|I’ve spent much of the past five years presenting professional development programs on executive function. And why not? Attention problems, and more specifically executive dysfunction, are now enormous schooland cultural concerns. In a relatively short period of time – about a decade – we’ve progressed from thinking about inattention as a peripheral nuisance, to a pivotal factor in a person’s academic and social aptitude. Having written a book on the topic, I certainly feel prepared to discuss the key strategies for helping students, schools, and families. But as my thinking and understanding have evolved, I’ve come to believe the principle strategy is to shift our understanding of attention from being a purely cognitive and medical issue, to one that is undeniably social.
The essence of my belief can be summarized succinctly: Attention lives in the spaces between us, much more than it does in our individual brains.
This is a simple idea, but I can guarantee that it sounds like blasphemy to the ADHD industry – magazines, books, doctors, and drugs. Especially in North America, we’ve become accustomed to thinking about a disorder like ADHD as a matter of mental hygiene, an individual problem that has to be resolved through individual or family effort – as if inattention can be resolved in a way similar to the common cold, or poison ivy.
The premise of the medical approach is that inattention should be primarily understood as a brain malfunction. In other words, there is no apparent external reason for the inattention, so the “disorder” lies within a person’s neurology. But the very definition of malfunction or disorder is fluid. In a society where so many have symptoms of what we call ADHD, this clinical distinction begins to lack credibility. Also, why do so many more children in the United States have this disorder than children elsewhere? According to Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic, U.S. children consume three times the number of stimulants consumed by the rest of the world combined! In the face of such statistics, it is a wonder that the U.S. would be consulted at all when it comes to the management of attention and executive function.
Let’s be clear: I’m not necessarily anti-medication, but I am anti-overmedication. And I share the belief that at the present moment we are victims of an incessant need for quick, measurable results, and are simultaneously terrified of looking at the systemic causes of inattention and executive dysfunction. I think this is so because there is an assumption that the solutions required are too complex and time consuming.
Yet here’s my point: they are not as complex and time consuming as we might assume. I’ve visited some remarkable schools, and have seen first-hand what creative educators can accomplish when supported by thoughtful and supportive governance. My consultations with schools have often focused on the performative aspects of teaching, and their role in managing a constructive atmosphere of learning. This is not a matter of being “clever” or “tricky,” it is the essence of teaching mastery with respect to the executive thinking skills of 21st century students.
What’s the Meaning of Attention?
The reason we want students to focus well in school is because the content of school is potentially life-changing. Getting good grades is a fringe benefit of good attention, but not the main reason we should nurture good attention. Along these lines, for all the discussion dedicated to the practical value of having good attention, hardly a soul ever mentions the emotional benefits of attention. Simply put, attention feels great. Who doesn’t love to be engrossed in a great presentation, conversation, book, or activity?
I’ve found that the most inattentive kids are also the most desperate to quiet their minds, if only for a few minutes. Many years ago, I learned that a room full of boys with ADHD could be cognitively and emotionally transformed by a meditation activity during which they listened to indigenous instrumental music, in a relaxing, softly lit space. Here was a group of kids resistant to being regulated by the most advanced pharmaceuticals of our time who, in a matter of minutes, became still and self-aware. I think my biggest surprise was that so many of these boys asked if we could do the exercise again – each and every week that we met. If you try this with young people, in a serious and thoughtful way, I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the result.
The most inattentive among us may cause frustration, but they deserve strategic compassion. When I think about improving the attention of a child with whom I am working, I’ve learned to remember they want to have the feeling of being engrossed and absorbed by life – they just don’t know how to get there on their own. Consequently, I think of my work as a collaboration, and as all members of a team – child, family, teachers – as being on the same side. This makes perfect sense if we can agree that the most basic goal of school is to help a child transition into the world in a capable way.
Everyone has the ability to pay attention sometimes, in some circumstances; even the most distracted among us have moments when we feel engaged and in flow. When a person is not focused, we should consider all of the factors that might be influencing that situation. Part of the problem could in fact be neurological, and medication can be a helpful remedy. Yet Robert Whitaker has made the point that psychiatric disorders, including ADHD, are virtually the only category of health problems where the prevalence and epidemiology of disease has grown, rather than shrunk, despite decades of drug development and treatment. This insight should cause all of us to wonder why.
