The Habit of Attention in Adolescence

One would think that it is too late, at 14, for a young man to be trained to attend, particularly to schoolwork, in a world of distractions and demands. If he has been primarily educated in the public schools it the fault of his schooling, or is it just the fact of his age?

It may be his age. MRI studies have shown that the brains of teens are undergoing a remarkable process of reorganization. Gray matter density in the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions such as attention and organization are located, is decreasing, and white matter is increasing. Further, the limbic system, the part of the brain that handles emotion, is being flooded with hormones. This often means that anything with emotional content will immediately trump intellectual material in a bid for the adolescent’s attention. On top of that, he’s growing – and a refrigerator full of food may just prove irresistible. Furthermore, research indicates that the attention span of a young adolescent is still no more than 20 minutes a shot, not much longer than in childhood.

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It could also be his schooling. Imagine him being fed on textbooks with a glossy magazine layout, on handouts, worksheets and lectures, videos and group projects and grades. A bright kid may have been able to get away with paying minimal attention in class, and with the pressure of high stakes tests to pass, tests that may determine whether or not the teacher gets a raise, much effort is put into making education effortless.

One could easily look at brain research and say “He’ll grow out of it. He’ll get it together if you just leave him in the system and give him a bit of support.” Yet the brain research also gives me hope that a teen can actually do better than that, that this time of brain reorganization opens up the possibility of learning new habits, of working not only to develop the muscles in his limbs, but also the connections in his brain.

Charlotte Mason believed education was three things: an Atmosphere, a Discipline, and a Life. As a discipline, education starts with good habits. Of all the good mental habits Mason expected her students to acquire, the lynchpin is attention. This is because attention is the portal through which all information enters the brain for storage. Attention determines whether working memory engages, and whether items stored into working memory make it into short and long term memory. One must not minimize the importance of attention.

Embed from Getty ImagesBecause some kids and adults are so deficient in their ability to attend that they require medication to function, we are no longer taught that attention is a habit; we are now led to believe that it’s a faculty you either have or you don’t in some quantity. Our habit of generalizing extreme disability to the population at large sells pills, but potentially disempowers us from engaging our own will, or to use Mason’s own turn of phrase: “bringing the will to bear.” Charlotte Mason contradicted the notion that attention is a faculty over 100 years ago:

“It is evident that attention is no “faculty” of the mind; indeed, it is very doubtful how far the various operations of the mind should be described as “faculties” at all. Attention is hardly even an operation of the mind, but is simply the act by which the whole mental force is applied to the subject in hand.” Home Education, Vol. 1, p. 145

Attention is a muscle to be developed rather than a gift that some lucky people are given at birth. Attention is so important because no amount of mental “giftedness” can make up for its lack.

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention. It is, to quote words of weight, ‘within the reach of every one, and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline’; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them.” (Ibid, p. 146)

Is it possible to build new habits so late, or do we dream up some work-around, some less lofty goals? We all know that it is easiest to learn good habits when we are young and when we haven’t acquired bad habits. We know that one does not “grow out of” bad habits. One thing we don’t talk much about is how easy it is to lose a good habit, and how good habits do tend to require frequent reinforcement. So even if your teen had the habit of attention as a child, it’s possible they can let it go in adolescence. I think it is always possible to develop a new habit and break an old one, but it is tricky for a parent to develop a good habit in a teen until they decide for themselves they want to take on the project. In my next post, I want to talk about the “A’s” of attention, and how we are working to build this important habit in our homeschool.


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