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.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.