Thursday, April 1, 2010

Attention Must be Paid

Something I've noticed that never fails to intrigue me is how much children require, and thrive on, the focused attention of grownups. I once had a job working in a clinic in Brooklyn with children who came from very large families, and I sometimes think that the most therapeutic thing I did was give those children a whole grown up all to themselves for an hour once a week. For many of them, this was a serious luxury, and I received quite a bit of affection and adulation that I may not have necessarily deserved. In my Manhattan practice, of course, the families are much smaller. I notice, though, especially with very young children, that even if I give them a task that they could do independently, they do much better if I am sitting next to them watching intently. I don't have to speak or interact in any way, but the child will immediately sense if my attention has wandered, and lose focus.

I once treated a lovely little boy who was having some minor problems in school with his handwriting. He was seven years old, and in second grade. His mother, who was equally lovely, was worried that he had ADD. He didn't seem to have any out of the ordinary attentional problems to me, so I asked her why she thought so. She said that he couldn't do his homework. I asked how she handled it, and she said that she expected him to go to his room, shut the door, and do his homework until he was done. He had the usual crop of toys, books and video games in his room, so understandably, he'd be in there for about five minutes and then get distracted by something much more interesting than geography or fractions. So she concluded that he was distractible.

"Why doesn't he do his homework at the kitchen table while you're making dinner?" I asked.

It had just never occurred to this mother, who was a graphic designer and willingly worked at a desk in a tiny little office with bad lighting all day, that her seven year old son wasn't mature enough yet to sit all alone in his room and do a bunch of dull homework all by himself. So she moved his homework spot to the kitchen table and made herself available while she cooked, and sat with him when he needed something more. Problem solved, and I wish they were all so easy.

Small children simply don't have the ability or the inclination to work independently, especially on things that are not motivating, for long stretches of time, and we shouldn't expect them to be able to do so. The calm, focused energy of an adult nearby is sometimes all they need to be able to organize themselves internally.

And don't forget a reward. I highly recommend a little something-something, to be doled out on completion of a job well done, to help get that inner drive in gear! What, you don't believe in bribes? Why do you go to work every day? So someone will give you money! That's your reward. What should be theirs? A star on a chart, a little toy, a sticker, a piece of candy, half an hour of TV. It's all good.


Catherine V. said...

Internal organization.. that's a key concept for my Kindergaterner.. when I let go of my own anxiety about his performance and go with the flow, he does beautifully when it is time for homework. My attention to him during homework is tied to results rather than the process of calming and organizing thoughts.. humbled to realize that..rewards do work, I agree, but positive praise goes much further and helps with self-esteem. Good thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Bribes have a way of getting away from you. Why only one sticker, why not two? why a small toy, why not a bigger one? The child should have a sense of accomplishment at the completion of a task without a bribe. (And I disagree that money is the sole or primary reason people work.) As a parent, I picked my battles, and, after a while, homework was just not one of them. I'm not sure educators even agree on the value of homework. Parents can make meaningful contributions to their children's learning in other ways than policing homework. I used to give my children arithmetic problems to solve in their heads as we walked to school, and I read aloud to them for many years.