Can You Train Kids to be Focused?

Your focus needs more focus” is a quote from the Karate Kids that we cite over and over and over to our kids. And over.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about focus issues in our family. My son, he’s a happy, joyous kid. He wants to be the life and soul of every situation: the goofball in the classroom. He’s confident, he’s kind, he’s funny. He also often speaks out of turn. His enthusiasm and assertiveness can come across as bossy and opinionated. He is also very easily distracted. Doodling, making origami, side conversations. Distraction management is a constant challenge. Bottom line: my son has the attention span of a newt. He’s never been “diagnosed” per se but all the signs are there. Put this all together and what do you get: a poor report card from school.

I was discussing this today with his pediatrician, someone who understands my son and always been an advocate for his effusiveness and character. He’s also someone who’s not quick to medicate to “cure” attention issues, something I value as I’m not convinced drugs are the complete answer.

So, as is the norm, G was goofing around during his annual checkup today and I asked him to quit it. My son turned to the doctor and asked: “Is this a serious conversation.” Dr McKenzie replied in the affirmative and G sat up straight, “Oh, in that case, I’ll pay attention.”

We picked up on this topic a few minutes later after some other questions about his diet, health and some prodding, and what Dr McKenzie said next really hit the mark.

“What you said before,” he explained to my son, “really showed me that you are mature enough to make a choice to be focused.”

We discussed how G is old enough to understand the situations in which he needs to be focused (in class, at karate, getting ready for school) and be aware of the triggers that draw his attention away (squirrel!)

“It’s not going to be easy, but the first step is first to make the choice to be focused when it matters most. Then you need to recognize the moment when you become distracted and become mindful of that feeling. Then remember your choice to be focused,” he continued.

This discussion was a game-changer for me. But more than that, it really resonated with my son. The fact that he was told that he is now mature enough to take charge of his own attention challenges. That the doctor believed he could do it, if he really wanted to.

We often talk with our kids about how happiness is a choice. We frequently address the topic of the right “time and place” for certain behaviors.

Now, we are adding “intentional focus” to this list.
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A New Way for Parents to Problem-Solve: Are You a Rock, a Cotton Ball or a Rubber Band?

Guest post by Rebecca Bell

I recently attended a fascinating parenting seminar entitled, “You’re not the boss of me! Help your child be a flexible thinker (by being a flexible thinking parent).” The presenter was Donna Shea, who runs the Peter Pan Center in Ayer, which provides social, emotional and behavior coaching for children. She acknowledged that the following collaborative problem-solving framework came from Ross Greene’s book, “The Explosive Child” (a misleading title, in Donna’s opinion, because it implies you need a “problem kid” to benefit from these strategies, which is not the case.)

  • Plan A – adult (meltdown causing) – Rock
  • Plan B – Both (problem solving) – Rubber Band
  • Plan C – child (meltdown prevention) – Cotton ball

Plan A is to be used sparingly, mostly in matters pertaining to safety. Some things are non-negotiable. On these matters you are an unyielding rock. You do not debate these things with small children.

“No, you may not ride your bike without a helmet.”

“You must hold my hand in the parking lot.”

When you really need to use plan A, be firm but not angry – try not to yell. We lose ~30 IQ points when we’re angry, so the goal is to avoid full on screaming meltdown mode. You do not have to attend every argument you are invited to. Pick your battles, but then don’t negotiate. If your kid continues to pester, you can reply, “You already asked and I already answered.” Use Plan A in moderation, but be firm when you do.

One of the big revelations I had during the evening was when the presenter said, “Remember, if your child is complaining but still complying, you won – tune it out.” I know I have a tendency to keep cajoling when my kids are whining while completing a task, because I would rather have them perform it willingly and happily. But sometimes I simply need to settle for begrudging compliance and stop talking!

Plan C involves saying “Yes” to your child whenever you can, when the answer is of little consequence and you can truly not be resentful of the outcome. This may take work on your part!

“Yes, you may wear the tutu and the green striped leggings to the grocery store.”

“Yes, you can spend your allowance on another stuffed animal.”

