Elements of a Confident Kid… Focus
– a main purpose or interest1
I just could not devote my undivided attention to working on this blog post today while my son was home from school – a snow day. Though I had a few quiet moments while I watched him play outside with a friend, I knew that the minute I got started, he would have a need. And so I never allowed myself to get involved in my article. There are two distractions that move us away from focused attention, both of which I experienced. The first is sensory, all of the sights, sounds and smells that surround and stimulate us. The second is emotional. “Will he fall off of his sled?” (worry) – “My work is piling.” (anxiety) and “I should be doing the ‘good Mom on a snow day’ things like creative projects and baking cookies.” (guilt). Often both come into play when trying to focus our attention. Yet, focus is essential for deep thinking and learning to take place. Confident kids are able to focus on important tasks in order to be successful. They will be required to do so in school. But life is busy. There are many competing demands for their attention. If we need to prioritize focusing in order for our kids to be successful in school and in life, how do we do it?
As with all social and emotional skills, the most powerful way to teach is to model. So the focus challenge then becomes, can you place your undivided attention on your child for a short time each day? Is she telling a story about something that happened at school? Put down your spoon. The chili can wait. Sit down, eyeball to eyeball, and let her complete her story with your full attention. Those moments will allow her regular practice in observing focused attention. In addition to promoting focus, you’ll have the added benefit of deep listening and enhancing your trust and connection as you show you are truly hearing what she is saying.
We also model focus when we engage in an activity that we love. Doing something for the pure joy of it is a benefit for you and your children. If they can participate with you, great. But if not, just your own participation in some activity that allows you joy places you in the state of “flow” and allows your children to watch you focus your attention.
Awareness and Support
Your awareness of sensory and emotional stimuli that may disrupt a child’s focus can help you become more sensitive in supporting them when needed. Perhaps they have a big project due for school and are struggling to complete it. Think about the sensory inputs. Is there music humming or are there television personalities talking? Is a younger brother zooming his airplane through the room? You can help eliminate those distractions. And what about emotional stimuli? Was there a fight after school between friends that might be weighing on his mind? Or did his teacher warn him that this project was critical to maintain a passing grade? Talking with him about his feelings can help ease the worries that might be distracting him from his work. Asking questions about what happened and what he can do next time to make things better may be enough to allow him to devote his attention to the project at hand.
Daniel Goleman in his book, Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence writes, “The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.”2 It merely requires practice. Do offer children chances for play on their own (without a playmate or electronic device). This creative time will allow them focused attention on their development through play. Do provide the toys and tools to encourage an interest. It may well turn into a joy that will offer regular practice in undivided attention.
Offer practice in self control, or emotional regulation.This practice could include naming feelings when they arise. Decide on ways to deal with strong emotions like anger or worry. You may talk with a teenage girl about writing in her private journal when she is upset. With a young child, you may practice punching pillows or cuddling a teddy bear when emotions challenge. And focusing on breathing together can be a powerful calming strategy to use and rehearse when not upset so that it’s ready when it’s truly needed. Those children who have practiced managing their emotions will be able to do the same when faced with a school exam right after having an argument with their best friend. Working on coping strategies with your child when all is calm will allow you to offer a gentle reminder during emotional storms. Those kids who have had many small chances to practice will be able to use those tools when the bigger challenges come along and they will be able to focus their minds.
It’s the end of the day and my son is snug in bed. I have shut my office doors to block out the sensory stimuli beyond. I baked my cookies this afternoon so I have no guilt for the moment. I can write my article with full undivided focus.
For related articles, check out:
Strategies for Teaching Self-Control
Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/focus on 1-6-15.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence. NY: Harper Collins.