The kids are back at school now and some of you ultra-organised ones may have turned your minds to Christmas already. Don’t worry if you haven’t –there will be more on that in our next newsletter. Others may be focused on your child just having started a new school or a new year with a new teacher and will be wondering how to support your child to do the best they can do.
In a recent article in the Telegraph (7th August 2012)http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9458290/Teaching-toddlers-to-pay-attention-is-the-key-to-academic-success.html# reference was made to recent research by child development experts which concludes that it is not tutoring in academic subjects that will help your child to succeed but supporting them to pay attention and to perservere. This particular research by Dr Megan McClelland from Oregon State University, published in the online journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, reflects what the Gottman Institute had noticed as part of their research on developing emotional intelligence. Drs John and Julie Gottman found that children whose parents are emotion coaches for them, that is they recognise, respect and respond to their child’s emotions:
- Are better able to manage their feelings
- Have better academic achievements
- They are able to sustain attention for longer and
- Able to shift attention from one subject to another more easily
- They get along with their peers better
Author (and champion table tennis player) Matthew Syed, in his best-selling book Bounce, explores the idea that innate talent (whether in academic, musical, business or sporting fields) is a myth and that all the best performers in their various areas of endeavour have got to the top of their fields by a combination of opportunity, application and focus. (He does concede that it helps to be a tall if you’re a basketballer).
Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University’s research into mindsets is particularly interesting for parents. She developed the thesis that people can have different attitudes to learning which either promote or inhibit their development. With a fixed mindset one believes that one has a fixed amount of innate intelligence and that if you can’t do something it means that you have exhausted your store of intelligence. A person who has this attitude will not want to challenge the status associated with his cleverness and will not take risks that will show him to be less intelligent. Her research showed that children would not tackle harder tasks when in this fixed mindset. By contrast people with a growth mindset believe that they can with effort get better at anything and therefore are willing to try new and harder things.
A child’s mindset is affected by how adults talk to them. When we praise a child for cleverness or talent and when we focus on their results we promote a fixed mindset. However when adults praise kids for the effort they make, the attitudes they show, the strategies they employ; when we focus more on the process than the outcome we encourage in them a growth mindset. So don’t praise your child for being clever and don’t let your first question after a football game be did you win?
Parents often ask us, in classes or consultations, how to help children to focus more. Here is what we say:
- Don’t pay too much attention when your child’s attention wanders and particularly don’t criticise it. Instead notice when they bring their attention back to the task in hand and mention that. You’re looking at your page. You brought your focus back to your work without me saying anything to you.
- Praise in a descriptive way whenever you see signs of persistence. Wow, you really stuck with trying to learn to balance on your bike. You didn’t give up until you mastered the wobbles! One mum told us how she’d been praising her daughter for persevering with tying her shoe laces, thinking it was big word to be using for a little girl. Then when she’d just finished manoeuvring her big car into a tight parking space a little voice from the back seat piped up with “Gee mum, you really persevere.”
- Our children need to think of themselves as people who can pay attention and persist if they are to do well in life so we need to notice and point out to them whenever there is behaviour which shows up these qualities. Children are natural learners; just look at a toddler learning to walk. They don’t give up despite numerous set backs. We can train ourselves to notice their efforts and point them out to the child. Some families put the words on their fridge so that they remember to notice them. Others use a jar in which they collect tokens for examples of focus.
- Give lots of descriptive praise, not just for paying attention and persistence but more generally. A child who feels generally capable will be better able to handle set backs and try again.
- Be an emotion coach for your child. Help them understand their emotions by talking about them so that they can manage them and move on to the next task. This is surprisingly one of the most helpful things we can do in encouraging focus.
- Some families have found that it helps to use an idea from Neuro Linguistic Programming to help children focus. It might work to use an ‘anchor’ or a talisman which is an object imbued with certain qualities, in this case focus, which the child can look at or hold (or listen to). Choose your object and invest it with its magical properties by recalling a time with your child where they were very focused (something about which they were very enthusiastic). Relive that moment by focusing on all the details of the event; what could you see and hear, what could you feel? While bringing that moment to life have your child hold or look at his object and describe what was happening to him –“you were really concentrating hard, you were so focused.” Then when focus is needed pull out the magic focus object. Refer to it as the focus object.
- Enthuse about the tasks they are doing. If your child is learning to read try to read with them at a time when you’re not exhausted so that you can be interested. Get into the story they are reading. If decoding the words becomes too consuming that the story gets lost share the reading with them. Look at the pictures and guess what is going to happen next. Talk about how the characters feel.
- When children are motivated and interested it’s easier to focus but there are many things they need to do where they may not be so interested or motivated. Parents can do a lot to build motivation, mainly through descriptive praise. But even if children remain unmotivated about the intrinsic nature of the task we can motivate through praise for doing what they have to do even when they’re not interested! I know that brushing your teeth isn’t interesting and it gets to be a bit of a drag day in, day out. I know you’d rather just skip it and get on with your game so I really admire you for doing it anyway because you know that’s the only way to have healthy teeth and gums. Not only are you doing it but you’re doing it thoroughly so you now have a really sparkly smile and beautiful fresh breath!
- Of course it helps if we can provide our children with an environment where it is easy for them to focus so when they’re doing homework or tackling some other kind of task try to eliminate noise and visual clutter.
- Limit the amount of fast moving TV and computer and other electronic activities your children do where they are not required to focus for more than a few seconds. Instead encourage activities which involve their own creativity and sustained thought to work out a problem or develop a story line, such as fantasy play, building a den or board or card games.
So be focused on developing good habits of focus and perseverance in your child to help them do well in life.