3 Ways to Work on the Habit of Attention

Developing a habit of paying full attention is one of the keystones of a Charlotte Mason education. We know that. We talk about it a lot, but what does it look like? And is it the same for every student? 

Today we want to dig a little deeper into the habit of attention and give you some practical ideas for how to cultivate it in your child.

We talked last time about being intentional to work on habits in your home and in your home school. We gave several practical tips about how to make that happen, and we explained that the habits that Charlotte Mason encouraged us to cultivate in our children are really broad categories. The habit of courtesy, the habit of thankfulness, the habit of taking initiative—all of those habits can be applied in many different ways. Some of our kids may be able to jump right in and generalize a broad habit category, applying it to all areas of life at the same time. But other children need more guidance; they need to specialize, to focus on one specific application at a time.

If you missed that post, I encourage you to read it in order to get the big picture. Last time, I promised that we would unpack several of the key habits that Charlotte Mason wrote about and look at ways to customize them for each child. Today we’re going to focus on the habit of attention.

Let’s start by defining the habit, just so we’re all on the same page. Charlotte described attention as “turning the whole force of the mind to the subject at hand.” She also called it “the fixed gaze of the mind.” We could say that attention is intentionally directing your whole mind toward something and keeping it there as long as needed.

If that effort comes easily to your child, you can probably generalize the habit and encourage him to work on paying full attention to whatever is at hand in all situations—at home, outside the home, with you, with some other teacher, or alone. But for many children, that broad of an application might be overwhelming. So let me give you three ways to break it down and approach it incrementally.

Level 1: Paying Attention with You at Home

You might first focus on paying attention at home with you. Now, even that is a broad playing field, so you can break it down further. Perhaps start with paying attention during school lessons with you. Or maybe you need to start with just one particular lesson and build out from there. You can do that. 

Then you might expand the “at home” application to include instructions and assignments outside of school time—for example, chores—but always with you right there to help him stay on task. That’s the first level of challenge. 

Now, let me remind you of something you probably know: To begin with, the school lessons or chore assignments need to be short, so your child’s efforts will not be overtaxed. Stop before his eyes glaze over. Focus on short tasks and short lessons to help him set up a solid neuron path of “pay attention until this is done.” Then, as that neuron path grows stronger, you can gradually, little by little, increase the length of time until the task is done; in other words, how long you are requiring him to sustain his effort of attention. 

At this level, the main things to remember are to keep the effort short and to keep beside him to help him stay focused.

Level 2: Paying Attention with Others away from Home

Once your child is doing pretty well paying attention at home with your presence, he might be ready for more challenge. At that point, you could expand the application to include situations with other people outside of your home; for example, paying attention to a coach or to a music teacher or to a teacher at church. Now you are asking your child to use the same skill he has developed with you and practice it with another adult in his life. That adult might have longer lessons and a different way of teaching, and you might not be there to help keep your child on task, so this can be a bigger challenge for him. 

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much we are really asking of a child when we generalize a habit.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much we are really asking of a child when we generalize a habit. It’s easy to think we are asking him to do only one thing: pay attention. That’s all. But really we are asking him to do several things: (1) turn the full gaze of your mind to whatever subject someone wants you to focus on at the time; (2) push aside all of the other ideas and thoughts that you were contemplating, and keep pushing them aside even as they rise up and try to get back to the front of your mind; (3) evaluate any changes in your environment, including the actions of others in the room, to see if they need to be attended to, and if not, ignore them even if they look interesting; and (4) continue doing all of this indefinitely because you never know when the lesson or instruction is going to be finished. 

That’s a lot to ask of a young child or of any person who struggles with this skill. So breaking it down into smaller challenges can help your child not feel overwhelmed and gain some confidence and momentum in this habit.

Level 3: Paying Attention When Unsupervised

The third level of challenge is going to be giving your child an assignment to carry out by himself and expecting him to keep his attention focused on that task when he is alone. This is going to require more effort from him—to apply what he has been practicing with help, now in a situation without that help. So he might work on paying attention during piano practice or when doing independent reading assignments for school or an assigned chore or other task, such as going to his room, putting on his shoes, and coming back. Once again, you may want to start short with this new level of challenge and gradually increase your expectations.

Charlotte Mason said that a habit is not truly a habit until it is done without supervision. This level is the ultimate goal. But not everyone will get to the goal at the same time. Some children will naturally be wired to pay full attention whenever and wherever it is required; others will find it more of a challenge. So just as we teach the child during school lessons, customizing the curriculum to fit the child, we can do the same with habit training. Remember, the discipline of good habits is one-third of your child’s education. You know each child with his unique strengths and weaknesses and natural tendencies when it comes to the different habits. Respect that child as a person in this area too. 

The good news is that everyone can grow in the habit of attention. Just as with any challenge, some persons will find it easier than others, but we can all grow. And that is what we’re looking for: growth. Not perfection. Growth. 

It might be encouraging to you to keep a journal as you walk through your habit training. Write which habit category you’re working on—for example, the habit of attention—and jot down the date you started working on it. Then list each child’s name and the specific application of that habit for him. What do you want that habit to look like for him, taking into consideration the child’s age and developmental level and natural tendencies? In other words, how is each child going to apply this habit during these six weeks? At the end of those weeks, record what growth you saw and celebrate it. Then keep holding him responsible for that application of the habit as you choose a new habit for the next six weeks. One at a time, always keeping an eye on the habits already formed. Laying Down the Rails for Children has space for you to gather your thoughts and record your expectations for each habit right in the book. It can be very encouraging to look back over your notes and remind yourself that your child is growing; you are making progress in habit training. Sometimes we forget. Writing it down and reviewing that record can bolster our spirits and motivate us to keep going.

Next time we’ll share some ideas for ways to work on the habit of obedience.