Tag Archives: Self-control

Are You Listening? Teaching Young Minds to Focus

As teachers, repeating ourselves ad nauseam is not our intention, but we all do it. We engage, refocus, and double check our students have learned what we taught. Sometimes it feels like we work significantly harder than our students.

Focus is the beginning of all learning in the classroom
I attended a Learning and the Brain conference and was challenged by its theme: focus is the beginning of all learning in the classroom. What we choose to focus on is what makes up our cognitive schema. This concept seems simple, but I have since realized how profound a problem focus is for all ages.

As a Learning Specialist, I decided to observe classrooms through this new “focus” lens. I noticed in a classroom of students, even well-behaved students, focus was consistently inconsistent at any given time. In fact, I have yet to observe a group of 20 students all fully engaged for the same five uninterrupted minutes (this assumes focus requires more than having eyes on the teacher and lips closed).

Expectation of focus is a balanced responsibility
Some educators believe focusing students is the teacher’s job as informed by best practices, brain research, and engaging learning activities. But, they say, due to technology’s influence, students’ ability to focus is waning. However, I began to believe expectation of focus can be a balanced responsibility; we have to do our part, but our students have to do their part, too.

I pondered three questions:

In general, how do we teach students to focus?

How do I teach five and six-year-olds to focus?

How much cognitive control can we expect from elementary school children?

We can only control what we understand
Our brain controls our actions, thoughts, emotions, and learning. Yet how much do we really understand about our brain and its connection to who we are and what we do every day? We can only control what we understand.

So, my first attempt to improve focus in the classroom was to teach students what it means to focus.

Mindful Monkey, Happy PandaA psychologist in Atlanta introduced me to Lauren Alderfer’s Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda. The book’s main characters, Monkey and Panda, engage in a conversation that teaches readers what it means to be “Monkey Minded.” Monkey is always doing two or three things at once. When he is eating, he is thinking about playing; when he is playing, he is thinking about reading. His mind is never doing just one thing and, therefore, he feels scattered. Monkey notices that Panda is  peaceful, happy, and enjoying life. He learns that Panda’s secret to happiness is that he only thinks about one thing at a time. By focusing on one thing, Panda is able to fully enjoy the one thing he is doing. Monkey decides to give it a try.

The goal is to have children see both states of mind are appropriate at different times
Two useful phrases, Monkey Minded and Panda Moment, help teach principles of cognitive control to young students. If students can experience what it feels like to focus on one thing, a Panda Moment, then they are ready to notice when they are Monkey Minded. The goal is to have children see that both states of mind are enjoyable and appropriate at different times throughout the day. When it is time to learn, focusing all attention on the teacher, like a Panda Moment, is best for learning. If Monkey Minded moments occur during learning, important information can be missed, making learning difficult.

Panda Moments will come easily to some and with great difficulty to others. These are opportunities to build attention stamina  by introducing focusing strategies and breathing techniques. I believe students are able to focus just as well as they did before technology and video games. The only difference is that the new generation needs teachers to define what it means to sustain focus, and to help students build stamina since the world is full of ever-present distractions.

If we can empower students to recognize when they are doing their part and hold them accountable when they are not, we will be able to use our best teaching methods and students will be able to use their cognitive ability to listen, experience, and learn.

Secondly, I realized helping students understand their brain can help them focus. 

Fantastic Elastic BrainAt the Learning and the Brain conference, I discovered JoAnn Deak’s picture book, Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: Stretch It, Shape It, a fantastic tool to help students understand the brain, how it works, and how it impacts them every day. It uses age-appropriate language and captivating illustrations to help kids learn what is happening in their brain when they engage in daily activities. Here are a few favorite teaching points (among many) from this book:

  1. The brain is a muscle that wants to grow and be strengthened
  2. Making mistakes and practicing is essential for learning because the process helps our brain make and strengthen connections
  3. Learning new things stretches the brain and helps it grow.
  4. Our emotions impact our learning, but we can control and change our emotions if we pay attention and make helpful choices.

Finally, I was challenged to better understand focus as a teacher.

FocusIn Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman discusses how cognitive control and emotional intelligence are essential skills to achieving potential. As educators, we need to reflect upon how we teach students about the brain and its power to control thoughts, actions, emotions, and how all three cognitive aspects interact to create life experiences. We can only control what we know and understand.

Helping students understand how their daily experiences, emotions, and intelligence are a product of the brain in action empowers them to shape their brain to best of their ability. By understanding and balancing the teacher/student responsibility for focus in the classroom, we are able to establish a solid beginning for all learning.

Brynn Redmond is the K-1 Learning Specialist at The Lovett School in Atlanta, Georgia.

Spot Light • October 2014

Spot Light Books of the Month

Courage by Bernard WaberCourage

by Bernard Waber (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)

Publisher Summary  What is courage? Certainly it takes courage for a firefighter to rescue someone trapped in a burning building, but there are many other kinds of courage too. Everyday kinds that normal, ordinary people exhibit all the time, like “being the first to make up after an argument,” or “going to bed without a nightlight.” Bernard Waber explores the many varied kinds of courage and celebrates the moments, big and small, that bring out the hero in each of us.

Make Way for Books  This thoughtful collection of courage-facets sparkles like new, even though it was published more than 10 years ago. In a most delightful, instructive way, the illustrations are of equal importance to the descriptive text that underlines them. Picture a roller coaster at its final descent (with a few green faces) and its caption: Courage is going on it again; and, a car full of riders followed by: Courage is a scenic car trip and being stuck in the middle during the best part. These enduring wisdom bytes show an expansive courage that includes self-control, responsibility, humility, confidence, trustworthiness, and more.

