Educational Philosophy, Home Education

31 Days of Charlotte Mason: Developing the Habit of Attention

October 18, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

Before we discuss how to build the habit of attention, let’s just take a moment and acknowledge that attention is a habit. It’s easy to just gloss over that, but in this era of ADHD hysteria, it’s good to think for a moment about the idea that attention is something that can be trained.

I mean, yes, some children are naturally born more attentive than others. No doubt. Some are also born naturally more musical, I suppose. But, like music, attention can be trained.

Miss Mason helps us understand attention as an act of the will in the way that she defines it in the first place:

Attention is hardly even an operation of the mind, but is simply the act by which the whole mental force is applied to the subject in hand.

Vol. 1, p. 145

Like any act of the will, however, it is much easier for us if we make it into a habit. So I can “make” myself pay attention when I need to, exerting a lot of mental effort, or I can build a habit of attention, and therefore be able to pay attention without even really noticing that I do so.

Why would we cultivate the habit of attention?

[T]he highest intellectual gifts depend for their value upon the measure in which their owner has cultivated the habit of attention. To explain why this habit is of such supreme importance, we must consider the operation of one or two of the laws of thought. But just recall, in the meantime, the fixity of attention with which the trained professional man — the lawyer, the doctor, the man of letters — listens to a roundabout story, throws out the padding, seizes the facts, sees the bearing of every circumstance, and puts the case with new clearness and method; and contrast this with the wandering eye and random replies of the uneducated; — and you see that to differentiate people according to their power of attention is to employ a legitimate test.

Vol. 1, p. 137

In Part 4 of her first volume, Miss Mason gives some hints on how she herself would go about training the habit of attention in a child:

  • Make the lessons attractive. She doesn’t mean that we must dress them up in entertainment clothes, but that the lessons themselves ought to be interesting and worth thinking about.
  • Have a posted schedule and alternate types of learning. The posted schedule allows the anxious child to see that they will not have to pay attention to this for. ev. er. It’ll be over at its due time (and we must make it a point to stop on time, that this might be actually true). Blossom already talked about alternation.
  • Offer a natural reward. Basically, if they finish early, their time is theirs to enjoy.
  • Offer them knowledge. The brain’s natural food is ideas. It is really, really hard to pay attention to a dry, dull, boring textbook that contains only facts with no attendant ideas. Make training the attention a delight to the child.
  • Be on guard against the habit of inattention. This means we have to keep a close eye on our students and stop them at the first sign of what Miss Mason called “mooning” over their lessons. It is so much easier to prevent day-dreaming and dawdling in a first grader than to try and fight the habit of dawdling and day-dreaming in a sixth grader. Stop it before it starts by paying attention to your students.

Miss Mason is talking about this in the context of a young child’s classroom, but in other places she makes it clear that we can train attention from the very beginning, starting with our babies and toddlers:

Is little Margaret fixing round eyes on a daisy she has plucked? In a second, the daisy will be thrown away, and a pebble or a buttercup will charm the little maid. But the mother seizes the happy moment. She makes Margaret see that the daisy is a bright yellow eye with white eyelashes round it; that all the day long it lies there in the grass and looks up at the great sun, never blinking as Margaret would do, but keeping its eye wide open. And that is why it is called daisy, ‘day’s eye,’ because its eye is always looking at the sun which makes the day. And what does Margaret think it does at night, when there is no sun? It does what little boys and girls do; it just shuts up its eye with its white lashes tipped with pink, and goes to sleep till the sun comes again in the morning. By this time the daisy has become interesting to Margaret; she looks at it with big eyes after her mother has finished speaking, and then, very likely, cuddles it up to her breast or gives it a soft little kiss. Thus the mother will contrive ways to invest every object in the child’s world with interest and delight.

Vol. 1, p. 140

When dealing with our tiniest children, every extra second we can coax out of them will pay dividends in the future.

Now, with all of this said, I’m going to post my list of 1001 Ways to Build an Attention Span (while acknowledging that this is a catchy title, not a real numerical value):

  • No gadgets. Blinking screens, flashy commercials, zipping action scenes, and on and on — all of these promote the mind’s flying from one disconnected thought to another. Video games are strange beasts because though a child can develop an intense attention to a favorite game, everything else seems to pale by comparison, and so that seeming habit of attention does not transfer to other areas of life. Let me tell you: when it comes to children, you can always tell the difference between the children who are allowed lots of gadgets and television, and those who aren’t. Sometimes, I think this makes more difference than homeschooling.
  • Read stories.
  • Let them get bored.
  • Train talkative children to be quiet.
  • Ask good questions. I don’t mean this during lessons, for Miss Mason is very careful to warn us against such a practice. But I just mean that as a parent, you can engage your child in conversation, and interesting conversations can stimulate more attention to the subject at hand.
  • Keep a nature journal. This cultivates the habit of attending with the eye.
  • Live a slow life. Children who are signed up for every activity under the sun and therefore rushed from activity to activity do not have to learn the art of filling time for themselves with occupations of interest. This does a child a lot of favors, and not just in the area of attention.
  • Get the wiggles out. It’s okay to take a walk before lessons, if that helps little Johnny pay better attention.
  • Attend to the child’s diet. Some children with ADHD actually have food allergies or chemical sensitivies. If the “normal” approaches to attention problems aren’t working, try cutting foods that include ingredients such as Red 40 and find out what happens. Hungry children have trouble paying attention to anything outside their tummies. Well-nourished brains do better at their lessons. It is hard to keep a child nourished if you are leaving out entire food groups, so unless the child has serious allergies, special diets aren’t preferable.
  • Get enough rest. Tired people can’t concentrate. If you have ever had a newborn, you know that this is true. Children need at least 10 hours of sleep per night, on average.
  • Maintain a peaceful home. Children from tumultuous homes are distracted by their troubles.
  • Give them solitude. If you are like me, this means you have to orchestrate it and enforce it or they will find each other.
  • Get rid of excess toys. Too many toys is basically the opposite of cultivating attention. This is more true if the toys run on batteries and have blinking lights that say, “Look at me! Look at me!”

