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When I was a girl, I took piano lessons. I would practice diligently during the school year, but my teacher always gave her students the summer off. So I got used to not practicing during the summer months.
Later, in high school, I switched to a different teacher, and she had a completely different mind-set. She told me, “Why would you take the summer off? You have more time to practice during the summer months than any other time of the year, because you don’t have classes and homework competing for your time. Summer is the best season to make significant progress in your playing!”
If you are taking the summer off of schoolwork, you might be tempted to take the summer off of habit-training too. But may I suggest that summer might be a great season to make significant progress in habit-training?
Sometimes during the school year we are focused so intensely on the academics, that the habits take second place. But think about it: if you have two or three months without schoolwork, you can use that time to focus intensely on habit-training and see some real progress.
Habits that you can get more securely instilled now will make the next school term run that much smoother and easier.
In fact, Charlotte Mason cautioned against relaxing the habits during school holidays and breaks. She said,
“The habits practised in school and relaxed at home, because ‘it’s holidays now, you know,’ do not really become habits of the life” (School Education, p. 107).
So how can we make this summer (or any school break) an opportunity to focus on habit-training?
A Foundational Principle
Well, first let me remind you of a foundational principle of habit-training.
One at a time.
Focus on one habit at a time.
It’s so easy to overlook that principle if we feel like we’re under time pressure. “I only have a few weeks to fix this kid, and I can think of at least five habits that he needs to work on!”
Hold on. One at a time. Habit-training is a marathon, not a sprint. You can make significant progress in a few weeks if you give it focused effort; but spreading that focus out over several areas only dilutes your efforts. Pick one habit and give it the full force of your effort for at least six weeks. That’s the way to get that habit up and running smoother.
If you’re not sure where to begin, I would recommend you start with the habit of attention. It really is foundational to all the other habits. Attention means turning the full gaze of your mind upon something. Most of us do that easily when something interests us, but being able to do that intentionally requires an act of the will first before it will ever become a habit.
That intentional full gaze of the mind is foundational, because we have to pay attention to our thoughts, our actions, and others’ expectations in order to form other habits. For example, we won’t even think about whether we’re giving a task our best effort unless we are paying attention to that task and to ourselves.
And those are probably the two habits that will give you the best return on your investment of time and effort this summer. When you get back into schoolwork, the habits of paying full attention and giving best effort will make a huge difference.
So let’s get practical. Let’s talk about How. Someone asked me recently if I had any tips for working on those two habits—full attention and best effort—over the summer. So I tried to brainstorm some possibilities that I’d like to share with you. In this episode, we’ll focus on the habit of attention. Next time we’ll talk about some tips for working on the habit of best effort during the summer months. But remember, one at a time. Pick only one to focus on first. Then you can add the second one, keeping an eye on the one already in place.
Two Pieces of Advice
Let me give you two pieces of advice to begin with.
First, if you have an older student, I would recommend that you sit down with him and have a brief discussion. Keep it short and to the point. Let him know that you want to work on those habits this summer (one at a time). And—very important—let him know the benefits of those habits—how having a habit of full attention will help him in his life.
Second, take some time to brainstorm some appropriate consequences with a close friend or your spouse. You will feel much more confident going into this if you come up with some possibilities ahead of time and have them in mind. They might not be a perfect fit when a situation occurs, but those ideas can lead to other ideas in the moment that will be spot-on. If your children are older, you might even let them help you brainstorm some possible consequences.
During this focused habit time, you will want to keep two tools close at hand: encouragement and consequences. Both will play a key role in motivating your children to keep working on the habit.
10 Practical Tips
All right, here are 10 ideas that came to mind for focusing on the habit of attention this summer.
1. Motivate your child with a living example.
In other words, include yourself in this habit-training. And start with this question: Am I paying attention to my child? When that child talks to you, do you set aside your phone or your potato peeler and look her in the eye? I love the definition of attention that says, “Attention is listening with the ears, eyes, and heart.” That’s where it starts. None of us will be perfect at this, but it’s good to check in regularly with our own hearts and make sure we’re not asking our children to do something that we’re not willing to do ourselves. It can be very powerful to say, “Let’s work on this habit together.”
2. Get face to face.
If your child needs to work on applying attention when you’re giving him directives, this will be a key. Try to set your child up for success in this area. Remember, the goal is not that when he says, “What?,” he has to deal with the consequences. The more often he ignores your first communication, the more that action will become his habit. So be proactive. Try to go back to the root of the issue and do what you can to make it easy for him to pay attention the first time you say something. That is the action you want to become the habit: pay attention the first time I say something. Repetition of that desired action is what will form the habit. When you have something to tell him, make sure you are face to face. Don’t take the lazy way out and yell from the other room or from the other end of the house. Get some of your steps in and go get eye contact before you start talking.
