Thursday, November 1, 2012

Focus Pocus, Make Magic Happen!

 We’ve been having many conversations in daycare land about how to help the children develop focus and self control. Parents want to know: Are toddlers / preschoolers even capable of self control? How do focus and self control pertain to learning? and What can we do to support our children in these areas?  

According to independent studies conducted by Adele Diamond in the book Mind in the Making, focus and self control are more important than I.Q. in terms of long term success. While IQ is a measurement of crystallized information, focus and self control represent a child’s potential for learning. 

Just to clarify: 
Focus is the ability to pay attention to details so that deep and wide learning can take place.
Self control is the ability to calm down after encountering a stressful situations. It’s the ability to delay gratification in favor of reaching a goal and the ability approach problems in a relaxed state. Self control also enables a child to work with peers at sharing and gathering information through play.

Think of the pair as a turbo charged injection for your child’s intellectual capacity. There are all sorts of other nerdy neuroscientific ways that focus and self control effect the way the brain wires itself but we will save those tidbits for another day.   

At the outset, teaching a child to develop focus and self control may seem like a monumental undertaking; especially when the person in question is under the age of three. However once we get to the very heart of the matter, teaching a child to focus is simply teaching her to be present and observant. 

Teaching a child self control means being clear about our expectations for behavior and focusing on the desired outcome rather than a negative behavior. It also means walking the child through the process of self soothing when stressful situations occur.

In my opinion everyone learns best through direct experience so focus and self control are taught through our everyday experiences with each other and our environment. Some of the ways we accomplish those goals are as follows:

Clean up time - I have each child focus on one kind of material such as blocks or books so that they can easily do their “job” by paying attention to that one group of items. This helps them learn to scan the room for the one thing they are responsible for rather than getting overwhelmed or distracted by the visual clutter. 
Choosing one object for the child to be responsible for makes it easy for them to independently self correct and assess their level of success in completing the task. If there are no books on the floor you are finished - simple as that. 
When a child gets off task by playing with other toys  or chatting with friends, I say “Remember, you are looking for books.” If needed I will physically lead him to a book to and place it in their hand to keep them focused. If everyone else has finished with their job and one child has not finished, the group will move on to something fun and they will stay at the task until it is finished.

Outdoor time - practicing walking in a group, the children have to focus on where peers are in order to have the freedom to walk in a group. The children also practice a lot of auditory processing skills such as: “stand near the middle”, “go to the left side”, “move forward” Hearing these phrases over and over again teaches the children to focus on what they are hearing, pay attention to where peers and to get themselves where they need to be. If they do not self correct after 3 warnings, they walk with me for a while so they can focus on traveling in a group without having to also think about where they are in relation.

Teaching Communication Skills: In teaching both focus and self control it’s important to bring the child’s attention to the nonverbal parts of language such as eye contact, body language and vocal tones. Many of our children are at different levels in their ability to communicate so I help them bridge the gaps in communication by asking questions or make comments. My goal is to encourage them to think about what they see so they can adjust their behavior accordingly. 

An example might be saying: “I see Carmen is frowning, grunting and walking away from you while you grab her body, I don’t think she likes what you are doing.” 

Usually that is enough for the aggressor to self correct.

I also say “Eyes on me while I’m talking.” or “Answer me please, so I know you heard my words” Children in this age group may become easily distracted by other activities in the room, having a verbal prompt to redirect their attention to my face helps them remember that they were listening to me. 

Use simple directives: I use key phrases that prompt specific behaviors and narrow their thinking so their circuits don’t get frazzled when trying to solve problems. Some examples are: “Gentle hands” (when they hit) “walk away” (when they are invading space or snatching toys) 

It’s important to use a positive directive that conveys your expectation such as “Hands on the stroller”, instead of “Don’t run away!”. Words send powerful messages to children, in both cases, when you say “Hands on the stroller” or “Don’t run away!” you are setting your expectation for behavior, the question is which behavior do you want your child to engage in? 

Environmental cues: using areas for a specific purpose is a great way to help children remember what they are supposed to be doing in that space. Some examples in our room are: putting pants on at the laundry room door before going off to play, lining up with our backs against the wall, putting our shoes on while sitting on the tile floor. Using designated areas for activities helps cut down on power struggles drastically because there is always the same expectation for a specific behavior in that space. The current of our daily routine and the space the children are physically in helps them to focus on the task at hand rather than leaving them feeling that things are unpredictable.

Flexible Story Times / Group Discussions: Our large group discussions and story times usually take place during meal times so that children have something to manipulate while I am talking. Studies show that when children have objects to manipulate or chew on, they are much better at processing, storing and retrieving  information. Contrary to popular belief, processing information in combination with movement builds stronger connections in the brain than sitting still.

I also believe that outside of mealtimes, children should be allowed to move in and out of story time as they see fit; my theory is that if the story teller is dynamic enough in her delivery they will pay attention. If the children are not focused I would rather they find something interesting to do with their time instead of poking friends and distracting the children who do want to listen.  

In the end, focus and self control are key players in shaping the way a child’s brain makes physical connections within itself. They also facilitate emotional connections that link the child to a vast store of knowledge through peer interactions. Those connections enable children to be more effective learners and to experience the kind of success that catapults them into the arena of self directed learning. 

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