Help Your Kids to Flex Their Focus! | exSTEMsions

Help Your Kids to Flex Their Focus!

The challenge of focus

As a teacher, and a parent, I would be a rich woman if I had a nickel for every time I’ve said “Please read carefully,” or “Please pay careful attention to all of the information you’re being given,” or some variation thereof. These are things adults say to children (or even other adults) all the time, but actually can be a pretty tough thing for kids, or adults, to actually follow, all the time. It’s not easy to read, listen to, or watch something, and be fully focused, absorbing all of the details and taking stock of what you have as you go. This is a level of concentration that many of us can’t sustain for any long period of time, and is difficult to maintain partially as a result of the endless distractions that constantly surround us (like other people, cell phones, other projects, watching cars drive by out the window…).

The value of focus

In a recent problem, reaching the solution requires very careful reading, analysis, and synthesis of tiny bits of information, given to the solver over the course of a conversation. Problems like this serve us all because they tax our focus, and make us really look at details, in a way we might not do all the time. Why do we want our focus taxed with a crazy math problem? Because it prepares us to encounter problems in our lives that we must solve, times when we must pay very close attention, and instances where figuring out details that aren’t initially clearly important are key to understanding the situation, the person, the problem in front of us.  Think of focus like a muscle - the more you flex it, and the more attention you give to using it well, the better it will perform when it’s called on stage in a moment of necessity. We can’t give everything 100% of our attention all the time, but we can work on our focus by choosing times to really focus in on one task, like this week’s problem, or other projects in our lives (a puzzle, an article, listening to a wild and crazy story made up by my 6 year old about dinosaurs…).

Teaching focus by being focused

And here’s the other thing. As an adult, and as a parent, it’s important for me to not only be able to focus when called upon (by work, kids, cooking, driving, writing... the list goes on), but it is also absolutely vital that I model this skill for my children. They, even more than I, live in a world that is full of distraction and noise. It is part of my job, as a parent, to show them that it’s good to be fully focused on something, and to leave the distractions to the side. It’s up to me to show them not only how to focus effectively, but to remind them that not doing everything at once is really totally okay, even if it’s not what the world and people around them do, most of the time.

So maybe you decide to try this week’s problem, together, and see if you and your child can get lost in the details. Maybe you decide to have quiet reading time, and then talk about what you read. Maybe you just turn off all of the electronics for a while, and tell each other a story about dinosaurs that live in fairyland (that’s the story of the moment in my house). No matter what you choose to do, remember that modeling focus, and helping your children to practice it themselves, is a worthwhile task, in and of itself.   

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Habits of Mind
Mathematical Thinking