Prone to Distraction

By Mary Boza Crimmins, Middle School Social Studies Teacher

My husband calls me “sidetrack Sally” because I’m prone to distraction. I admit I get lost in thought and often have multiple projects going at once. However, I’m also experienced enough to know which jobs require uninterrupted focus: lesson plans, research, personal devotions. Students I work with daily don’t have the same discipline and habits as me. 

Regardless of age, distractions hijack our thinking. For tweens and teens, the distractibility factor is even more intense. In part due to what education podcaster, Jennifer Gonzalez, calls the “trend toward hyperbole”. Gonzalez describes the “horror-movie screams” when her students spotted a spider. After 25 years of teaching students who are mostly native-Floridians, I laugh at how awe-inspiring rain is to them. You’d think they have never seen an afternoon shower. These episodes of over-the-top responses to everyday occurrences are common. Teachers know to handle these situations light-heartedly. Nevertheless, this tendency toward hyperbole is just one-way middle school students are distracted.

Multitasking is another focus thief. In Brain Chains,  a compilation of neuroscience research by Theo Compernolle, switching attention, AKA multitasking, is proven to come at a high cost. Consequently, the ding of an email, the swish of a new post, the pop-up from an incoming text message may seemingly last a few seconds, but has been scientifically shown to interrupt concentration for at least 2 minutes. Multiple interruptions lead to more drastic drops in concentration, quality and productivity. To demonstrate the perils of multitasking, I’ve conducted an activity shared in Brain Chains with around 100 students. Even after the students experience the activity, 97% take more time in the second round which requires multitasking. In the Organized Mind, another book sharing recent brain research, Daniel Levitin emphasizes how the reflecting brain cannot multitask. Reflection – deliberate, slow, thinking about learning and what to do with what is learned – is the goal of education.  

Developing the habit of focus is essential during adolescence because the brain is undergoing more changes than any other life phase, with the exception of the first two years. As David Walsh, an expert in adolescent development, emphasizes in Why Do They Act That Way?, tweens must “learn how to manage their impulses” and develop the habit of focus. Walsh stresses that even though the adolescent’s “brain isn’t fully under his control, it’s his responsibility to get in under control.”

So here’s eight reminders for parents regarding helping your child focus:

  1. Engage your child in conversations during which distractions are eliminated, including your phone.
  2. When your child speaks in hyperbole (My teacher always…, Mr. Brown never…, Everyone…), listen, but avoid the desire to fix the “problem”.
  3. Require that all digital device notifications, including those on FitBits or Apple Watches, are turned off.  Yes, everyone will survive if they are not instantly updated on Snapchat.
  4. Model and insist on digital device etiquette, including forbidding the wearing of earbuds when another person is present.  
  5. Provide a homework location in a common area such as the kitchen. Ensure that the area is free of distractions, including pets.
  6. Only permit the necessary digital devices during homework time. Digital devices are often NOT necessary for studying, so if no digital device is required, consider removing it from the room.
  7. Read, support and adhere to the digital device policy for your child’s school. Keep in mind, when one phone “accidentally” goes off in a classroom, it is a disruption to the learning for the entire class.
  8. Never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep, healthy diet and regular exercise.
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