Obviously, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think it’s a good start.

You may want to read more here: Narration and the Single Reading.


Click here to go to the 31 Days of Charlotte Mason series directory.

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11 Comments

  • Reply 31 Days of Charlotte Mason: Introduction (Day 1) | Afterthoughts August 24, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    […] Study by Michelle DawnDay 16: Narration by Karen GlassDay 17: Plutarch by Carol HudsonDay 18: Developing the Habit of AttentionDay 19: Masterly InactivityDay 20: CM-ing Only Children by LaurkeDay 21: What Age to Start a Child […]

  • Reply Christina Jones September 9, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    I’m probably missing the obvious implications, but I struggle with the idea of setting time limits. Sure, if they finish early they get the rewards. But what if the child makes a joke out of it, dawdles, daydreams, etc., and in the end doesn’t finish by the time limit? I should stick to my word and move on to the next “lesson”, but then what? (I have a kindergartener, by the way.) For example, if I set out to have him trace a few letters on a page, but he decides to scribble on the paper, complain, flip his pencil across the room for fun, etc., I feel like I am reinforcing his behavior by moving on (because when something seems challenging, he tends to make it a joke and run away from responsibility), not to mention getting nowhere further in our curriculum. That just isn’t sustainable over the long haul.
    Is it okay, then, to circle back to the same lesson later during our school time in order to make sure the material is completed? (Not to mention encouraging him to face up to challenges instead of avoiding them.)

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 12, 2017 at 6:39 am

      Welcome to Afterthoughts, Christina! In a Charlotte Mason education, forming the habit of attention at kindergarten age would not be done through lessons — because formal, sit-down lessons are not begun until first grade. It’d be formed more by other activities — looking at a painting together (no narration until age six) and putting it away before he gets bored with it, learning to sing a song (but stopping before it’s tiresome), reading stories (maybe even some chapter books) a little bit at a time, going on a nature walk and seeing all the things he can pay attention to, doing chores with mom (this is important if he’s a dawdler) and completeing them quickly without stopping, etc.

      I have written about dawdling before — this post on dawdling during math time comes to mind — but at this age I would just assume it might be the nature of the task. I have a pencil-resistant son. He’s nine, and at this age he only writes for 10 minutes per day. It’s something we’ve worked up to. Even though Miss Mason was starting with at least 10 minutes of actual writing at age 6, he could only pay attention for a few minutes at that age, so that is all we did. It seems counter intuitive, but it works — by stopping BEFORE they stop paying attention, they are learning to pay attention. Every time we go so long that their mind wanders off, they are learning to let their mind wanders. This is the economy of habit. 🙂

      I hope this helps! ♥

  • Reply Corinna October 21, 2013 at 5:46 am

    Such good thoughts to mull over today. I’ve done this naturally as a parent even while my children were still very small. Then read Charlotte Mason’s books and felt encouraged to continue this practice of training attention as they began their schooling years. Now you have brought it to mind again and for some reason this is sticking with me. So I’m going to diligently observe the family happenings over the next few days and see which areas/children I might need to give my extra focused attention to in this area.

  • Reply Carolinablessed October 19, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    A friend of mine who works in a public high school has said she thinks that television is “training” kids minds to only pay attention from commercial to commercial. That time frame happens repeatedly so it makes sense and argues the point of less television for children.

  • Reply walking October 19, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    We were discussing this habit yesterday at school! I’m going to share it on Facebook.

  • Reply Carol October 19, 2013 at 3:50 am

    Good, practical suggestions. Thanks Brandy.

  • Reply Anonymous October 18, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Excellent, excellent, excellent! These are the same simple, yet fruitful, methods we employ in our home. Thanks for writing this all out, Brandy.

    Is 7:15 “Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the good, and choose the evil.” I like to apply this verse to our lives in principle, and we have enjoyed the fruit of it in our family.

    JoyH

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 23, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      I love that verse, Joy. 🙂

    • Reply Michelle G. February 1, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      Um, refuse the good? I think you got that backwards!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 1, 2014 at 6:18 pm

      Ha! You’re right! Good catch, Michelle. 🙂

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