Wing DingWing Ding

by Kevin Markey (Harpercollins, 2012)

Publisher Summary  When the windiest weather in Rambletown history blows in a horde of hungry grasshoppers, the only thing the chomping insects devour faster than the grass is the Rounders’ chance to host the midseason all-star game. Unfortunately, their shortstop’s arm has gone haywire. Balls used to disappear into Stump’s glove as if he were a one-man Bermuda Triangle, but since the infestation, he’s jumpier than the grasshoppers. Will the Rounders find a way to rid Stump of the yips—and their home field of insects—before the hated Haymakers hijack the all-star game?

Make Way for Books  There is nothing ho-hum about this young-reader sports tale! Nicknames — Flicker Pringle, Walloper, Stump Plumwhiff, Pepper McGraw — personify each player, preparing readers for the delightfully descriptive story that follows:

“For one thing, rings the size of donuts encrusted her fingers..”; “…the deafening roar that greeted us…sounded more like some terrible orchestra made of up of chain saws, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles”; “The base runners were coiled like Olympic Sprinters waiting for the starting gun.”

Markey masterfully blends tall tale-style storytelling and a storyline replete with competitive camaraderie to show the true meaning of All-Star. Additionally, he weaves a somewhat complex science concept into the text and shows its meaning as a critical component of the story’s climax. And (perhaps a teacher’s dream) incorporates student news articles to show what well-crafted summaries look like. End material includes a graphic organizer of the story’s teams, along with wacky facts from baseball history. An undeniable home run!

SlumpbustersMore Super Sluggers: Slumpbuster
(Harpercollins, 2010)



Wind DancerWind Dancer

by Chris Platt (Peachtree, 2014)

Publisher Summary  Having lost her beloved pony in a traumatic accident, thirteen-year-old Ali is reluctant to help her parents care for a neglected, malnourished Appaloosa, but working with Wind Dancer is a good distraction from problems surrounding her brother, who recently returned from Afghanistan with a missing leg and PTSD.

Make Way for Books  Courage abounds in this tale of putting others first, learning to accept change, and overcome adversity. Honesty, strength of family relationships, and a deep commitment to doing the right thing drive the characters to grow even when it is hard. The complex plot calls for difficult decision making and invites readers to think about what is right and why. A beautiful tale of love, courage, and valuable life lessons. Recommended for ages 9-11, grades 4-6, a little higher than publisher recommendation.

A Tangle of KnotsA Tangle of Knots

by Lisa Graff (paperback – Penguin, 2014)

Publisher Summary  Told in multiple viewpoints, A Tangle of Knots is a magnificent puzzle. In a slightly magical world where everyone has a Talent, eleven-year-old Cady is an orphan with a phenomenal Talent for cake baking. But little does she know that fate has set her on a journey from the moment she was born. And her destiny leads her to a mysterious address that houses a lost luggage emporium, an old recipe, a family of children searching for their own Talents, and a Talent Thief who will alter her life forever. However, these encounters hold the key to Cady’s past and how she became an orphan. If she’s lucky, fate may reunite her with her long-lost parent.

Make Way for Books  A National Book Award Nominee for 2013, A Tangle of Knots is a beautiful story about Cady, an orphan who has a special talent for seeing people and knowing the perfect cake for them. Told from many different perspectives and with many different characters, it takes a little while for the “knot” to be tied, but with a touch of magic, a little mystery, a lot of warmth and humor, and even some great recipes, the author succeeds in weaving together a delightful story about relationships and how they are woven together.

“If you don’t know the trick, it’s a muddled predicament. But in fact each loop of every knot is carefully placed, one end twisting tight into the other in a way you might not have expected.”

This story will appeal to fans of fantasy, mystery, and stories about family. It may be a little too complex for struggling readers, but would make a perfect read-aloud.

Searching for Sarah RectorSearching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America

by Tonya Bolden (Abrams, 2014)

Publisher Summary  Sarah Rector was once famously hailed as “the richest black girl in America. Set against the backdrop of American history, her tale encompasses the creation of Indian Territory, the making of Oklahoma, and the establishment of black towns and oil-rich boomtowns.

Rector acquired her fortune at the age of eleven. This is both her story and that of children just like her: one filled with ups and downs amid bizarre goings-on and crimes perpetrated by greedy and corrupt adults. From a trove of primary documents, including court and census records and interviews with family members, author Tonya Bolden painstakingly pieces together the events of Sarah’s life and the lives of those around her. The book includes a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.

Make Way for Books  Reading this book is like sitting under a studied historian who shares facts culled from myriad sources with care. The museum-like quality of the book’s page design and archived photographs lend authenticity to the telling of how a girl, born as a black member of the Muscogee tribe, whose history included forced relocation and the Trail of Tears, became wealthy. Bolden weaves an economics lesson into a colorful tapestry of Oklahoma expansion, land allotments, investments, lending, guardianships, greed, money, and race. The way events are explained and influential people are introduced gives readers time to digest important information. It is evident this was a painstaking work, as confirmed by a comment in the author’s note: “Better to rest on research and reason than on scuttlebutt.” This is as much about the lessons within the story as it is about how the author chose to craft it. A quality work.