The habit of attention is one of the most critical habits a homeschool mom can train—and one of the greatest gifts she can give.
Why is this particular habit so important and so impactful?
Charlotte Mason tells us that all our children’s intellectual gifts—their natural intelligence and comprehension during learning and in life—depend completely on the cultivation of this habit.
It makes sense.
No matter how intelligent, if your children can’t focus long enough to truly learn and digest information, they won’t be able to use their brain to its full capacity.
And we all wish and hope for our children to reach their full potential.
Charlotte Mason shares a funny vignette to give us a picture of the child with his wandering, wondering attention.
“You talk to a child about glass––you wish to provoke a proper curiosity as to how glass is made, and what are its uses. Not a bit of it; he wanders off to Cinderella’s glass slipper; then he tells you about his godmother who gave him a boat; then about the ship in which Uncle Harry went to America; then he wonders why you do not wear spectacles, leaving you to guess that Uncle Harry does so.”
Ms. Mason concludes with,
“Here is the secret of the weariness of the home schoolroom––the children are thinking all the time about something else than their lessons; or rather, they are at the mercy of the thousand fancies that flit through their brains, each in the train of the last.”
So many homeschool frustrations can be attributed to inattentiveness. The child’s not listening when he’s being read to, not completing his assignment, not focusing on his learning.
But the good news is, no matter what your child’s normal attention level, no matter how strong or weak his or her ability to focus, the habit of attention can be trained and honed with only a few small adjustments.
Charlotte Mason tells us
“Attention … is simply the act by which the whole mental force is applied to the subject in hand. This act, of bringing the whole mind to bear, may be trained into a habit.”
Here are seven ways you can begin training the habit of attention:
“In the first place, never let the child dawdle over copybook or sum, sit dreaming with his book before him. When a child grows stupid over a lesson, it is time to put it away.” Charlotte Mason
Dawdling itself can become habitual. I’m pretty sure that in my younger years, the habit of dawdling was deeply ingrained in my character. The reason I think this? Every single childhood report card had this in the notes: Jeannie daydreams too much.
So how do we untrain this habit? By training the habit of attention—dawdling’s opposite.
If the lessons are boring, how can we expect the child to not be bored?
“The lesson must be done, of course, but must be made bright and pleasant to the child.” Charlotte Mason
Living books, of course should be offered first. They should be pleasurable for your child to hear read aloud and pleasurable for your child to read alone. We should carefully consider the age of our children before introducing certain works of literature. Just because a curriculum company insists on certain classics doesn’t mean the books are suitable for keeping a young child’s attention.
The more children are allowed to be inattentive—because the book is too far above their vocabulary—the less pleasurable learning will be for them.
Another caution: Don’t bump your children ahead unnecessarily. I knew my ten-year-old son was capable of a higher math level. But I also knew it could make the subject less attractive. It could cause unnecessary frustration and anxiety. I wanted him to perfect those skills he’d mastered. And I wanted him to enjoy the challenge as he did.
Remember, homeschooling is not a race. It’s a journey.
A journey to be enjoyed.
Let the lesson remain attractive and fun. The more success your children feel with their lessons, the more they will enjoy learning. And the more likely homeschooling will remain bright and pleasurable.
ATTRACTIVENESS OF KNOWLEDGE
Attractive lessons make knowledge attractive. Yet there is danger in using the wrong activities after the lesson is taught. The right activities should deepen the children’s interest in the subject, causing them to ponder it more thoroughly.
Activities like notebooking, field trips, nature journaling, related crafts or projects are wonderful ways to bring learning to life. Creativity is key.
Fill in the blank worksheets, quizzes and tests do the opposite. They drain the lessons dry of the joy. A child no longer wishes to learn for the sake of knowledge. Instead, learning becomes about a sheet of paper. About performance.
Sadly, we’ve exchanged the joy of discovering new ideas and knowledge for the fear and anxiety that accompany achievement.
