Picture, for a moment, a newborn and a six year old and consider what each is capable of doing. The contrast is amazing. Within a few years, from a near-helpless bundle, there is an extraordinarily skilled and complex individual. The extent of the learning that takes place is mind-boggling and has still yet to be understood.
A critical factor in this transformation is motivation. Children strive to learn about the world. No one has to persuade them to do this. They push themselves.
But inner drive is not enough. Major chunks of what children have to learn require adult guidance. Learning to read is one example. They have to be willing to attend to what an adult is offering them—even when they would rather be doing something else. Plus, their attention has to be sustained so that they can get a solid grasp of the material they need to learn. The term for this behavior is diligence.
As many parents know, teaching your child diligence is not so easy. But in order for children to learn all that they need to learn, it’s critical to achieve a balance between fun and diligence. If your child possesses the capacity to sit and work in a diligent manner for 10-15 minutes, then he or she is ready to start learning diligence. Most children under four years are not yet able to do this. That’s fine—since they are right in line with their developmental level. Indeed, it’s a good reason for not teaching formal curricula such as reading and math to children of that age.
At the same time, if your child is older than four and has not developed core diligence skills, then you should not simply sit back and wait for the behavior to emerge. Instead, it is advisable to take some measures to foster its development.
1. Set in place a regular type of encounter that that fosters better attention. One way to do this is to carry out, three to four times a week, a “play- like” activity with the child.
2. Each session should last about 10 -15 minutes and then gradually be extended as the child’s attentional skills develop. For children up to six or seven years of age, the ultimate goal is about 30 minutes.
3. The content of the activity is critical. It can be almost anything that is age appropriate. Possibilities might be puzzles, filling in colors on a sheet, or a board game. But regardless of what it is, at least once or twice a week, it should be one that the child does NOT particularly like.
This suggestion to use an activity that the child does not like may be unexpected. It is likely to go against many things you’ve heard about encouraging learning. But the fact of the matter is that children with attentional problems have no problem staying on task with things they like. Their problem comes when they have to stay on task with something they do not particularly like. School, no matter how friendly, pleasant and supportive it might be, will steadily require the child to do just that–to deal with less than desirable activities. By setting up the appropriate patterns at home, the child is given a real leg up in handling a very important area of behavior.
4. The interaction should last about 1- 2 minutes beyond what seems to be the child’s limit. That means the activity may not be completed in a single session. That’s fine. It can be put aside and completed another time. But the set-up leads a child, via tiny increments, to steadily increase attention.
This suggestion may sound simple, but the effects are not. The changes can be amazing, with enormously positive outcomes for school success.