Why our children should learn to concentrate

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What do you suppose our kids must learn in the age of Facebook, texting and instant information?

I think it is how to focus.

They need to learn other things as well, of course. But consider some ideas I recently read about: The hang-up in education used to be access to information. For example, if you lived in England in the year 1500, you'd be lucky to know how to read, let alone own a single book or live near a library.

But your children probably have more information at their fingertips than they could ever use. They have books and the internet at their disposal. A quick Google search can yield information about nearly anything. But many children today are unable to effectively use this information because they are not learning how to concentrate.

I know high school students who think they can do good scholarly work while texting constantly with friends and checking Facebook every two minutes. I don't believe that serves them well. Rather, I suggest we must help our kids learn how to purposely avoid constant interruptions, to stand against the barrage of information … and actually focus on the task at hand.

I read a fascinating article about this in The Wall Street Journal titled "Learning How to Focus on Focus." The subtitle says it all: "In an age of information overload, simply paying attention is the hardest thing." I wish I could let you read it all, but the full article, apparently, is only available to subscribers.

The author, Jonah Lehrer, refers to "executive function," which he defines as "a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses." He cites studies that suggest that people who learned to regulate their impulses as children (e.g., sitting and focusing on homework instead of running over to watch TV), were far less likely to reach extremes such as becoming criminals or being addicted to drugs later in life. In fact, Lehrer says, "In many instances, the ability to utilize executive control was more predictive of adult outcomes than either IQ scores or socioeconomic status."

That's good news to me. Why? Because regardless of children's natural IQ or socioeconomic position, we can definitely help them increase their ability to concentrate. Parents can help children do this through activities that require them to focus. (And by turning off the TV, cell phone and computer while they concentrate.)

I love this quote from the article:

Given the age in which we live, it makes no sense to obsess over the memorization of facts that can be looked up on a smartphone. It's not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope that they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills of executive function directly and creatively.

The article suggests that activities like art, physical exercise, tae-kwon-do and difficult board games can all help children increase their ability to focus. I've seen 7-year-olds fall in love with chess and play games that last for hours. And let me tell you, when children become that engrossed in thinking, good things happen in their brains.

I'd also like to encourage you to limit the number of distractions your children regularly encounter. It is perfectly reasonable to ask your children to sit down and work without access to electronic distractions. That skill alone will help your children their entire lives.

So what do you think? Do parents today have to work harder to help their children learn delayed gratification and focus? What has helped your own children learn to block out distractions and concentrate?


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  1. Stephanie G

    I think parents have to work so much harder to help children concentrate today than they used to. There is a barrage of things cutting attention span: Tv shows interupted every 7 minutes or so, preschool and early elementary classes where the activity changes every 10 minutes, technology that constantly interrupts whatever we are doing, etc. Adults have as much problem now as kids do. I have been in numerous conversations where a friend stops our talking to anser the phone or take a text or send one.
    As parents we have to lead by example; when I was a child my parents never answered the phone (landline -remember those?;)) when we were eating family dinner, doing family activities etc. They answered the phone when they weren't going to interrupt something important. This taught me to do the same. Now with technology being more invasive it is important to set times to engage with these things. Set computer and TV time - when to use and how long. Don't interrupt what your doing to check your phone, answer it, or text. Give your children down time when they aren't doing anything...not just a couple of minutes but an extended time. Don't let your children have permission to give up if they can't figure things out right away. Give them LOTS of time and only prompt help when they are truly baffled. encourage them to lengthen the time they spend at certain activites. Don't expect them to multitask to often. Have them focus exactly on what they are doing; also don't rush them quite so often. We have a 4 and 11 yrold who are learning to focus and give attention. It takes time and lots of reminders...so in the earlier years set by example and give them space and time then as they grow up they will learn what to prioritize first and then give it their full focus.
    Great Post!

  2. This has always been one of my pet topics, probably because I inherited it from my parents (smiles!).

    We are quite deliberate about what interruptions are allowed and not allowed in our family, especially during concentrated learning time.

    I know it must seem like I'm one of the rudest friends people have, but I don't answer my phone if we're learning. I let the answering machine get it. (It's okay .. most of my friends know by now.)
    We don't have tv time until late afternoons, either.

    One distraction that has become a bit of an issue is the computer, just because it's the novelty as opposed to book learning. Having scheduled time for the children to use it is helping (but we don't have Facebook or Twitter, either).