Lately, it’s been all about the brain.

Almost every teaching challenge I’ve faced lately (with the one notable exception of Ja’Neesha’s nasal fluids) has broken down to student difficulty with sustaining attention. Yosef’s teacher wonders if he’s on different ADHD meds; Isabel’s mother notes that she’s “spacey” at home.  Juan Carlos diligently watches as an adult gives directions, then does pretty much the opposite of everything the adult said. Fifth grade work builds on fourth grade learning, and suddenly I realize how much did not get learned.

The human brain has no off switch; no matter what, even when we’re asleep, we are always mentally active.  There is never a moment, for even my flightiest student, when he or she is not “paying attention”–the tricky question is, paying attention to what?  Enter, then, the concept of distraction.  In order for my students–for all students–to deploy their attention in the most effective way, they need to understand how that attention gets sidetracked, so that they can recognize when it happens and steer their minds back to the work at hand.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a lesson in a general education third grade class to introduce the concept of “inside the brain” and “outside the brain” distractions (infinite thanks to SLP Jill Kuzma!) .  It was a good use of my time: two of my three students in there struggle mightily with ‘inside the brain distractors’ (daydreaming), and the third is, well, a reliable source of distraction for others.  Most students quickly understood the concept of distracting stimuli around them (in a room with 31 little bodies where twenty ought to be, it’s hard not to find things that draw your attention), but the idea of an ‘inside the brain distractor’ was new to most of them.

Awareness, of course, is only the first part.  Once you realize you’re distracted, what do you do?  Sometimes, it’s possible to reduce the source of distraction: for my students in my office, this usually takes the form of turning my computer monitor off, because Finn installed a screensaver which features endlessly expanding multicolored pipes.  The fifth graders close a window when the playground noise is loud; Juan Carlos is very enthusiastic about the “Testing: Do Not Disturb” sign I can hang outside my office.  But what if you’re distracted by what your classmate smells like?  What if the person next to you breathes a little louder than you want her to? The light bulb got changed yesterday: what if you notice what that does to the light?  Yosef’s personal nemesis is the feeling of one particular part of his hair, on one particular part of his forehead: at the times when it itches, he can think of nothing else.  Then there’s the ADHD experience, when you have to think of all of that (the hair, the breathing, the smells, the lights) and whatever the teacher is saying.

The folks behind PBS’s documentary on learning differences, Misunderstood Minds, put it thusly:

“A common misconception about children with attention problems is that they aren’t paying attention at all. But children who struggle with attention may actually pay attention to everything; their difficulty is deciding what to focus on and maintaining that focus.”

Focusing is a skill, a muscle that needs developing.  In between the previous paragraph and typing that sentence, TeacherBeth conducted two web searches (only one of which directly related to her original intention of finding a better quote), scratched her eye a lot, fought with herself over wanting to check Facebook, spent 30 seconds pondering an unrelated recess issue, and had a number of angry thoughts about the guy on a cell phone halfway across the room.  Focus is something we adults still find difficult.

According to a growing number of experts and researchers, the ability to appropriately focus is possibly one of the skills most connected to student (and adult) success.  Psychologist Daniel Goleman argues that ‘cognitive control‘ (the ability to manage one’s own attention) may be even more important than the ability to delay immediate gratification for future rewards, which was tested and measured six ways from Sunday in the famous Stanford Marshmallow Test.  Indeed, the ability to delay one’s impulses (to hold out for the promised two marshmallows instead of gobbling the first) is only one subset of this broader skill base.

Focus is the heart of it.  Can you pay attention to the most important details, are you able to set aside or otherwise manage thoughts or feelings that distract you from what matters?  How do you decide what matters, anyway, when all around you and all inside you are layers on layers of competing, changing stimuli?  When I actually think of what it takes to “pay attention”, it amazes me, really, that anyone learns anything.

For my students, I’ve found it important to explicitly state the basic behaviors which are most likely to increase student focus (turn your back to the distraction, put your eyes on the speaker, write down at least a few of the words being said), and also to give them a sense of the outcomes of focusing.  We use a 5-point rubric for situations in which students are asked to pay attention to content which is mostly presented verbally:

Screen shot 2013-10-14 at 8.13.30 PM(Download your own here:  focus)

It’s worth pointing out to students that 5 pretty much never happens, because we’re humans, not tape recorders that little voice memo button mom presses on her iPhone.  Still, there’s usually room for growth; one activity we’re doing with Juan Carlos and Yosef involves them self-reporting how they did on ‘Brain in the Group’, and comparing that score how an adult thought they were listening.  Just focusing on whether the basic “eyes on teacher” was happening is never enough to be sure a child’s listening, and I have to admit, it creeps me out a bit with Juan Carlos gives me the full attentive stare.  The tricky part is what you really take in and remember, so a recap is always a part of Focus Check.  Who was talking?  What were they talking about?  What are at least a couple of the specific things they said?

To summarize, as one must when confronted with a great deal of information and a large number of potential distractions: it’s not nearly as simple as “just pay attention”, but it’s significantly more important than we previously thought. However! There are ways to help our students, and ourselves, to gain insight into and control over our own attentional processes.  I’m working, next, on some follow-up lessons about specific tools for managing distraction (there are elements of mindfulness practice which have been demonstrated to have an impact on children’s ability to focus and learn).  But first, unfortunately…squirrel!

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