Pay Attention! 3 Ways to Help Students Strengthen Their Focus Muscles

Posted by Deborah Farmer Kris on Mar 12, 2019 9:52:54 AM

lens-1209823_1920“How many of you have been told to ‘pay attention’ this week?’” I asked the middle school girls on the first day of our Habits of Mind class. Every hand shot up, accompanied by audible groans.

As adults, we want to teach our children how to pay attention because we know that focus is a vital intellectual habit. So how do we do it?

1. Bust the Myth of Multi-Tasking  

Let’s clear this up: Our brains do not multi-task. That’s not how focus works.

We cannot fully pay attention to multiple tasks at once.  Sure, we can do two things at the same time . . . . if one of them is an automatic process. For example, we can walk and talk because walking doesn’t require our full attention anymore. But if we are walking with a friend and suddenly encounter an icy patch or busy intersection, our conversation will pause as we focus on safely navigating our movements.  

What does this mean practically? We cannot text and fully focus on a math problem at the same time. We cannot watch a YouTube video and fully listen to a family member at the same time.  (Can we listen to music and focus on work? Sometimes. It depends.)

Instead of multitasking, our brain will shift from one task to the other and back again. Think of a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth. Every time we switch tasks, it takes time to reorient . . . and it uses mental effort. In other words, 20 minutes of “multi-tasking” will leave our brains more tired than 20 minutes of focused work. So let’s stop bragging about our ability to multi-task and instead open a conversation about how to minimize distractions and engage in deep work.

2. Make Time for Downtime

The brain’s cognitive load refers to the amount of information we can take in and process at any given time. When we are on cognitive overload –  when we are taking in too much too fast -- we cannot effectively process new information.

Our brains need breaks. We need time to pause and allow our brains to consolidate what we’ve learned. As neuroscientist Loren Frank said, “The research on learning is extremely clear. To learn something well, you need to study it for a while and then take a break.” He continues: “We know the brain can get into its downtime state very quickly, and the education research suggests just a few minutes — five to 15 — are enough to aid learning.”

True cognitive downtime is not surfing on the web or watching Netflix –  that’s just shifting our focus to something else. Here’s a list of “diffuse mode” activities that the middle school girls and I brainstormed together: taking a walk in nature, taking a shower, playing or snuggling with a pet, daydreaming, coloring, meditating, praying, and exercising. Each of these allows the mind to go into a diffuse state and come back ready to learn more.

3. Practice The Pomodoro Technique

A couple of weeks ago, a researcher from the UK came to visit Montrose to learn more about how we integrate character education into our academic curriculum.  When I mentioned teaching students about the Pomodoro Technique, she said, “That’s the only way I made it through graduate school! The Pomodoro Technique was a life-saver.”

Developed by Francesco Cirillo, this strategy is deceptively simple: use a timer to help you work and break at set intervals. First, choose a task to accomplish. Then, set a timer for 25 minutes and work until the timer goes off.  At that point, take a five-minute break: stand up, walk around, take a drink of water, etc. After three or four 25-minute intervals, take a longer break (15 - 30 minutes) to recharge. As Dr. Oakley told me, this technique “trains your ability to focus and reinforces that relaxing at the end is critical to the process of learning,” says Oakley.  (You can hear more from Dr. Oakley in this three-minute video.) There are several Pomodoro apps –  including some that effectively shut down your phone and simply turn it into a timer during focus time.

Of course, even if you do all of this, it’s hard to focus when you are hungry or sleep deprived. We also have to pay attention to what our bodies and brains need.

Taking care of basic health habits –  honoring the body-brain connection -- can enhance our ability to build the habits of mind we need to thrive.

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