For most children, lack of focus is not a medical problem. They are often bored and unfortunately are living in a society that fuels their lack of concentration with countless distractions. This inability to focus can lead to disastrous results in the classroom as well as in life. Students who reach great heights have learned how not to be easily distracted. If a child can concentrate on school tasks, and, more important, on his own dreams and goals, his life will be better.
When the assistant principal at the time took a look at the girl's form, she was intrigued by one of the mother's answers. On the line beside the question about medical diagnoses, the mother had written in 80HD. She asked the girl's mother about it and got an earful.
"You're the principal in a public school, and you don't know about eighty-H-D???"
That story is not from Rafe Esquith's Lighting Their Fires. It's something that really happened in out school.
ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder - is a diagnosis that is handed out like candy in some areas, but is it real? Are doctors over-diagnosing kids with ADHD? Do that many kids really require medical intervention to pay attention and sit still? Do teachers use ADHD as an excuse to allow students to fail? The answer to each of these questions is "probably".
In this section of Lighting Their Fires, I found the quote that appears at the beginning of this post. It may go against what people believe a teacher would write, but it's true. I especially like the first line in the quote: "For most children, lack of focus is not a medical problem."
The truth is there are many reasons for a child's lack of attention. We can attempt to find the antecedent, and that certainly might help, but we also attempt to teach children more than content. As a classroom teacher, I need to provide my students with opportunities to focus. I must talk to them specifically about their individual attention habits, but might I also embed items into lessons for the express purpose of challenging their focus. Focusing them on focusing.
One thing I do that really gets their goat in the beginning is play music. I've always been a proponent of music in my classroom, having started in that time period when everybody thought Mozart Makes You Smarter. I bought a Mozart tape and played it in the back of the room every time kids took a test. What did I know? I just ran with the trend.
Then I realized that music could change the mood of my class. I started tweaking things. I played calm, instrumental pieces, and I really liked the albums that featured birds, frogs, and rain in the background of the music. I found that music played too softly as students entered in the morning was completely ignored, that music played to loudly was shouted over, but that there was a sweet spot in the middle where students would let the music make be the only sound in the room. But that sweet spot is very hard to find.
Finally, I started playing music with lyrics. I even played pop and 80s rock. I played current music during independent working times, and I found something that may defy logic...but then again, maybe it's completely logical after all.
I projected an assignment onto the wall - five questions - and gave students two minutes to complete it. I handed them the first 10 seconds to get their bearings, and then I started the music. It was not soft. It was not instrumental. And it immediately stole their attention from the questions they were trying to answer. They looked up from their papers, looked at each other, and finally, with what-are-you-thinking? looks on their faces, they turned to me.
"Keep working!" I told them.
But they couldn't.
Or could they?
Is it possible that by forcing my students to drown out the music, I was starting to give them a heightened sense of focus on the important assignment in front of them? After the assignment, I stood before them and honestly recounted what I had just seen. I explained to the class that I was challenging their focus, that I was forcing them to flex their attention muscles.
I realized that we've done the opposite for a long time, and we've made very little progress for gives who have deficits in the area of paying attention. We've gotten rid of the distractions. We've made rules about voice levels. We've sent them into the hallway. We've put them into quiet rooms. We've installed traffic lights in the classroom to visually clue them in to their voice levels. We've forbidden any possible noises - scooting chairs, drinking from water bottles, sharpening pencils - and in doing so we have not allowed students to flex their attention muscles. In short, we've made them weaker.
I think there is something to Newton's third law that applies to the brain as well.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Also, please do not get the idea that I always challenge in such a way. I also recognize that, for decades, kids received much of their be-quiet-and-listen behavior from churches and the like. They were encouraged to sit in pews, facing forward, and they were told to be quiet for an hour at a time, maybe even a couple of times a week. Nowadays, many don't attend such services. Even if they do attend, many groups have adapted their "worship" to be more entertaining: groups of people on stage with spotlights, lasers, and electric guitars sing for applause and encourage shouting. Congregants in many of these settings are now an audience and do not participate in focused hymns. No longer does the speaker of the hour help either: in attempt to be one of the community, the speaker now walks around in ripped jeans, saying provocative things, and telling the audience when to applaud and say amen.
But I digress...
The only point I make in digressing is that our students no longer get the outside support of one or two hours of quiet focus from days gone by. The conclusion I must make is that I have to also embed some of those times into my school day, as well. It works quite effectively to follow up one of those flex-your-attention-muscles moments with a completely silent moment. Pupils immediately see the difference. They can audibly and visibly understand what is happening inside of them when suddenly that focus is easier. Perhaps the most important is that they appreciate it when it happens - not years down the road, but immediately.