The Habit of Attention

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention.  It is, to quote words of weight, ‘within the reach of every one, and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline’; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them (Charlotte Mason: Home Education, Vol. 1, p. 146.) [emphasis mine]

I promised you a post about increasing attention span, didn’t I?

But I want to back up, because the habit of attention has two parts really– the length of time we are able to sustain it, and the ferocity of attention we pay.  (Thanks to the amazing Brian Doyle for that phrase.)

Isaac Newton said, “If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent.”  And Thomas Edison’s “1000 ways not to make a light bulb” relied on his determined attention to a singular problem.  Without paying attention, what can we accomplish?
Okay, so nuts and bolts.  How to do we teach the habit of attention?

1. We offer interesting material.

2. We expect a high level of attention (eg., narrations from a first reading, not allowing dawdling, perfect execution of copywork) but for a short period of time.  Nothing makes me pay attention like a looming deadline.

3.  Charlotte Mason says that we ought to begin teaching attention from the earliest times.  When a baby drops a toy, we bring it back to her attention.  When a toddler moves on from an activity, we show them one more wrinkle on the game to draw their attention back to it.

These photos are of SweetP and our young neighbor, who wanted to sew when I was trying to clean out our sewing box.  SweetP was ready to be done after about three tries, but I kept encouraging her to try a little longer.  Likewise, when O wanted to practice volleyball this morning, he was done after 10 minutes.  I challenged him to an extra ten hits.

In our school day, it requires my attention to teach their attention.  When I am wandering from chore to chore and telling them, “I’ll be there in a minute,” it’s no wonder that after half an hour, when I finally make it to the table, they have only done one problem.  But if I sit at the table with them and gently draw them back to the paper, five math problems can be done in three minutes.
The reward for rapt attention is free time.  (And it’s odd, but my children do pay ferocious attention when they’re at their own activities.  I know they can do this… but we all have to learn to pay attention, even when it’s hard.)  A lesson completed in three (of fifteen minutes allotted) earns an extra twelve minutes of fun before the next lesson starts.  Or, if you’re my O, all your work completed in forty minutes yields hours of free time before lunch.

Practically, our preschool “attention teaching” will involve a timer.  For her school lessons, my goal is to keep the “teaching” to 60 seconds or less for each lesson, and then to work up her replication from 5 minutes to 15 minutes by the end of the year.


2 thoughts on “The Habit of Attention

  1. This is so great. And coming at a perfect time! So…. In a home where this has not been done well…. How long do we start with? Is there an approximate length per age? Or totally child dependent? What about the times when ‘gently drawing attention’ is not working…? And if I need to do something that cannot wait (like change a poopy diaper), and I happen to have a child who I am confident will be off task the moment I leave: do I put him on break every time I need to leave? Any thoughts welcome… 🙂

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