If the child hasn’t developed the habit of attention and does poorly on the worksheet or test, he begins to hate school. It’s not pleasurable.
Children who do well on tests aren’t delighted with the knowledge they gained; they’re delighted with their ability to excel. They no longer learn for the joy of knowing.
They learn to get good grades.
Charlotte Mason insightfully tells us,
“The desire for knowledge subsides in proportion as the desire to excel becomes active.”
“The lessons are short, seldom more than twenty minutes in length for children under eight…The sense that there is not much time for his sums or his reading, keeps the child’s wits on the alert and helps to fix his attention; he has time to learn just so much of any one subject as it is good for him to take in at once.” Charlotte Mason
It’s so important we don’t weigh our children down with too much information. Their love for learning and delight in the lessons will increase if you teach within their attention span. Charlotte Mason recommends 10 minutes when presenting new material.
One idea is to set a timer for 10 minutes then tell your children to read until the timer goes off. After implementing this method, my children began to show diligence when they realized they were required to focus for only a short time.
Follow up the reading time with a notebooking activity, experiment, project or whatever is planned for the creative learning part of the lesson.
A good way to train the habit of attention is by avoiding back to back lessons that are too similar in structure. A twenty minute reading period should be alternated with a creative activity, then math flashcards followed by another reading period, followed by a fun project, followed by a new math tutorial, followed by an art project, art study or nature study.
Simply mix up the types of lessons throughout the day.
Charlotte Mason encourages us to,
“Let him do another lesson as unlike the last as possible, and then go back with freshened wits to his unfinished task.”
“If the lessons be judiciously alternated––sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading––some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the program varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout––a ‘thinking’ lesson first, and a ‘painstaking’ lesson to follow,––the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness.”
Have special rewards and “delights” lined up for your children if they finish (with excellence) their lessons early.
“What is the natural consequence of work well and quickly done? Is it not the enjoyment of ampler leisure? The boy is expected to do two right sums in twenty minutes: he does them in ten minutes; the remaining ten minutes are his own, fairly earned, in which he should be free for a scamper in the garden, or any delight he chooses.” Charlotte Mason
But avoid unnatural rewards! What are unnatural rewards? Grades, of course. Gold stars. Points on a chart. And effusive praise for doing what was expected.
ENLISTING AND ENLIGHTENING
Charlotte Mason explains this when she says,
“Let him know what the real difficulty is, how it is the nature of his mind to be incessantly thinking, but how the thoughts, if left to themselves, will always run off from one thing to another, and that the struggle and the victory required of him is to fix his thoughts upon the task in hand.”
If our children understand what attention is, and how so few children master it, they’ll feel a certain triumph when they’ve focused and kept their attention on the subject at hand. Each week, they’ll find it easier and easier to do.
They’re training the habit of attention all on their own!
If we enlist our children into our ranks and make this need to become more attentive something to master, they’ll enjoy the process far more than if we exert an authoritarian attitude over their tendency to moon over their lessons.
As with all habits, it will be our loving hand, our kind words, our patient spirit and our peaceful, tranquil perseverance that will grow our children in the habit of attention.
Your children should feel as though you are on their team. That you are in this together—seeking victory over the mind’s desire to moon over, wander and dawdle.
Could it be that you, yourself, need to train this habit as well?
How often do you check your phone or the internet? How often do you get distracted when working on a project with your child?
Perhaps you can all work on the habit of attention together—with laughter, joy and hopefully victory.
Don’t despair if you’re starting at square one with your children. The fact that you are starting at all is a wonderful gift to them, for few children in this world are given this gift.
But do make this habit of primary importance behind the two habits we spoke of over the last two weeks:
I’ll close with another thought from our dear Ms. Mason:
“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention. It is, to quote words of weight, “within the reach of everyone, and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline.”
Happy Habit Training! Is there a habit you wish for me to write about next? If so, email me at email@example.com
For more Charlotte Mason insight read here.