Grabbing your child’s attention for learning

During the recent survey, many parents asked me how to get their children to focus on learning. Often, parents wish to teach but the children don’t seem to be interested.

On the other hand, in our house of 3 super-active little boys, we’re experiencing extremely long attention span.

For instance, 6yo Vee spent almost 3 hours on a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle without reference until he completed it. When he was fully homeschooled, we did 2-3 hours of home learning per day, in a single stretch, right after breakfast until lunch time. This is similar to a Montessori work period of 3 hours each.

Now that he attends kindergarten, he does 1 hour of home-learning before school, and 1 hour of piano practice after school.

Jae (3y 9m) and El (1y 9m) also does 1+ hours of home-learning with me daily. During the school holidays when all the kids are at home, we resume 3-hour sessions unless we’re travelling.

All these with no forcing, no tears. Instead, there’s lots of joy and we often have a child reluctant to leave for school or lunch.

My point is, if you’re equipped with the right skills, you’d be able to help your child stretch his attention span.

So here’re some ideas on how to grab your child’s attention.

1. Prepared environment: minimal distractions

We designed our home to be almost 100% child-safe, such that each child can have learning opportunities in every room.

During guided learning, these are simple ways to minimise distractions:

  • a room with blank walls (I don’t even display posters. They’re rolled up and used when needed.)
  • toys and materials stored neatly away. Only display those that your child is ready to use, or needed for the session.

Here’s a previous article on designing an effective home learning area.

2. Freedom of choice within boundary

Dr. Maria Montessori observed that if the child gets to choose his activity, his attention span can be very long. This is also observed in Montessori classrooms over the world, and in our home too.

So instead of planning out in detail what you’d like to teach your child in that learning session, let him CHOOSE what he’d like to learn today.

You may show him 1 to 2 new activities then let him choose which to work on. If he chooses to pass, that’s fine too. He may choose to repeat activities from previous sessions, or you could show him something new.

Freedom of choice doesn’t mean he chooses ANYTHING under the sun. As his parent, you set the boundary.

Also, choosing neither to learn nor work all day long isn’t an option in our home, unless the child is unwell. Even practising how to breathe, calm down, walk properly, talk politely, wipe the table, etc. count as learning too.

3. Freedom of movement

Young children have a high need to move their bodies. When they are allowed to move and work, they often display an extended length of concentration span.

In fact, sitting down for long periods of time is unhealthy for a young child’s spinal development. (Even adults shouldn’t sit for long hours because it could lead to back problems, which is common among executives with desk-bound jobs. My husband is one who’s suffering now.)

If an active child is allowed to move (even a little bit), he could actually focus better. For instance, research showed that using a stability ball increased levels of attention, decreased levels of hyperactivity, and increased time on task and in seat or on ball. (Alicia L. FedewaHeather E. Erwin, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, July/August 2011, Vol. 65, 393-399)

Some quick ideas you may use right away:

  • let the child work with hands-on materials (besides books and worksheets):
    • concrete experience with manipulatives (3D)
    • pictorial experience with printables (2D)
  • let the child move about in the room to choose his preferred learning activity
  • let him work in different positions: at the table, on the floor, use different chairs
  • use air cushion seat for seat-work so that his little bums can move while he tries to concentrate (We prefer air cushion seat over a balance ball because our boys may be tempted to throw the balls.)
  • include music and movement for warming up, in between activities and wrapping up
  • include exercise before and between activities, while taking note to avoid over-stimulation
    • cycling (Jae, our athletic-boy, cycles for 15 minutes after we send Vee to kindy. After that, he happily starts 1-hour of home learning.)
    • star jumps (Vee especially likes doing this during his piano practice, before moving on to the next challenging piece. It helps him stay mentally alert for 1-hour practice sessions.)
    • front rolls on a mat
    • indoor trampoline

4. Limit fast-paced screen time

I limit the kids’ exposure to screen time that is full of fast-paced cartoons and games, especially before a learning session. The hypothesis is this: If the mind gets used to the high speed and stimulation to grab their attention, it makes real-life books and manipulatives seem too slow and boring. In short, getting used to fast-paced media could affect attention span.

(I’m not delving too much into screen-time in this article, probably discuss this further on another day.)

Similarly, a home practice or learning session shouldn’t be simply high-speed right brain method type of activities. Ideally, it should consist of 2 parts — fast-paced and interactive activities such as flashcards & speed-reading, balanced with normal-paced hands-on activities such as working with math cubes.

Read the rest of the series here:

Part 1: Core elements of unleashing your child’s potential

Part 2: The most important thing before teaching your child

5 thoughts on “Grabbing your child’s attention for learning”

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  4. Pingback: [Math flashcards] Pi & large numbers

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