Want Kids to Succeed? Teach Them Focus
In my previous post, I mentioned Clifford Nass’s research at Stanford that shows multitasking reduces our ability to concentrate. And, I shared the good news that recent research by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Thomas E. Gorman & C. Shawn Green indicates ten minute sessions of mindfulness of breath, three times a day, reverses the degradation in concentration common in media multitaskers.
Gorman and Green tested ways to repair damage to concentration.
Why not prevent such damage in young people?
That’s what I’ve long advocated: Help children develop the ability to focus.
Why Help Kids Focus
I talked about the importance of teaching children to focus in the book, The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education, which I co-authored with my colleague Peter Senge. Some schools are already teaching children to be “mindful,” which means paying attention to what they think and feel without being carried away by those inner stirrings. This observing awareness creates a platform within the mind from which a child can weigh her thoughts, feelings, and impulses before acting on them. And that moment of pausing gives a child a crucial degree of freedom that allows her to manage her emotions and impulses rather than simply be controlled by them.
Attention is the essential skill for learning. The specific capacity for keeping your attention where you want it is termed cognitive control. The circuitry for cognitive control runs through the prefrontal cortex, which acts as the mind’s executive center. This is the part of the brain that allows us to resist distraction, inhibit harmful impulses, delay gratification in pursuit of our goals, be ready to learn, and stay focused on our goals.
Research has shown that teaching children mindfulness increased their ability to ignore distractions and concentrate. Cognitive control has been shown to be a better predictor of financial success when someone is in their mid-30s than childhood IQ or wealth of the family in which they grew up.
Focus and Emotional Intelligence
Such control is also a key part of developing emotional intelligence. To be emotionally intelligent, we first need to be aware of ourselves and our feelings. Emotional self-awareness is a core competency that requires focus inward. Being tuned in to ourselves lays the groundwork for another essential competency, emotional self-control. These are crucial skills that I believe should be taught in every school. It’s been over twenty years since I co-founded CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Today, CASEL is a national leader in advancing the development of academic, social and emotional competence for all students. Their mission is to help make evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of education from preschool through high school.
How to Help Children Concentrate
Children of all ages can learn simple mindfulness techniques through age-appropriate exercises.
In The Triple Focus, I wrote about visiting a second grade class that used favorite stuffed animals in an exercise called Breathing Buddies. The teacher told me her students were calmer and better able to focus on days when they did short sessions of that exercise. Children of all ages both enjoy and learn from video games that challenge them to count their breaths and click on the screen after a certain number of breaths while ignoring attractive distractions.
You don’t need video games to teach this essential skill. I developed a series of guided audio exercises geared toward different age groups from six-year-olds to adults.
To give you a sense of what these exercises are like, here are two ten-minute samples that you can try. Focus on Listening is from my Focus for Teens audio collection. You also can practice Sensory Focus that is included in my Cultivating Focus collection geared toward adults.