Saying “Yes’ to kids is fun – do it whenever you can, instead of your default response being, “No.” It can be easy for me to get in a rut of assuming that everything my kids want is unreasonable, when in fact that is not the case.

Plan B involves 3 key steps:

1) Verbally express empathy for your child’s perspective. Repeat/reflect their words back to them.

2) State the position from your perspective. It’s important that this comes second, after you’ve expressed empathy. If you do step 2 first, you’re on Plan A. I know my natural inclination is to assert my parental authority first, and I need to work on being empathetic to my child’s perspective before stating my own piece.

3) Invite your child to a problem-solving party. This can take place immediately if you have time, or at a later time when the problem is not currently happening and everyone is calmer.

Don’t waste time in a prolonged yelling match when you could be using that time to teach negotiation, flexibility and compromise. Recognize that skill teaching is hard work, messy and time-consuming. But once it becomes second nature, it will get quicker and easier. Be a problem-solving detective and look for solutions that make everyone reasonably happy.

Finally, don’t compare your strategies to other parents. The real question is not, “Is this right or wrong?” but, “Is this working for us?” If it’s not, then it might be time to change something.

Useful links:

http://peterpancenter.com/

http://www.amazon.com/The-Explosive-Child-Understanding-Chronically/dp/0061906190#

 

Rebecca is a world traveler, a singer, a Scrabble addict, and a mom to two children. She’s a Brit who now lives outside Boston, MA.

Rebecca Bell

Learning from the Mean Kids

My outie is better than your innie.

You’re not my friend any more.

Little makes me sadder – and madder – than when one of my kids tells me someone was to mean to him or her  and it hurt their feelings. My first instinct is to locate the brat and his parents and give them a good punch talking to. My second instinct is to envelop my kids’ heart in bubble wrap so that no wretched child can ever make them feel that way again.

We usually have these discussions around bathtime and bedtime. With their eyes wide open and teary, or sometimes with their shoulders caved in and chins dropped, we discuss who said what to whom and how it made them feel. And I have come to realize, through these end-of-day discussions, that my kids are counting on us grown-ups to help set things right again in their little but ever-so-large universes so that, tomorrow, when they get back on the school bus, it all will be OK.

But I’ve also realized that, Mama Bear rage and retribution urges aside, my job is to actually help them (figuratively) fight their own battles. These are life skills that will help them from the playground to the sports field to college and into the workplace – or wherever their journeys take them. Because there will always be meanies.

And, because, I like to group things into neat buckets, lists and bullets, I figure there are four key ways to tackle the meanies:

  1. Respect: It’s tough then the mean kid is actually a friend, and all the more so, if he or she is  from a family you know. In our family, we talk a lot about how important it is to treat other people the same way you want to be treated (and my kids’ karate lessons do a great job reinforcing this.) So maybe this meanie needs a gentle reminder that respect is the foundation of friendship. I urge my kids to say: “That’s not a nice thing to say to a friend,” and to go find someone else to play with until that kid is ready to resume being a real friend.
  2. Empathy: The meanie might be unhappy or lonely or shy. This kid might be from a household that is dealing with stuff, or maybe he’s a little insecure. I encourage my kids to think about what might be going on behind the mean words. Perhaps they should consider this an opportunity to be empathetic and extend the hand of friendship?
  3. Forgiveness: People say hurtful things when they’ve been hurt themselves. I’ve seen this first hand when my son had a fight with a close friend. It doesn’t matter who said what first. If you really value your friendship, put injustices aside and say you are sorry. In our case, we talked it over, the boys shook hands and, within seconds, were BFFs all over again and in full Pokemon mode.
  4. Laugh it off: Comparing belly buttons, seriously?! Giggling together about whatever ridiculous nonsense is being thrown out can change the dynamic of the whole encounter. Maybe all the meanie was looking for was a way to make a connection? Turn the whole thing into a hoot and maybe you’ll find a new friend? (This often goes hand in hand with #2.)

These are not lessons that can be learned and applied overnight. Heck, I know many an adult who could learn them too and I’m including myself in that mix. But, you know me, I like to look on the bright side and I’m hoping that, with a little dose of respect, empathy, self-awareness –and let’s not forget, silliness – we can all get along a little better.

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