3. Keep your directives short.
We talk about short lessons and how they can help a child learn this habit of paying full attention. Well, it’s the same with your directives. If you have a child who tends to do only part of a directive, that might be a clue that your directive is too long for him right now. Just as you would scale back on the length of a reading or the length of a lesson to begin with, do the same with your directives. Give short directives. The more often he can listen to the whole directive—pay attention to the whole thing,—the more that action will become the habit. If a two-step instruction is too much for your child right now, pare it down. Give one step. Once he has responded to that one, then give the next step. But keep it short. If needed, you could have your child repeat what he is to do (narrating, in a sense), so you both know he’s paying attention and he knows what you said. But start short in order to get that “pay attention for the whole directive” habit established well.
4. Keep expectations consistent.
Some of the fun of summer is changing things up a bit when it comes to your daily schedule. That’s fine; a change of pace is good for us at times. Just make sure your child knows that, even with a change in schedule, certain expectations remain constant. When the routine changes, in a child’s mind it begs the question Do the same rules still apply? It can be confusing if you require full attention one day but not the next. Sure, go to that amusement park; but make sure you’re requiring full attention when you give a directive there too. You might be in different locations and different situations, but keep your requirements as consistent as possible when it comes to the habit you’re working on. This is a great opportunity for your child to see how the same habit can be applied in various settings.
5. Shadow as needed to keep on task.
If you have a child who listens attentively to your directive and goes to do it, but often gets distracted along the way, that’s another area of attentiveness that you could work on: paying full attention to the task at hand. You want to reinforce the habit of sustained attention until a task is finished. Keeping your directives short will help in this aspect too. And something else that will help is your presence. The goal is to, as often as possible, keep your child’s mind moving forward and focused on the task at hand. If you are actively working together, you will be able to guide and model that behavior. So rather than send a child to do a task, you may want to go with him and do the task together in order to help him stay on track until it’s finished. I know, this will require more of your time, but keep in mind that it is temporary. The more often he reinforces that neuron path in his brain, “Pay attention for the whole task,” the sooner that will become a habit. And the next tip will help you make the transition to your not having to go with him.
6. Gradually replace your presence with a timer.
Now keep in mind your individual child. Some children find timers helpful; others find them stressful. The key is whether the timer is set for what the child considers a realistic deadline in order to complete the task. To figure that important time limit out, use a stopwatch a few times when you are working with your child on the task. Include him in that little exercise; it will be good for him to see how long that task actually takes. Then once you know, and he knows, how long it should take realistically—if he gives sustained attention to the task—you can start weaning away your presence and setting the timer instead. The steps might look like this: we work together; you do the task and I help a little and watch a little; you do the task and I watch; you do the task with the timer and I watch; you do the task with the timer and I check in every couple of minutes; you do the task with the timer and I check in during the final minutes; you do the task with the timer and I inspect your work. You see how you can make the transition gradually, as it fits that child best.
7. Let the consequences do the talking for you.
In other words, if the child does not pay full attention—even with your efforts to make it easier for him with shorter directives and working together—if he replies with “What?” or simply doesn’t do what you say, don’t repeat yourself. Every time you repeat a directive, you are reinforcing the habit of paying attention only on the second time (or third time) you speak. That’s not the habit you want to cultivate. So rather than repeat yourself, use one of the consequences you have brainstormed. Let the consequence do the talking for you. It will be much more effective and motivate your child to start paying attention the first time you say something. Consistency in applying consequences when attention is not given leads to consistency in giving attention the first time you speak.
8. Limit electronic devices.
The electronic devices in your home can be an addictive competitor for your attention and your child’s attention. You’ve seen the vacant stares and oblivion that can happen with electronic games, and that includes educational games. Even audiobooks can be a distraction from interacting attentively with the people around you. So don’t allow electronic devices to sabotage your efforts at habit-training for attention. Your children will be much more creative and active and more aware of what’s going on around them—more attentive—if you limit their time on the electronics.
9. Practice with games if the children are younger.
Many different games emphasize the importance of paying close attention in order to win. Very young children can play Simon Says. Elementary-age children might enjoy Red Light, Green Light. You can also play a little game called Listen First. Choose three single-word actions that your child can do (for example, clap, jump, twirl). Start by giving just one command at a time and see if your child can pay attention and do what was said only one time. Once he has mastered one command, try giving two commands together and see if your child can listen, remember both commands, and do them in the correct order (for example, clap-jump, twirl-clap). As your child grows in this game, you can add more actions and increase the number of commands you give at one time. Keep it lighthearted, though. This is a game and should be fun.
10. Read a great book together.
The enjoyment we share from listening to a book read aloud contributes to a helpful attention-building cycle. Meghan Cox Gurdon, author of The Enchanted Hour, noticed this cycle as she watched a roomful of fourth graders listening to a story that their librarian was reading to them. The cycle has huge ramifications for the habit of attention. She described the cycle like this: “If they sat still, kept quiet, and paid attention, they could enjoy the story, even as their enjoyment of the story got them used to sitting still, keeping quiet, and paying attention” (The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, p. 121). If you want to work on the habit of paying attention, choose a great living book and read it aloud, a little each day, over the summer.
Spend several weeks focused on that one habit: paying attention. You want to see progress, but don’t wait for perfection. That could be a very long wait. Remember, none of us is perfect.
Once you see progress in the habit of full attention, you can add in some practice on the habit of best effort, if you want to tackle that also. Next time I’ll give you my tips for working on that habit over the summer.