What does it mean to “PAY ATTENTION”? What does it mean to give your “FULL attention”? Attention is a complex skill for children and adults alike. We live in a distracting world. For some children and adults attention is a strength. It is easy to TUNE IN.
Their bodies and minds are equipped to lock down and focus in. There are children who observe what it means to pay attention from watching others and recognizing the patterns of what it looks like to attend in a group. For these students, parents and teachers are able to clap their hands, mime for quiet, flick the lights on and off, or simply say “pay attention”; and immediately their mind’s mode switches from play to lesson plan.
But what about those who struggle to understand and activate this umbrella concept of attention?
Attending is not a one-step wonder skill. It is a mind-body process that can be hard to manage at times. Especially, when learning in new environments, or if you are not as apt at observing through others. As parents and educators, it is important for our children’s future to look past what we may see as frustrating behavior, and instead view attention as a skill we want to help our children thrive in!I will often have clients I work with who will say to me “I am paying attention” strictly because they are sitting at the table. However, they are not retaining information, frequently forgetting directions, having trouble answering questions, and are constantly in trouble for fidgeting. They are often reprimanded in classes, but don’t appear to quite understand what it was they did or didn’t do. We are trying to teach our plans and our materials. We are teaching the information that needs to be learned….but what if there is a missing link in the chain.
We may need to teach HOW to attend. What does it look like? What does it feel like?
In my practice with my younger clients I was inspired through Social Thinkingâto utilize a wonderful program called Whole Body Listening. These lessons break down “attention” into concrete pieces that children can physically and mentally focus on and self-monitor. In the lessons children are taught to listen with much more than their ears, and also HOW they listen with various body parts. Attention as a Whole Body Process. For example, listening with your eyes by looking at the speaker, listening with your brain by thinking about what is being said, listening with your mouth by being quiet, listening with your hands, body, and legs by keeping them still, and listening with your heart by thinking about others’ feelings in the group.
In short, what do our bodies look like when we are paying attention? How do others feel when we give them our attention? What part of our attention system do we need to redirect so that we can get the big picture?
An activity I will use in my sessions involves just a lump of play dough. The client and I will leave it on the desk. We will talk about the play dough being our bodies, and when we notice that one of us is not listening with a body-part we will take a tiny piece of play dough and drop in on the floor, or move it away from the larger piece of playdough. I usually say something like “Oh no there go my eyes! I wasn’t looking at the game! So I missed my turn!” I then put my eyes back on what we are doing or on the student and ask if I am listening with my eyes now. When they identify that yes, I am, they put the playdough piece back on. It’s important to me that the client realizes that everyone loses attention now and then, even adults! It is also important to model attention. Even simple responses like “mmhmm” or nodding and “ok” with your body turned toward a speaker while looking at them. These are signals that we care!
If we are adults struggling with maintaining balanced attention we may need to revisit a similar lesson by practicing self-awareness.
In working with my younger clients on attention I began to notice for the amount of times I say “Ugh I didn’t remember that” I should have actually said “Ugh I didn’t attend to that.”
When I think about the times I struggle with memory, I can usually link it to attention. I began to take a little self-reflection inventory of my own attention on instances where I would experience “forgetfulness”. In 90% of those instances I could identify how I was functioning on split attention or even split-split-split attention (Hi adulthood, so nice to meet you!) in that moment. “I forgot my keys”, turned into, “I decided I needed to put on a very specific podcast, kiss my daughter goodbye, and oh no I forgot my lunch!”
I was surely not attending with my whole body. The thought of keys flashed before me, but was quickly overtaken by other more “colorful” thoughts as I was leaving. I now try (being the operative word) to “settle” myself before I know I am going to be in a situation where I need to attend.
For example, I remove distractions when I am trying to get work done (see ya iPhone, Instagram will still be there in an hour).
I also complete a body scan to help center myself, and also bring me back to focus on the “now”. Another technique I have used is a mental “purge”: taking a journal and writing down stressor/worries or “to dos” for 5 minutes before shutting it and moving on to what I want to focus on. I also take time to recognize what rituals or environmental changes I need to implement: noticing if I need to work with music today, get a different chair, close my door, get water, etc. I do this prior to starting what requires my utmost attention.
When listening to others I try to make mental notes (about both what they are saying, and how they are feeling). Connecting, so that they know I am listening. I will often say to my younger clients “Show me your listening.”
I need to follow my own advice.