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How to Distract Your Kid Into Paying Attention

How to Distract Your Kid Into Paying Attention

This is reblogged from the August 15th Wall Street Journal Speakeasy at



It’s the oldest trick in the book: If you have a boring task, make it seem like fun. Maybe others will pitch in. You might even start enjoying yourself. Remember Tom Sawyer living it up while whitewashing the picket fence? The best teachers I encountered while researching “Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” captivated their students’ attention by providing interactive and collaborative challenges with clear rewards.  We can adapt some of their tactics.

Whether it’s the teacher in rural western Canada who used the old-school trick of a weekly spelling bee or the teacher in New York City who used a chess period as a reward for math success, great teachers find ways to encourage even rote mastery of facts with game tactics and merit-driven rewards.

For younger children especially, physical activity can help kids concentrate on the activity. In one classroom, 30 third-graders played what was essentially musical chairs. Except once the music stopped, every child in a chair was asked a question. If she answered incorrectly, she had to relinquish her seat to a classmate without a chair.

The “losers” could also be asked for a hint, like asking the audience on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” It was a brilliant way of prepping kids for the mind-numbing memorization required for the end-of-grade tests currently required by our No Child Left Behind national educational policy. Combine play dates with learning games and even the parents might have fun.

Making kids take responsibility for their own conduct also works. I spent time in a sixth-grade classroom with a boy diagnosed with ADD. His disruptive nature could turn the whole class into a circus. But his teacher knew the boy loved a certain problem-solving video game, so he made  a pact with him. The boy set a timer for 20 minutes as soon as he came into the class. If he could sit still until the timer sounded, without disturbing other students or being distracted himself, he was allowed to spend the remaining 20 minutes of class playing his video game. Twenty minutes is when most of us start to lose focus, so this teacher always broke his class into two or three segments, even for the straight-A students.

Making schoolwork relevant to to a child’s larger community, family or neighborhood is another tactic teachers use successfully. Activities range from having an older child tutor a younger one to having a class team up with a community center to create an after-school garden. Kids applied lessons in soil conservation, environmental sustainability, and nutrition as they worked to create and maintain their garden.

Many digital games also incorporate principles of challenge, relevance and reward to keep kids interested and learning.  I’ve watched kids play two commercial science games, Spore and LittleBigPlanet, for hours. You can find hundreds of others, with reviews by parents and teachers, at Common Sense Media.

Except in the most extreme cases, no one really has an “attention deficit” — we all pay attention to something. Thus, the same child who can’t remember to do math homework or clean his room can spend hours absorbed by video games, Facebook or texting with friends.

Not a single teacher I met thought medication alone solved attention problems, and all worried about the over-diagnosis of boredom as ADD. As schools face cuts to classes like art, music,  shop and gym; add more “lock-down” rules; and focus increasingly on preparing for standardized tests, it’s a challenge to keep kids learning — in school and at home.

In the end, there is really only one way to get kids to pay attention, as Twain and great teachers know: Make learning so challenging, relevant and worthwhile that kids forget they were bored in the first place.


Cathy N. Davidson is the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University and the author of the forthcoming “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” (Viking).



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