I believe the answer is related to attention’s social dimension. If young minds are evolving in new ways, (with a new tempo, and a different perspective of distraction), then the culture that want to be relevant to those minds will have to evolve as well. At present, we are in a time of transition; the next generation will eventually mature, and their tempo and quality of attention will prevail as normal. Until that happens, we are all experiencing stress related to the transition. It’s one thing to talk across generations, it’s quite another to have to relate to people with an entirely different reference point for what effective communication feels like.
One of the key differences between generations has to do shifting ideas about the extent to which attention is obligatory. For example, when I was a primary and middle school student, I think it was assumed that focus was a form of deference, and if you aspired to be a good student, one acknowledged this unspoken rule. Yet today we encounter many young people who reject this sort of reflexive subordination. In his book Fuse, Jim Finklestein notes that millennials come to their work with an expectation of being held in serious regard; they believe they are capable of doing important things, yet they do not equate such contributions with a slow, contemplative approach. The next generation takes many of its cues from the dynamics of computer processing, and in that regard, a mind that switches rapidly between windows is definitely understood as “smarter and better.”
Despite generational differences, positive emotion continues to be a powerful motivating force. This why it’s easier to command attention with excitement than it is with a dissonant emotional experience like fear or anxiety. I believe teachers make best use of this idea when they emotively connect with the content of what they are teaching, and allow their natural excitement for that content to surface in their voice, face, and body. (This is one reason why too much “teaching to the test” is contested; canned curricula may support the weakest teachers, but hinders the passion and mastery of the best.) These nonverbal agents of communication are what students are attending to all of the time – even when they lose the flow of the words being spoken. When it comes to managing the ecology of attention, these nonverbal signals are the keys to success. This is not to suggest that more conceptual aspects of teaching aren’t of great importance, but in the vast majority of classrooms, attention tilts on the groundwork of energy and nonverbal communication.
Interestingly, the effects of communication and atmosphere might not be readily apparent as the critical issues. For example, I suspect most adults would say that their degree of interest in something is the most important variable in determining the quality of their attention. This is an intuitive insight, and it surely points to the important role of engagement in sustaining attention.
Yet it is impossible to be interested in everything one has to learn, or at least equally interested in those topics. Thus we are left with the challenge of how to make something interesting – and here we can learn from the emotive power of great storytellers.
Attention Needs a Story
Students want to know how education is relevant to their personal experience – and there is an expectation that good teachers will make that relationship clear. In my view, providing this narrative is how we establish the seriousness of going to school; that seriousness is itself a way of establishing school as a dramatic field of action.
This is exactly the sort of place most kids wants school to be. Don’t be fooled by distraction and cultivated disaffectedness – those are only foils for personal confusion and social anxiety. Yet a spirit of disconnectedness will become the dominant school narrative in the absence of any other viable story about school’s purpose. It’s not a dress rehearsal, and sometimes we don’t get a second chance; leaders make every interaction an opportunity to teach and lead.
If we begin to think of schools as learning villages, and think of teachers as the keepers of wisdom, the chief storytellers of these learning villages, I think we begin to imagine what a serious, emotive educational experience might feel like. I wholeheartedly believe it begins with learning to use your voice more effectively. Let’s be clear, the single most powerful tool we have at our disposal for commanding attention, whether a teacher or parent, is our voice. Young people hear many different frequencies of meaning in an adult’s voice, and the better that they know us, the more skilled they are in detecting and interpreting those frequencies. If you’ve not spent time listening to yourself, make a point to do so. Learn to harness the power of cadence, rhythm, pitch and pause. This is what all great public communicators use to command the attention of listeners, whether they are broadcasters, entertainers, or politicians.
Once we accept that attention is more of a social phenomenon than a medical one, our own focus can shift to cultivating attention’s ecology. The elements of this ecology are fluid and require that we change our response style as circumstances shift. We also need more divergent ways of assessing attention; well focused might mean still and quite in some situations, but it surely can mean talkative and active in others.
The essential thing is to imagine the atmosphere of relationship as being something that can be shaped by elements of your speech and nonverbal communication. Being able to command the attention of others denotes having learned how the application of these elements affects the cognitive response of learners. How does volume, gesture and proximity affect different learners? How am I using these elements to signal learners about what to attend to?
Teaching is a universe with almost infinite detail, and it is a form of interpersonal mastery to which one could devote a lifetime. I hope that’s you. In this way, education assumes its proper role as a template for a thoughtful, civil society.