This week’s article summary is A Lost Secret: How To Get Kids to Pay Attention, and it’s a follow up to a previous summary on kids today having better attention than fifty years ago.
Like any other skill and habit, attention requires motivation and incentive. If we really don’t care about something, we typically don’t put it the same effort, focus, and concentration.
What I found interesting about this research is that better attention does not result from more stringent rules but from greater personal autonomy and choice. As most of us know, research shows that extrinsic rules, rewards, and punishments do not work in the long run, meaning helping a person become self-motivated and self-disciplined.
Still it can be challenging as a parent and teacher in the heat of the moment (when a child is misbehaving) to always give a child voice and choice. It can seem counterintuitive in the moment, yet we all need to remind ourselves that these intrinsic habits we all want in our kids do not result from extrinsic strictness. Parameters are vital yet we all need the autonomy to make choices within them.
The philosophy behind Positive Discipline is that compliance of classroom rules and norms is enhanced through individual and collective voice and decision making.
In both my personal and professional life, I often reflect on the misbehavior of people (be they kids, adults, or me) through the lens of Positive Discipline’s Mistaken Goals Chart. Before I react to someone acting outside the normalcy of social mores, I try to think about why her/she is acting in that way. Positive Discipline has definitely refocused my perspective to believing everyone want to fit in and be part of a group; it’s just that this goal is easier and more natural for some than others and that interpersonal skill and habit development are a lifetime pursuit.
Fifteen years ago, psychologists ran a simple experiment. They wanted to see how well kids pay attention — even if they don't have to. They would bring two kids, between the ages 5 to 11, into a room and have them sit at two tables. Then they had a research assistant teach one of the kids how to assemble a toy. The other kid was told to wait. They wanted to see what the waiting child did. Would she pay attention to the research assistant. Or did she goof off? They ran this experiment on about 80 kids, with two different backgrounds: white, middle-class children from California and Maya children from Guatemala, whom she had been studying for years.
The difference was like night and day.
Many of the American kids slouched in their chairs, stared at the floor or looked around the room at the posters. In contrast, the Maya children were more likely to pay attention. Some of them sat perfectly still in the chair, staring at the instructor. The Maya kids showed sustained attention about two-thirds of the time. The middle-class, American kids did so exactly half as often.
Why such different results? Maya kids are encouraged very early on to pay attention to what their family is doing so they can learn how to do chores and work collaboratively with their family. But Rogoff and other Maya researchers think there's more to the story. They think these indigenous children have something that many American kids have lost.
For years, psychologists have been developing a standard test to measure how well people can focus — or at least that's what they thought they were measuring. On one test a person is shown a series of images on the screen and instructed to press a button every time a city pops up. The more mistakes you make like this, the worse your ability is to pay attention, the researchers thought.
But then a few years ago, they decided to tweak the experiment. Right before it began, they told the college kids: "If you do better on the task, it would end sooner--and you can get out of the lab sooner."
In other words, the researchers gave the volunteers more motivation to pay attention. The results were shocking: The extra motivation increased the person's ability to sustain attention by more than 50 percent. The researchers could even see changes in how the brain worked when people were motivated. The circuitry that controls attention was more active throughout the entire experiment when participants were motivated to finish the test. Whereas, without the motivation, this circuitry tended to flash on and off.
For some people, the motivation can be just as important as their innate ability to pay attention.
So maybe the Maya children are more attentive in the origami/toy experiment — not because they have better attention spans — but because they are more motivated to pay attention. Their parents have somehow motivated them to pay attention even without being told. To see this Maya parenting firsthand, I traveled down to a tiny Maya village in Yucatan, Mexico.
Right away, I realized what these kids have that many American kids miss out on: an enormous amount of freedom. The freedom to largely choose what they do, where they go, whom they do it with. That means, they also have the freedom to control what they pay attention to. Even 4-year-olds have the freedom to leave the house by themselves.
Now the kids aren't just playing around in the yard. They're still getting work done. They go to school. They do several after-school activities — and many, many chores. When I was with one family, the oldest girl did the dishes even though no one asked her to, and she helped take care of her little sisters. But the kids, to a great extent, set their schedules and agendas. Rather than having the mom set the goal — and then having to offer enticements and rewards to reach that goal — the child is setting the goal. Then the parents support that goal however they can.
The parents intentionally give their children this autonomy and freedom because they believe it's the best way to motivate kids.
With this strategy, Maya children also learn how to manage their own attention, instead of always depending on adults to tell them what to pay attention to. It may be the case that some American children give up control of their attention when it's always managed by an adult.
Although neuroscientists are just beginning to understand what's happening in the brain while we pay attention, psychologists already have a pretty good understanding of what's needed to motivate kids. One of the most important ingredients for motivating kids is autonomy--to do something with this full sense of willingness and choice.
Many studies have shown that when teachers foster autonomy, it stimulates kids' motivation to learn, tackle challenges and pay attention.
Yet in the last few decades, some parts of our culture have turned in the other direction. They've started taking autonomy away from kids — especially in some schools. One of the things we've been doing in the American school system is making it more and more controlling rather than supportive.
And this lack of autonomy in school inhibits kids' ability to pay attention.
Families and schools in the U.S. can't go full-on Maya to motivate kids. It's often not practical — or safe — to give kids that much autonomy in many places, for instance.
But we need to try.