Attention to detail

16th September 2005 at 01:00
A few simple measures can help young children learn to concentrate, says Penny Tassoni

It is often believed that young children find it hard to concentrate.

Certainly, many teachers say that young children find it hard to settle down and are easily distracted. So what is the essence of concentration and is it possible to help young children learn to do it? A good starting point is to consider what is required when we want to concentrate. First, our attention has to be drawn to something and focused on it. The ring of a mobile may focus our attention and we may begin to hunt for it. But concentration is a whole lot more than this.

In order to concentrate, our attention has to be sustained. If we think that the mobile belongs to us, we will continue to hunt for it, but if we recognise that it is not ours, we may lose interest unless we like the theme tune. Children need to learn to concentrate as they have to be focused for long enough to take in information. There are some basic conditions that can make a huge difference to everyone's ability to concentrate - so simple, that they are often overlooked.

An example is temperature. If it is too warm and we feel drowsy it lowers our ability to concentrate. But children are often expected to remain alert and to concentrate in hot, airless conditions. Keeping a window open to provide fresh air, especially in the winter months, will make a difference.

In the same way, being hot on hygiene will mean that fewer children will come down with colds, stomach bugs and other lurgies that can leave children and the adults working with them feeling under par.

Parents, too, can do their bit. Young children need more sleep than adults and lack of sleep will affect concentration and memory. Some research also points to the importance of a balanced diet where children are getting enough of the fatty acid omega-3.

Finally, it is worth thinking about overall routines. Quite often, these have been handed down over time, but we should question whether they are still right for today. A good example is the timing of breaks and snack times. They were probably set in an era when children came into school or nursery having had a proper breakfast and a drink. Today, we may need to ask whether some would benefit from having an earlier snack. Hungry children do not make good learners.

We must also think about what is happening to sustain our attention, and this is linked to levels of arousal. When these are high and can be maintained, we concentrate. When our arousal levels fall, so too does our ability to concentrate. A few things really make a difference. First, interest and relevance. This is hardly surprising - adults tend to switch off if something is of little interest. This means that we really need to get to know the children we work with well and base activities on what we have seen holds their interest. The Foundation Stage guidance invites us to follow children's interests.

Sensory activities usually hold children's attention. As they use their hands, so the sensory stimulation keeps arousal levels high. Hiding children's names or playing number lotto, which requires hunting for the numbers in the sand tray, are good examples of how sensory material can be used for directed learning.

Children may become fidgety when asked to sit for long periods, but get them outside and suddenly they are full of life. This is because physical activity once again maintains arousal levels. Outside, children can make dens of twigs and leaves or collect hidden straws and see if they can find the longest. The problem with outdoor activities can be the adults; they are the ones keen to come back indoors.

Penny Tassoni is an education consultant, author and trainer. She will conduct a workshop on concentration on Friday September 30 at 3.30pm

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