THE CHILD WHO DOESN'T
By Garry Cleveland Myers, Ph.D.
Many parents want to know how to get their child to concentrate. They observe that he does not keep his attention at a stretch on what he is supposed to be learning from books.
Roughly, there are two types of children who don't concentrate: one type whose attention flits from one thing to another; the other who daydreams about one thing for a long period at a stretch, partly or entirely unaware of what others are saying and doing in his presence, or of what he is supposed to be attending to. The latter type of child may really be exercising very high concentration but not on the job immediately at hand.
Although in this latter group are many of the geniuses in art, literature, invention and the like, there also are many more who never get very far. For practical purposes, we want the child to learn to center his undivided attention on the mental task at hand. Then if he has ability to daydream for long stretches of time about one thing, he is the very child who should profit most from good habits of centering his attention on this mental task at hand.
Self-discipline in Concentration
A person in the upper grades, high school or college might be induced to discipline himself to pay attention to what is said in class and to what he is studying or reading, through continued effort at pulling himself back when be finds himself woolgathering. At such times he can improve at concentration. One way for him to arrive at such improvement is to check on himself from time to time to see how much he can reproduce the essence of what was said in his presence or of what he just read. But the student must want to effect this discipline on himself. We can't impose it on him by rebuking him for inattention or charging him with laziness. We might, however, win him to want to discipline himself by showing him when he's ready for such help how he can get better results and more satisfaction in less time.
We Often Discourage Concentration
Through our very zeal to cultivate good concentration habits in the child at home or school, we often do just the opposite. We render the child more scatter-brained or more prone to daydream. We do it by hounding him, expressing annoyance over his lack of concentration and eternally exhorting him "to pay attention" as a matter of duty. Continually we tell him he would learn better and get on better at school if only he would try harder. Now and then he may really resolve to do his best. But with so many failures facing him, he may soon grow discouraged, when his old habits of escape through thinking of something else assert themselves. Before he knows it, he's moving in the same old rut. Then our old habits go to work, causing us to harp on his being lazy, not trying, and "if only you would pay attention." We may have used this way toward him for years while he also has been a school laggard during the same period.
Unfortunately, many a teacher will inform the parent that the child is inattentive at school, assuming that the parent should scold or punish the child at home for such, and usually the parent does just this. How absurd!
What We Can Do
Now that we have seen what we parents and teachers should not do with the child who doesn't concentrate, let us see what we can really do for him. Our main objective should be to find a way to help this child gain more successes at his books in scores and hundreds of situations.
1.First we should have his vision and hearing checked by a specialist and corrected if at all possible; and make sure he has no other physical hin-drances to learning that can be remedied. If such corrections can't be made, we need to take these handicaps into account.
2.We should find out, through close cooperation with the school, or in some cases with a learning specialist, just where the child's learning troubles are and how we might help him in definite ways to get better results from his learning efforts. Sometimes he should have a tutor, if possible.
3.He may naturally be a slow learner.In all school subjects he may be dull; or he may have difficulty in only one or two such subjects. In either event, in order for him to enjoy more learning successes he will have to work only at what is easy enough for him to achieve, no matter how easy such work must be or at what grade level it usually is learned. For example, the child of the fifth grade, who is a very poor reader, may need to practice reading on material no harder than a second or third grade level. He must not feel ashamed of doing such simple, easy ,work. He must be able to save face. As you can see, a child can feel more comfortable when he works at such easy material at home than when he does the same at school, if he doesn't have a brother, sister or play-mate who "rubs it in." In addition, he must feel that what he learns is worth learning. The more interesting this easy material can be, the better, as the interest tends to increase with success. Therefore success makes it easier for him to pay attention to concentrate and consequently to win more success and generate more interest, attention and effort. He will try hardest when he succeeds most. We want to help him enjoy more successes and celebrate these successes with him. This is true in relation to any school subject.
4.Some bright children drift into habits of inattentiveness and daydreaming at school because they are bored with what seems too easy for them. By thus ignoring what is being said and done for some hours or days, the child may fail to gain some skills and knowledge he really needs to learn in order to succeed in later lessons. Therefore this bright child may actually face the trouble eventually which faces the duller child already described. The wise teacher gives this brighter child to do at school more that challenges his interest and ability. The parents should do likewise at home.
5.At home we parents can cultivate some good habits of concentration which should carry over to school by paying strict attention when the child talks to us and by being careful always to have his undivided attention before uttering a request or a command. Sometimes it will be well to have him repeat the request or command immediately. Also we need to train the child at home to do his regular chores promptly. Furthermore, we prevent daydreaming as we prevent or reduce dawdling, since daydreaming is the handmaid of dawdling.
Reading Usually Chief Problem
More often than not, it is in reading where the child lags most and, therefore, concentrates least. The longer the child is poor at reading in school, the more he is handicapped in all his schoolwork. See how his difficulties mount later in such subjects as history, literature and science.
Some Requirements of the Child
Although you should not command the school-child to pay attention, you should, as a rule, require him to be home and in the house on nights before school. As soon as he receives homework assignments you should require him each evening to go at them at a regular time and place, and see that no one interrupts him then. When you try to help the child at books, be sure you are very calm and patient. The moment you feel the least bit vexed at him then, you are unfit to be in his presence. Go away from him and let him alone.
Concentration by Baby and Young Child
Begin with the baby to cultivate concentration habits in him. Having established necessary routines in a serene, happy family atmosphere of affection, do your best to prevent in him too great excitement and fatigue. The jittery, nervous child may not easily concentrate since he is inclined to rush from one interest or activity to another. Some regular quiet periods daily may be good for him.
Provide him with proper playthings. If, however, he has too many at a time, he may become scatterbrained, flitting from one toy to another. Encourage and direct him, as he develops, in creative play, at construction with blocks and making things with his hands. So far as reasonably possible, avoid diverting him from a play activity he is absorbed in. Encourage his concentrated effort by your warm appreciation of his achievements as he is able to undertake play projects which require continuous activity for several minutes or hours, even days. Encourage him to finish this undertaking. Try to keep him from beginning many such jobs which you are sure he won't finish.
Read to the young child daily from the time he will look at the illustrations of a nursery rhyme or story for a minute or less at a stretch. There is no better way to cultivate concentration of the kind the child will find useful later at school. But don't neglect folklore and fairy tales. True, some children who have read or listened to many fairy tales may have their creative imagination so stimulated as to be particularly prone to engage in daydreaming. This should not happen, however, if they make things with their hands and play freely with others of their age.
The baby or young child, of course, has a short span of attention. Naturally his attention shifts rapidly from one thing to another. But his ability to concentrate develops faster than most persons suppose. You have seen even a four- or five-year-old absorbed in building something of his fancy out of blocks for many minutes at a stretch. The same child, having been read to daily over several years, may listen raptly to one story after another for an hour or more continuously. Most children of this age, however, do well to concentrate for as many as ten or fifteen consecutive minutes.
Even the child in the grades, when helped at home, may learn better habits of concentration if kept at a learning task for no more than ten or fifteen minutes without a pause. So also the high school or college student might avoid habits of woolgathering by setting himself to vigorous efforts for only half an hour and then relaxing before going at his lesson for another such period.