LIVINGSTON: Keeping kids focused in the age of distraction

An elementary school office in July is eerily quiet. You would think it might be the perfect place to get some work done.
Aug 9, 2013

I sat in my office a couple of weeks ago listening to the hum and occasional gurgle of the fish tank, and I felt distracted. Was it too quiet? Where was the buzz of the TV, my cellphone whistle reminders, text messages, the white noise of the Internet, Facebook and the Huffington Post?  

Here I was alone and I couldn’t concentrate. 

I worked for a while and finally left for a little “library” distraction. While there, I dug into a book called "The Thinking Life" by P.M. Forni and found myself reading about what brought me to the library in the first place — distraction.

Forni says that we are losing more than our power of concentration as we become more and more addicted to the Internet because our prevailing operational mode is one of retrieval, not retention, and our brains are only as good as the cognitive tasks we ask them to perform.

I started wondering: What does this mean for me and, more importantly, for the students who will be joining the teachers and me in a few short weeks? If I can’t stay focused for 30 minutes, how in the world can the 6- to 10-year-olds? Or the teens accustomed to texting at a rate that would surpass the Indy 500 race cars?

So much of life these days seems to be bitten off in little chunks. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, this project, that game — and before we know it, we are wrapped up in a giant multitasking package.

This being said, what can we do to help ourselves and our children prepare for school, where critical thinking is more than retrieval of information and assignments don’t look anything like a video game?

The greatest thing we can do for ourselves and our children is to make time to think.

I realize I’ve probably spent the better part of the past 30 years telling someone in my family to hurry up. Hurry up and finish, hurry up so we can go, just hurry up and we’ll think about it later. I can only imagine the turmoil and stress I’ve injected into already busy lives.

So, in light of all this, what can we do? Let’s start with a few simple ideas for individuals and families:

— Make paying attention to the person you are with your “default." That means make eye contact, take your hands off the phone, computer or iPad and look at each other. Give them your undivided attention. And parents: that means teaching your kids to do the same thing. 

— Schedule some quiet time into your life. Carve out at least 15 minutes each day for reflection and thinking. Tell the kids this: “I’m going to set the timer and we’re all going to be quiet with our own thoughts for a while. You might think about a book, your friends or your dreams, and we’ll all be very quiet and respect each other.” You’ll be amazed how fast that time goes. Increase this little by little. 

— Turn off the electronics and eat dinner together. No cellphones at the table.

— Talk with your family about ideas and teach them this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

— Wean the children off the video games and buy them a sketch pad. Students at school are often asked to share their ideas and thinking in pictures and words. This is a great way to get those habits started.

— Read, always read.

— By Valerie Livingston, principal of Mary A. White Elementary School in Grand Haven.



Thank you Ms. Livingston,
You said a mouthful! Every day I am amazed at the increasing number of people distracted from the life happening before their eyes, for the love of their e-devices. Pull the plug and live a little!

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