Thursday, April 12, 2012

When it is so hard to sit still and pay attention

      It is so hard, when you want desperately to pay attention – the story is really interesting –

and yet before long, your eyes glaze over, begin rolling back in your head,

and the yawns start bursting out of you before you can stop them. 

            My children have my empathy on this one: I remember so clearly feeling this way during long lectures in college, or at meetings as a working adult – looking around the room wondering whether I was the only one biting the inside of my cheek, or pinching my wrist under the table in an effort to stay alert and focused.

            To his credit, the little one pictured has made lots of progress. When we first began homeschooling, sitting still for any length of time was nearly impossible; it seemed this child needed either to be moving incessantly, or drooping dramatically, as if he’d suddenly lost all bone mass and muscle-tone. His efforts at concentration seemed directly proportionate to the amount of movement he produced; as I read him a story, he’d sit with one foot raised above his head, toe of his sock in his hand as he jerked the foot back and forth (it makes me giggle to think of trying this at a business meeting). Or perhaps he might rock, or bounce, or wriggle, but it was either movement or drooping, with very little in-between. This doesn’t even touch the pencil losing, book misplacing, wandering tendencies that happened in-between sessions of wiggling.

            This one, more than any other, has encouraged my push further into Charlotte Mason’s methods, and shown me how effective they can be with learners of all types. The first thing both Littlest and I needed to work on together was habit training, and that, I’ve found, is continual – when we master one habit, there’s another to conquer, and we have to keep an eye on the first bad habit to make sure it doesn’t return. So we began to work on replacing things – dawdling with focused work, complaining with cheerful effort, zoning out with small periods of concentration.

            Reading Carrie's blog post this morning, I realize we’re not alone in this, and I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve found most helpful in combating this problem of wiggling and wriggling and having trouble paying attention.

Sleep - getting regular sleep, and lots of it, is a first defense.

Nordic Naturals DHA:  DHA is a wonderful thing for brain function, and when we began using this natural supplement, we saw really dramatic increases in the ability to pay attention, and in language. DHA levels may be lower in kids with ADHD, according to one of the articles below, and I’d posit that kids who were born quite prematurely, like my littlest, didn’t get DHA those last months in utero, and may really benefit from the boost of a supplement.

Diet: We’ve found our wiggler to be particularly sensitive to artificial colors and flavors, as well as nitrates and other chemical additives. Keeping the diet simple, natural and full of protein has helped here.


-          Get Moving - we start the day with something kinesthetic – a walk, a bike ride, piano practice. Somehow, piano lessons have had a fantastically unexpected effect of calming my wiggler, who is able to jump into math with far more concentration if he’s practiced his piano first.

-         Short Lessons - Charlotte Mason’s advice of lessons that last no longer than 15 minutes has been a Godsend here. This is a huge break from the traditional and classical paradigms I started with, but it’s just about the amount of time that can be tolerated. I've found much more is learned in a focused 15 minutes, than in an hour of me reading as people zone out.

-     Watch the Dawdling, Switch up the Lessons - if dawdling occurs, a warning is given and we switch to a subject as unlike the first as possible – but we always go back to that first lesson! (We just don’t want to develop the habit of dawdling).  Throughout the day, the types of lessons are switched regularly, so we might go from math to reading, from history to handwriting, with breaks in between for fun group subjects like music or poetry, or for some exercise.

-          Wiggle seat – we looked at expensive therapeutic discs at an online sensory store, but ended up buying an exercise disc that sits on a chair, requiring a small amount of constant movement just to keep level and seated. Too much movement – you’ll tip off, so it’s subtle, not distracting to others, and much less fun to toss around the room than an exercise ball would be!

-         Busy Hands - something small is kept in hand during read-alouds – a small woolen waldorf doll is a favorite listening companion. He is soft, not distracting and he can do cartwheels on the child’s lap without interrupting the story. Somehow, that allows the child’s feet to stay out of the air, my hair, or the book!

-          Drawing – one of my children had trouble attending during read-alouds, but if he could draw while I read, his comprehension increased dramatically. My rule: he had to be drawing something related to the story or historical time period.

-          Me – I need to be available, redirecting, keeping stimuli down, sensing when the eyes are rolling back and moving on to something else.

-          Narration – breaking reading into small chunks, and requiring regular narrations (telling back) of the story has been huge in the practice of paying attention. It’s been a process and lots of work, but it’s been lovely to see the progress. More on that in another post!

Has wiggling and difficulty with attention been an issue in your home or school? Come on in, and let us know what’s worked for you and yours.

Trying to pay attention, and

Trusting in Him,



  1. These are super helpful. As you know, if I were only homeschooling 1 kid, I could get super creative and she could be doing hands on projects all day. That just can't happen with a crew to be homeschooling. I'm going to look into the DHA stuff. I'm not sure we can get it here, but maybe I can get someone to hand carry it over here. I'm going to do a post in the next week or so with other people's ideas. Thanks so much for your help!

    I think I'm going to try doing smaller chunks today. Maybe even set a timer so that she knows that I won't forget. You know, not that I ever forget :).

  2. Carrie, I think about that all the time - oh the super fun creative things we'd do if there was just one! The DHA is great; my dream is to someday go to China and I'd bring you all sorts of the stuff, but maybe you need it sooner? I'll look forward to hearing what others have suggested for the wiggles. Hope the smaller chunks helped. I never forget anything either :-).