For the past few weeks, my research has taken me in very unexpected (although not unwelcome) areas. I have been reading a book that has been very enlightening to me, and that I hope to review before my school semester starts. It ties a lot of basic principles together that I have been hard-pressed to try to work out for myself. It has also taken my research into discipline, punishments, rewards, classroom management, and curriculum into new areas which I had not foreseen. Suffice to say that I have been very surprised at how much the book has impacted me, for I had planned for my research to go a very different direction than the one it has taken.
According to this book, the phrase “theory of concentrated attention” was first used by Maria Montessori in 1917. John Dewey also used a version of the phrase: “theory of undivided interest”. Basically this theory pertains to any activity that children engage in independently that holds their interest in such a way that outside distractions do not disturb them for an amount of time that seems impossible for their age.
I have often seen this type of thing happen in my classroom and have marveled at it. I once saw a girl – a two-year-old – take her shoe off and work to put it back on her foot repeatedly for days until she had mastered putting her shoe back on her foot. When she was working with that shoe, nothing would distract her. I recently saw another two-year-old girl working with a lacing card not far from where her friends were playing a pretend game with their baby dolls – a game that she frequently plays with them. It is amazing to see a child enter this state because their demeanor changes; they become calmer, focused, and very in-tune to the task at hand.
Usually when anyone thinks of a two-year-old, they think of a wild child who tears through the room completely full of energy and spark. While this is true, two-year-olds (and other ages as well – I only single them out because I work with this age every day) exhibit an amazing capacity to concentrate on certain activities – as long as those activities are interesting to the child. Our job then, as teachers, is to come up with those activities that will hold the child’s interest and attention.
Very soon I will be doing a post about how curriculum goes hand-in-hand with discipline, but the idea that the activities that we provide need to be ones that hold our children’s interest hits very close to the theme of that topic. When children are engaged in an activity that interests them, they no longer have a need to go tearing around a room or bugging their friends to the point that there is an altercation. They become calmer and more able to work productively with others. It is a winning theory for the classroom.
But another point that I want to make at this time is that sometimes the activity that the child becomes interested in isn’t one that you have provided as a teacher. Concerning the child who worked so long on learning how to put her shoe on: if I, as her teacher, had fussed at her about taking her shoes off, took her shoes from her, and put them back on her feet myself, she never would have learned the skill of putting her shoes on her feet. Teachers need to be sensitive to what children are trying to accomplish on their own and less quick to judge what is right and wrong for a child to do. If we take a step back and observe what children are doing in any given moment, and try to put those actions into an objective developmental perspective rather than a judgmental perspective, we may see that there is more learning going on in “mistaken behaviors” than we may realize. And the reason why our field has chosen to label these behaviors as mistaken is not because the child is mistaken in doing them, but because it is so easy to mistake these behaviors for discipline issues. They usually are, in fact, experimental issues.
Children are like scientists; they constantly want to learn more about the world around them. If they aren’t given engaging activities to do, they will make some up for themselves. These activities could be anything from hitting their friends to find out what will happen, to hitting an object with another object to find out what will happen. To curtail these behaviors, providing engaging activities and teaching the children how to properly explore with the materials for the activities is a must. It will lead to a much calmer, more focused classroom.
And you may even see the wonder of a child as they are so focused on the activity that you have provided that nothing else in the room matters.