyhow. John Taylor Gatto called this the “lesson of apathy,” and if you haven’t read his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, I highly recommend it.

      I was thinking about this in regard to our Friday field trips. It can be tempting to hit the creamery at 8:30am, and then maybe a print shop at 9:45, and then also throw in a lesson in the produce aisle of the grocery store before heading home for lunch. But what if the whole day focused on one of these things? What if the visit with whichever business owner was leisurely. What if, instead of rushing to the next thing, the children were allowed to watch a complete printing of a magazine from beginning to end, and then ask questions of the man running the shop? What if the visit to one location took two hours?

      The children would only think about one thing.

      But it is far more likely that they will think it through, think it well, and have gained the beginning of understanding.

      What we are choosing between here is superficiality and real knowledge. What saddens me the most is that in accepting short attention spans and catering to them, we are raising a generation condemned to the former.

    Okay. So that is all of my additional thoughts…I think. Anybody have more for us? What else can we add to the list?

    Read More:
    1001 Ways to Build an Attention Span {Part the First}
    Lessons from Charlotte: Paying Attention is a Mental Habit

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  • Reply Brandy September 6, 2009 at 9:24 pm


    I have been trying to think about this one, the sitting in church, and I think you are on to something, actually. I was debating within myself, and then I remembered that Si’s grandma, before she passed, had said that she didn’t understand why no one taught their child to sit in church anymore (she was Catholic, and this was something that was expected in her day), and that she could tell a child who had been trained to sit with the congregation from a mile away.

    It dawned on me that this cultivates some underlying self-control that is necessary to be able to give attention to something for a time. Somewhere once, I wrote about the continuum that sitting in church involves. The toddlers are basically learning to sit still and be quiet. That is all. But this is the foundation for ever being able to process a sermon, and if we never learn to sit still, we will never get to the point of taking in the sermon, so I think you landed on foundational habits here.


    I totally agree that this goes for any of us. There have been times where I worked really hard to attain to a better habit of attention. For me, and maybe there is something to this, I made a rule for a while that if I began to read something on my computer, I had to finish it. No more sloppy scanning. It isn’t that I think scanning is inherently wrong, but I needed to have more self-control for a time as a discipline for myself.

  • Reply Rahime September 2, 2009 at 5:15 am

    I was trying to think of ways I attempt to build my own attention span. (I also work with kids on this particularly when if comes to SAT prep–some of the reading passages can be excruciatingly boring, and most of my students have NEVER sat for a 4 hr. test prior to the SAT, which is now 3 hrs. & 45 min.) One of the things I do is to start with small goals–read two sentences, work for 10 minutes–and build up. Can’t remember anything else that hasn’t been mentioned, but I completely agree with those things you’ve listed, and think they’re generally effective for all people, not just children. After all, most of us these days are atrociously inattentive.

  • Reply Mystie September 2, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Let’s see if I can comment here without being vulgar. 😉

    I can’t think of anything to add, but your point about modeling attention span certainly hit home! Ouch! I have modeled attention span in reading books, and all three of my children have happily sat and poured over books before they were two. However, today I found myself tapping my foot impatiently while supervising a five-minute handwriting sheet. Yikes!

    I don’t know if church-training is a tool or a goal for attention span. Because none of our children have been very rambunctious, Sunday morning is the only time we’ve needed to spend working on sitting still and being quiet except meal-time prayers (which we do as soon as they are sitting at meals with us, at about 5-6 months). At church we don’t use the nursery; at about 13 months they generally stop sleeping through the service and we start teaching them to sit and be quiet. But being able to attend at church is really more of a goal than a method of training attention. It is always surprising what they are soaking in, even when it doesn’t look like they’re paying attention.

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