How Parents, Educators Can Help Children Learn Focus + Self-Control

Simon says: Pay attention to this post.

It’s a challenge for any parent or educator: How can we help children learn and develop the essential life skill of focus and self-control?

The first step, of course, is to define the skill. After all, practicing focus and self-control doesn’t mean sitting like a statue or acting like a robot. Mind in the Making defines it as “Paying attention, remembering, thinking flexibly, and exercising self control (not going on automatic, but doing what you have to in order to pursue a goal). “

To develop actionable tips for parents and educators, MITM reviewed research by Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University and Michael Posner of the University of Oregon.

Brooks-Gunn and a “group of other academics reviewed six studies that followed children over time, offering a rare opportunity to evaluate what kinds of skills or knowledge acquired early in life matter most to children’s later successes. Out of literally hundreds of analyses, only three skills mattered. Two are obvious: reading and math skills, but the third skill is less obvious; it is ‘attention skills.’ The more penetrating our attention, the richer and deeper children’s learning.”

Posner and his colleagues “gave four-year-olds and six-year-olds five days of training in attention skills on the computer and compared them to comparable groups of children with no training. They found that by improving children’s ability to pay attention, children’s self control, reasoning and thinking skills also improved.“

MITM’s research-driven tips:

  • Encourage children to pursue what interests them. When children have deep interests, they become more motivated and pay more attention to what they are learning.
  • Play games that require children to pay attention, remember the rules, and follow directions—I Spy, Red Light/Green Light, Simon Says.
  • Have children (preschool age and older) play sorting games where the rules change: first ask them to sort by color, then sort by shape. This game has children remember the rules and then resist the temptation to go on automatic and keep doing what they were doing.
  • Play other games where children (preschool age and older) can’t go on automatic: for example, ask them to say “night” when they see a picture of the sun and to say “day” when they see a picture of the moon. These games help them gain more self control.

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