Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Habit of Attention

How often today do we come across children who can't hold a conversation, can't sit still, can't focus? What is our society's answer? ADHD - medicate! Is this really the answer? In some cases, perhaps, but in so many children? What are the stats now? I think in some states it is 10% or higher. Really, 1 in 10 children has ADHD?

There's no doubt attention is of utmost significance. Charlotte Mason believed it was worth more than...
all the so-called faculties put together; this, at any rate, is true, that no talent, no genius, is worth much without the power of attention; and this is the power which makes men or women successful in life. (Vol.5, p.29)
What good is talent or genius without the power of attention?

But Charlotte Mason didn't think attention was a "faculty" (something you either have or you don't). She saw it as something that can be trained, a skill to be developed.

If she were alive today, I wonder if she wouldn't have a few choice words about it all.  I also wonder if we adults were to put ourselves in our children's shoes and endure what they endure in the classroom - text books, testing, talky-talky teachers, dumbed down readings, etc - day in and day out, we mightn't be diagnosed with ADHD ourselves!

Don't you ever wonder how much of it is truly the child and how much is the methods and the curriculum and the lack of any shred of worthwhile thought for these children to chew on?

Charlotte Mason claimed *every* child had full measure of attention within them.
Attention, we know, is not a 'faculty' nor a definable power of mind but is the ability to turn on every such power, to concentrate, as we say. We throw away labour in attempting to produce or to train this necessary function. There it is in every child in full measure, a very Niagara of force, ready to be turned on in obedience to the child's own authority and capable of infinite resistance to authority imposed from without. (Vol.6, p.75)
In other words, it's useless to try to produce this function of attention in the child. It's there already in full measure. We just have to teach them how to turn it on. It resists *infinitely* (yikes!) when it is imposed from without (the parent, teacher, etc.)

She wants us to teach the child to will themselves to attention rather than just obeying forced attention. One is lifelong, the other will be temporary, ending as soon as the teacher is gone. There is no education but self-education.
Self-Compelled.––As the child gets older, he is taught to bring his own will to bear; to make himself attend in spite of the most inviting suggestions from without. He should be taught to feel a certain triumph in compelling himself to fix his thoughts. Let him know what the real difficulty is, how it is the nature of his mind to be incessantly thinking, but how the thoughts, if left to themselves, will always run off from one thing to another, and that the struggle and the victory required of him is to fix his thoughts upon the task in hand. (Vol.1, p.145)
This has to be approached in several ways. On one end, the child has to understand the reason why they must pay attention. What does it matter to them? If they think it is for mom or the teacher, there will be little motivation.
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. This act, of bringing the whole mind to bear, may be trained into a habit at the will of the parent or teacher, who attracts and holds the child's attention by means of a sufficient motive. (Vol.1, p.145)
The child of God is taught that he is here with purpose - to glorify God. 

Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism states: "What is the chief end of man?" "...to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."

What opportunities will arise in their lifetime to glorify God? They can not know, but they can prepare as best as they can. I've talked to my kids about many things I've come across in life where I could have prepared better and missed opportunities because of it. We can't know what will be needed of us, but we can do our best to prepare ourselves in service to Him, to our community, to our future spouse, family, etc. which in turn benefits us as well. And this all ties into Charlotte Mason's motto - I am, I can, I ought, I will

