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Attending to Our Attention Span

February 3, 2010
Times Observer

Have you ever heard something recounted over and over - even having it applied to multiple situations yet you just didn't totally "wrap your head around it"? Somehow I think many of us, myself included, do that with regard to changing or improving habits that affect our family or ourselves. I am currently applying some suggested improved attention span techniques sought due to my age. However, they really are not new, I have heard them proclaimed throughout my years working with parents to promote a successful school experience for their children. Attention span is the amount of time that a person can concentrate on a task without becoming distracted. Most educators and psychologists agree that the ability to focus one's attention on a task is crucial for the achievement of one's goals. The ability to sustain attention is important to all age groups. Additionally, we know that attention span varies with: age (short at preschool but expected to expand in the course of an ordinary school experience), gender (most often longer in girls than in boys), the level of enjoyment (matched to our abilities) and how intrinsically motivated (amount of interest) one may be with regard to the required task. So why is it important to have a good attention span? School/learning activities require a good attention span. I'm certain that every classroom teacher has struggled with keeping their student's attention. During my school days I remember hearing, "Let me see your eyes..." or the dreaded "You would know the directions if you had been paying attention." I know that parents and teachers are finding that, fifty years hence, attention span in children remains a concern and has decreased as opposed to increased. If you're concerned about your young child or just want to employ some good attention span techniques consider these: Read to your child daily for at least fifteen minutes. Encourage them to create a "movie in their mind" of what you are reading to them about. This will increase their visual memory skills which are needed in all school activities and during test taking. Reading to young children encourages them to sit down and focus as they listen to a story. The average attention span in children, and their ability to concentrate at length, develops gradually over time as you continue to read. As the books you read grow in length and detail, this development continues as your child grows and becomes an independent reader as well. Skills can only develop if they are practiced and reading to your child gives him/her the ability to practice focusing.

Having the ability to stick with a task and finish it through to completion is a necessary and invaluable skill to have as your child grows older, not only for academic success but also for future success in general. Try purchasing a book on CD as opposed to a DVD for their next birthday present. They are even available through the book club orders that come from your child's teacher. Play more outdoor games (even inside the garage or basement). These develop the visual skills such as eye-hand coordination and the tracking they need for reading. Expose your child to some classical music a few times a week. Make it a wake-up, bedtime or dinner music routine. Research says this enhances the cognitive thinking skills. Limit television watching, video game playing and computer time because they inhibit visual skill development. All the screen activity promotes a need for that when children are asked to attend without such visual stimulation. For those of you with older children, it's actually good to use many of the ideas shared by your child's teacher during test taking situations. The following techniques are very similar to those and serve to help all of us increase out attention span at any time. Eat healthy, especially a good breakfast. If you're about to begin something that requires concentration drink a glass of water and eat a snack with a balance of carbohydrates, fat and protein like an apple and a piece of cheese. Caffeine? You may get a quick burst of focus but it's often over done, then the jitters come and your concentration is diminished.

Get a good night's sleep. When we're tired, we're deprived of oxygen which is necessary for the production of chemicals such as dopamine and adrenaline in our brain. Even one night of sleep loss can give us symptoms that resemble attention-deficit such as forgetfulness and difficulty maintaining concentration. Everyone really should get the amount of sleep required for you to wake up without an alarm clock.

Create a cheerful environment for your children. When you're tense you get a rush of brain chemicals like cortisol that causes you to hyper focus - anger has the same effect. When you're irritated by something your concentration level is decreased. Exercise. Recent studies have shown that people who engage in aerobic exercise - anything from skating to taking a brisk walk - at least two times a week - have better concentration levels than do non-exercisers. Dr. Kathleen Modeau says, "Even standing up at your desk tells your brain it's time to be awake and act alert". So, did I get your attention? When our attention span is at optimal levels we find our work is easier, more readily remembered, takes less time and we tend to make fewer mistakes.....let's "wrap our heads around it".

Linda Swanson, retired Southwestern Elementary Principal. She earned her B.A. degree from Houghton College and M.S. in Early Childhood Education from Fredonia State. Mrs. Swanson is a lifelong resident of southwestern New York State. Her early teaching experience was at Randolph Elementary. She currently enjoys substitute teaching and volunteering at Z.E.A.L., an after school tutoring program at Zion Covenant church and also a volunteer for Love Inc.

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