In a previous blog post, Follow the Fingers, I shared about three students I worked with, each of whom had real problems with maintaining focus. Each of them had different issues: flickering attention, wandering attention, and attentional gymnastics where the child seemingly could not sit still. Here I want to share a few more ideas to try as you teach a child who has trouble staying focused.
Focus Follows Fingers
The biggest lesson I learned when working with children who lacked focus was that if I could engage the child’s hands in their learning, their focus would go wherever their fingers went. Of course this habit also applies to children who are kinesthetic or tactile learners. Visual-spatial learners also benefit from being able to manipulate objects as they learn.
Create a Visually Pleasing Environment for Learning
Children who are ADD and right-brained learners need to be enticed to learn what you believe they should. If their learning environment is sterile, drab, or uninviting, getting them to want to learn will be much more difficult. If you are teaching your child at home, it will be totally worth the effort to enlist your child in creating this environment. If you cannot paint the room, hang colorful images on the wall that appeal to your child.
Make Every Lesson as Relevant as Possible to the Child
Rather than teaching math facts using pencil and paper and sterile problems, find out what your child really likes and relate math to that. For example, teach him how to use money as you shop for groceries, or as he saves up for something he really wants. Set her up with a check register and as you teach her to use it, she will be learning to count money, to add and subtract, etc. Give him a real wallet with real coins to use. If you are studying measurement, study it as you build something that is interesting to the child. If she loves playing with construction sets, study the concepts of perimeter or area as she’s building a house.
Teach as Many Subjects as Possible at One Time
For instance, choose a topic from science, and relate all other subjects to that one theme. If volcanoes are your topic for science, add geography by finding volcanoes on the world map, read books and articles about them, go back in history to study Pompeii, bring math into the mix by creating word problems relating to volcanoes. Let your child have the chance to become totally immersed in the subject. He will do better if he’s had the chance to spend time focusing on one theme.
Incorporate Chances to Move into the Lesson
Any time you can structure learning so that your child is NOT seated at her desk, the better for her concentration. Instead of using pencil and paper all the time, affix a small whiteboard to the wall, door, or tabletop and let the child use dry erase markers to work out problems. If you plan for movement, it is going to be easier to channel the child’s energy. If you are practicing spelling, for instance, use the white board on the wall and try calling out a word. Say, “house.” Your child will write her word on the white board. Have her do a toe touch, and then jump back up to do the next word. Or she could do a body movement that the word reminds her of. For house, maybe it would be tenting her fingertips over her head as if making a roof on a house.
Set Goals for Learning and Mark Progress
Many right-brained children love to see not only where they are going, but they like to mark their progress along the way to reaching the goal. It would be great to decide on specific tasks for each day and write these on colorful cards with a cute picture drawn to illustrate the topic. Break tasks down as detailed as possible. You can attach magnets to the back and display the cards in the order you will accomplish them, or you could put them all into a little basket and let your child select a card that will tell him what his next task is. Each task he accomplishes will get him closer and closer to the goal. The goal should be something he really likes to do.
Use Lamplight to Improve Focus
I know from personal experience that if I am having trouble settling down to start a “desk task,” it helps tremendously to have a lamp on my desk that shines light directly on the spot I should be focusing. If I am already having trouble focusing, then if the overhead light is on, every object in the room demands equal visual attention and it becomes very easy to go off on mental or tactile rabbit trails. This being true, most days find my office light off, but my desk lamp shining away valiantly, pointing my attention to the next task. Try this method with your child if she has trouble settling down to do a task at her desk.
Remove Clutter from the Work Area
I wrote in another blog (Confessions of a Visual Learner) what clutter on my work space does to me. Every little scrap of paper, every object, screams equally for attention. So while I love a visually pleasing room to work in, the space also needs to be conducive to focus. So, in your child's immediate work area, have only the items needed for that task. What will help tremendously is to have places for everything that tends to accumulate on the desk. Part of getting down to work will be putting all extraneous clutter away: pencils in the pencil jar, other books in the to-do basket, etc.
Consider Playing Mozart
I read a long time ago that playing Mozart helps organize one's thoughts for work. A decade ago I was working on three manuscripts. Each time I sat down to write another chapter, the blank paper screamed at me in its whiteness, and its blankness mirrored my own mind. Even a little black dot on the page would have been preferable to seeing nothing on the page. The more time that ticked by without my being able to come up with something to start with, the surer I became that I would have nothing whatsoever to say on the topic. One day I decided to try the Mozart music theory. I actually tried this many times I had writing tasks to do, and while I never was aware of when the words actually started to flow, flow they did. You might consider playing Mozart while your child works.
Take Time to Visualize Every Day
For the right-brained learner, the ability to visualize is not only a gift, it is critical to success in learning. Visualization needs to be practiced and your child needs to understand how valuable this ability will be to him. Words and symbols are not going to be his strong suit, so capitalize on what he does so well already. For example, if you are learning a new word, let the child study the written word for a bit, and then have him close his eyes and see it in his imagination. Give him time to form that mental picture and when he has it in place, ask him what he sees. Have him spell it as he sees the word in his head.
Play Visualization Games
Something your active child will really enjoy doing, which will also help her in school is to play visualization games. Start small and build as you see your child is able to do more. Say, “Close your eyes and make pictures in your head of what I say.” Next say, “You are going to stand up, walk to the window and look out. Next you will walk to the door and close it, finally you will touch your toes and then sit in your chair.” When your child has visualized doing this, ask her to do what she saw in her head. This game will greatly improve your child’s listening and following directions skills, while giving her a lot of practice in visualization.
Let Him Draw Pictures for Solving Problems
Many right-brained children have trouble with math because of how it is typically taught: in little steps with memorization, frequently timed, and children are often told they need to show their work. Try instead explaining the problem and then letting your child draw pictures for himself to solve the problem. Some problems he may be able to solve in his head without being able to verbalize how he arrived at the answer. The last time I took a math class, I was pretty stressed. I had done horribly in math in elementary school, and taking a graduate level math class as an adult many years removed from college days really freaked me out. I would literally experience rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath. I resorted to drawing little pictures that showed me the question and helped me work out the answer. I did this drawing very furtively because I was sure someone my age should NOT have to draw little pictures in order to solve problems. Even today, if I have to add or subtract relatively short numbers, I don’t instantly pull the answer out of my head, I SEE the problem as a visual which would take many words to explain to someone else. When this type of problem solving fails is when there is pressure to hurry and I cannot take my needed seconds to visualize.
Minimize the Use of TV and Other Technologies
Yes, I know; in our day the use of technology is exploding. Technology is creeping into every facet of our lives. The problem with immersing a right-brained learner in technology is that you are only strengthening the right hemisphere and weakening the left. For success in school, your child will need to begin to strengthen the left brain functions more and more, and any technology that does her speaking for her, does her thinking for her, turns life into pictures for her is going to only exacerbate the problems she is already facing with school. Get her outside as much as possible to experience life that way. Involve her in real tasks in the house, making her feel she is a vital part of your little community.
Study Your Child
Set time aside to observe your child intently, taking notes on what you see during times he is engrossed in something and displaying remarkable focus. Write down everything you observe about what he’s doing, and when you have done this a few times, study your notes to learn what those scenarios had in common. Doing this will reveal your child’s learning strengths. The more we as parents learn about our child’s learning strengths, the more successfully we can teach them, and the more we can draw focus away from learning weaknesses and thus build our child’s confidence. A confident, successful child will want to accomplish more!