With the right motivation, the child can then be brought to know that they have the ability in themselves to focus their own attention. As mentioned, CM said it is not a faculty, but a habit to be developed.
All school work should be conducted in such a manner that children are aware of the responsibility of learning; it is their business to know that which has been taught. To this end the subject matter should not be repeated. We ourselves do not attend to the matters in our daily paper which we know we shall meet with again in a weekly review, nor to that if there is a monthly review in prospect; these repeated aids result in our being persons of wandering attention and feeble memory. To allow repetition of a lesson is to shift the responsibility for it from the shoulders of the pupil to those of the teacher who says, in effect,––"I'll see that you know it," so his pupils make no effort of attention. Thus the same stale stuff is repeated again and again and the children get bored and restive, ready for pranks by way of a change. (Vol.6, p.75)
...those who propose suggestion as a means of education do not consider that with every such attempt upon a child they weaken that which should make a man of him, his own power of choice. (Vol.6, p.130)
Some things we can do to help the child develop the habit of attention are:
*Make him aware of his ability to will himself to pay attention. Let him know that like a muscle, the more he exercises his will to pay attention, the stronger it gets and the more he will be able to pay attention.
*Use living books in their curriculum, not dead lifeless books.
*Set the expectation that the reading will happen only once and they are to give it full attention.
*Keep lessons short (10-15 min. to start) and focused, you can gradually increase the time as their attention improves.
*Give a very brief intro to the reading for context and write any difficult names up on the board so they are aware of them before the reading and not taken off track by them during the reading.
*Let them know they will be asked to tell back (narrate) what they heard.
*Let them know the reason why they narrate - so they can remember. Not so you can check what they remember. By telling back, they cement things in their own minds and that's why we are asking them to narrate. That takes you out of the picture and helps them realize they are educating themselves, not spewing back information for the sake of the teacher.
*Don't interrupt or correct them during narrations - make brief corrections only after they are finished - and then focus on the ideas, not the facts.
*Don't re-read! (unless they genuinely missed something or wanted clarification out of interest; which is very different from not paying attention)
*Stop right at a cliff hanger so they look forward to the next reading. (think Pinnochio)
*Genuinely praise whatever effort you see them making towards developing their habit of attention.
*Go about this little by little, day by day rather than expecting perfection the first day. It takes time and practice just like anything else.
*Grace, patience and encouragement are a great help.  
Another misapprehension which makes for disorder is our way of regarding attention. We believe that it is to be cultivated, nursed, coddled, wooed by persuasion, by dramatic presentation, by pictures and illustrative objects: in fact, the teacher, the success of whose work depends upon his 'personality,' is an actor of no mean power whose performance would adorn any stage. Attention, we know, is not a 'faculty' nor a definable power of mind but is the ability to turn on every such power, to concentrate, as we say. We throw away labour in attempting to produce or to train this necessary function. There it is in every child in full measure, a very Niagara of force, ready to be turned on in obedience to the child's own authority and capable of infinite resistance to authority imposed from without. (Vol.6, p.75)
Attention 'is in every child in full measure'. Then why do we see so little of it in so many children? Mason claims that we hinder it. Some things she says hinder attention are:
*the 'talky-talky teacher' who gets between the book and the child
*dead lifeless books with no living thought in them
*long lessons
*force and coercion
*not accepting what the child gives back (their work is never good enough)
*prodding and coddling with questions
*not trusting the child's intellect

I think it's worth mentioning also that TV and video games with heightened sensation on a regular basis will likely stimulate their sensitivities to the point where a book lacks the excitement they are used to. I also firmly believe that being in the middle of a bunch of noisy unsettled kids bouncing from one place to another, what we sometimes see in preschools, can also negatively train the attention.

Nature, on the other hand, and curiously being led to observe the wonder of - a spider building a web, an ant carrying something heavier than itself, a flycatcher catching bugs, etc. strengthens attention. Here again, the 'talky-talky' must give way unsolved mysteries which lead to wonder, curiosity and self-education.

Through an understanding of God's will in their life, enlisting their own will, Mason's methods in lessons, time in nature, an atmosphere of the home where children are regarded and heard... it's all interweaved in a way that the child's existing attention is not hindered, but strengthened and the "whole mind brought to bear."
In this way of learning the child comes to his own; he makes use of the authority which
is in him in its highest function as a self-commanding, self-compelling, power. ...But to make yourself attend, make yourself know, this indeed is to come into a king––all the more satisfying to children because they are so made that they revel in knowledge. (Vol.6, p.77)


  1. Wonderful post! Timely for me, too, as I often need reminding nudges about such things.

  2. What an articulate, encouraging post. Thank you Naomi!

  3. This is what I had been looking for a couple of months back. Very well written and tremendously helpful. Thank you for writing it.