April 24, 2014

Focus and the Technology Effect

Preschoolers and their parents at our Parent Day Celebration
Over the last two days, our four preschool classes have enjoyed Friends’ annual Parent Day Celebrations.  We have seen gorgeous sunny Colorado spring days, our beautiful leafy preschool backyard setting, and the shining faces of young children, intermingled with the equally shining proud faces of our parents. Families and teachers joined together in community and song, with the children presenting their parents with delightful potted plants.

I think back to my own daughters’ preschool days and similar kinds of events.  Outdoors, connected, joyous.

My kids are now teenagers.  As a parent of teens, it’s an ever-present challenge to keep them participating in activities that are outdoors, connected, and joyous.

Because, in their dad’s opinion, they’re spending far too much time plugged in online. My older daughter Emma passed her driving test last summer and we got her an old Ford Escape this past fall.  I expected her to be stretching her newly found wings and going out each evening, over to friends’ houses, or the ice cream store. 

However, that’s not the case.  She’s talking to her friends at night as much as we ever did as kids – but not on the phone, not over ice cream, and not at their houses.  Her friends’ faces are life-size on Emma’s computer screen, on FaceTime.  Sometimes she and her friends are talking about homework, and almost certainly sometimes probably not, but they’re staying connected after hours in a way that still seems alien to me.

I’ve even seen my kids sit around a table at the ice cream store. Instead of talking and just having fun together they were each absorbed in their smartphone.

Technology – smartphones, tablets, texts, Facebook, tweets, and numerous social networking sites that most of us adults aren’t even aware of – is changing childhood. And that has huge implications for how our kids’ brains develop the ability to pay attention – and to learn.

In Daniel Goleman’s recent book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, he writes:
“Kids learn best when they can maintain sustained attention, to what a teacher is saying, to their schoolwork, or to their homework. One essential part of learning is focus; distractions can reduce comprehension. But the new normal for young people continually interrupts their focus with distractions. This is particularly alarming in light of strong research results showing that a child’s ability to resist the temptation of distraction and stay focused predicts how she will fare financially and health wise in adulthood.”
At Friends’ all year, we’ve been calling this “grit” or perseverance. It boils down to the tenacity to keep your eyes on your goal (or schoolwork) and resist impulse and distraction.
Goleman continues: “Neuroscientists tell us this crucial mental ability hinges on the growth of a neural strip in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, which connects to circuitry that helps manage both attention and unruly emotions. This circuitry grows with the rest of the brain from birth throughout childhood and the teen years.
The more a child can practice keeping her focus and resist distraction, the stronger and more richly connected this neural real estate becomes. By the same token, the more distracted, the less so.
This mental ability is like a muscle: it needs proper exercise to grow strong. One way to help kids learn to focus is to give them regular sessions of focusing time, the mental equivalent of workouts in the gym.”
Our teachers occasionally incorporate mindfulness, yoga, and other forms of ‘brain gym’ activities into their classrooms
At Friends’, in an initiative lead by Associate Head of School Mandy Stepanovsky, we are looking at ways of bringing more mindfulness into our school community next year – in both the classrooms and at parent education events.
We believe that helping kids to grow in self-awareness and to learn to stay focused will in turn help them be successful students and succeed in their future endeavors.
Staying unplugged, getting outdoors, planting flowers, singing songs, and celebrating with family are all part of the plan.  Enjoy the beautiful spring weather!

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