3 Lifelong Habits: The Habit of Attention
“Pay attention, Joleen!” My mother gently tapped my wiggly five-year-old, stocking-clad, leg. I sat in church, hoping my father would preach a short sermon. Nope. So, I counted the ceiling beams and looked for hidden designs in the stained glass windows. Eventually, I fell asleep against my mother’s warm shoulder.
Paying attention seemed difficult for my five-year-old self, but I eventually learned to sit quietly and focus on the life-giving words my father shared from the pulpit. Though my parents may not have known it, they were training me in the habit of attention.
Currently, I teach morning kindergarten at a Charlotte-Mason-inspired Christian school. Chapel brings back Sunday morning memories. Like my mother, I find myself teaching my charges to sit properly and listen carefully. Of course, they, too, are wiggly and often resort to counting ceiling beams. Yet, I persevere in their training, knowing they will learn and grow.
The habit of attention is one of three lifelong habits children ought to learn; the others are respect and obedience. I’ll share more on those in my next article. But for now, let’s address the question of attention. Why ought we teach children to keep focused attention?
A child who masters the ability to focus their attention for an extended period of time will experience the joy of completing tasks, hearing life-giving ideas and creating beautiful works of art. Just think how eagerly a child puts effort into something he/she is intent on accomplishing. The little brow furrows, the tongue pokes out and bright eyes focus in eager concentration to complete the job at hand. This same concentrated attention in other areas will produce strength of character and confidence.
So how are we to help our children develop this habit of attention? Here are three ways:
Children can develop the habit of attention through the skill of narration. Here’s how it works. Choose a beautiful book with rich ideas, like The Magicians Nephew by C.S. Lewis, or the series of books by Thomas Locker, with titles like, The Mare on the Hill and Water Dance. Read a small portion of the text and then ask your child to tell back what they heard. It is helpful to give a phrase to get started. For example, “Tell back from, ‘Without a flash or a sound Polly vanished.’” This takes practice, but reaps the benefit of retention of beautiful ideas that will take root in your child’s heart and mind.
The ability to keep focused attention can be developed through activities, such as finger knitting, whittling, sewing, and woodworking. Starting over, and persevering through the frustrations of a handwork task, will develop your child’s ability to handle other frustrations they encounter in life. Choose something simple, beautiful and useful for your first handwork and build upon the success found. In so doing, your children will receive the message that they are capable of doing neat, precise work and will proudly talk about and display their work. For more on this topic, look for my article in the upcoming Winter issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine on Teaching Handwork to young children, as well as my Pinterest page and website.
Teaching a young child to have good posture during lesson time will aide them in maintaining attention. When a child is keenly interested in something, they sit up, bright-eyed, and give their rapt attention to what is at hand. This natural way of expressing attention ought to become the norm during lesson time. Training in posture is done through small adjustments, gentle encouragements and modeling. How do you sit when you are keenly interested in something? What does your posture look like when you are striving to grasp a new concept or listen attentively? Of course, we all love our slouchy, restful times of the day, but these are generally not the hours when we learn the most. During narration time, encourage your child to sit, criss crossed legs, with hands gently folded in their lap and eyes on you. This posture of attention will help them to narrate back what they’ve heard, because they will not have been busy picking at the carpet, playing with their shoes or fussing with their clothing. Posture can also be reinforced during the next skill of recitation.
This is the ability to memorize and say back appropriate lengths of passages, such as Scripture, poetry or portions of a text. Recitation is generally conducted in a standing position. Stand in front of your child and say a small portion of the passage you’ve chosen. Encourage your child to copy not only your words, but your posture, tone, volume and expression. Recitation is made even more enjoyable through the use of a bean bag placed upon the top of their heads. This encourages good posture and helps everyone focus their eyes on the speaker in order to keep their bean bag from falling off. My small class of kindergarteners takes great joy in placing their bean bags, just so, on their heads and challenging themselves not to let it fall, even once, during their recitation. It’s a joy to see their pleased expressions as they recite beautiful poetry and passages of Scripture.
It’s true that young children ought to play and leap and run and shout and enjoy the world around them. Yet a few moments of daily training in the habit of attention will give even the most vibrant child a well-balanced life, heart and mind.
Joleen Steel is the curriculum specialist for Camping Stick Kids. She has a B.A. in elementary education. She taught public school for ten years before deciding to open her own music studio and homeschool her boys. Joleen is a pastor’s wife and grew up as a pastor’s kid. Her love for the good news of Jesus Christ flows out of her and into the camping stick kids curriculum. Her easy style and creative approach to teaching will encourage your student to learn the Gospel story and be able to share the good news with their friends and family. Joleen would love to have you visit the camping stick kids website and blog. Come say hi at www.campingstickkids.org