How To Teach Concentration To Children
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
CONCENTRATION is a matter of superlative interest in the training of Raising Children, because in its acquisition and use lies the success of life. The vast majority of people cannot fix their minds on any subject long enough or steadily enough to permit it to be said that they are proficient in the subject. This is the case because they have never been held to rigorous stand ards, and have never been subjected to the kind of mental discipline out of which we get concentration.
Whenever this subject is brought up, many people at once fear that if they make a rather stiff requirement of their children they are injuring the little brain and damaging the child. But if any mother will simply watch her child work at something in which he is vitally interested, she will see that he works himself much harder than she would often dare to do. This is because he is thoroughly interested, and earnestly desires the thing at which or for which he works. It is one of the curious facts of human life that most people work themselves much harder at useless things than they do at the things which make for personal usefulness and happiness.
At the basis of concentration lies interest. Here the mother must exert herself to make whatever she is handling interesting, and to do this she must be interested herself. You cannot simply say to a child, or even to an adult, "Be interested!" The thing is not secured in that fashion. If you will look about you and see what causes those around you to be interested in what actually is interesting them, you will see that the primary or first reason appears to be that somebody else is interested in the same thing. Let a man stand on the street corner and simply look up into the air, and presently there will be a crowd standing around him looking up, and wondering what he is looking at. So it is with the mental attitude. If you are interested, your child will be stimulated to be interested, first because you are. That is your opportunity to point out certain things and develop the attention and then excite interest by your explanation or questioning and the like. If you make this explanation striking and vivid, you will gain a large fund of interest which will hold out till the time for you to bring forth another striking point. Notice how the newspapers do this. Big events have big headlines. Small matters are in small type and so on. Almost all people glance at the glaring headlines, fewer look at the small headlines, and almost none read the whole text. With a child you must always keep in mind that you are dealing first of all in mental headlines. Draw the picture in big outlines. Make the story vivid. Make the contrasts sharp and decisive. Thus you call out the powers of attention in the same way that the ring of the telephone calls you at once, because you do not know whether you are to receive an important message or not, and till you know, you hasten at once. If you are expecting an important message, or it comes in the middle of the night, you are by so much the more excited to a high point of interest.
The same principle holds when you try to fix the attention and accustom the mind to be on the alert, because it does not know what is coming out of your proposition. It may be a story of adventure. It may be a breathless tale of danger. It may be a beautiful picture of enjoyment. It may be a moving tale of sorrow. All these things are possible, and your business is to start at a high key, and with strong tones, so that the initial attack is one of strength and power. A wise teacher always announces a new principle in some such way. Sometimes telling it as though it were a secret secures that expectant attention which is the basis of concentration.
From all this it will be seen that you must have variety because the child cannot dwell long upon anything; indeed, most adults cannot. So you must come with fresh material, now from history, now from science, now a poem, now a sketch of some national hero, now a passage from a speech, now a tale of emotion, as the case may be." You see, here is a wide range and everything is grist for your mill. As you look through these volumes and you come upon a passage which interests you, mark it, and then read or tell it to your child. Let your own attitude be one which shows your own interest. Do not merely say that you are interested, but show your interest by your manner and attitude toward it. This is the reason why it is better to take something that interests you. You read something, let us say about the wireless, or the Atlantic cable, or about the Great War, or about the British Empire, or about the fight, or about aviators. Let that be your starting point. And from this starting point let your own interest be the reservoir out of which the child may draw his own.
Here a special admonition must be given. Always deal in clear ideas. Say what you say slowly, remembering that it is important that the child hear the subject matter clearly and grasp the facts because they are clearly presented.. Speak slowly and distinctly. When possible, have the child look directly at you or at the object about which you are speaking. If it is an object, use a pencil or pointer, always keeping it slightly in motion, so as to keep the eye following it. At the same time permit no wandering by keeping up speed enough to prevent the wandering of the mind. Don't prolong each exercise above a fair length, but keep on till it is clear that you have made a distinct impression, and then come again at another time. But see to it that each day, or in each group of two or three days you have prolonged the period of fixed attention slightly, so that you get a gradual increase in the time required.
It is often well here to use a watch, or to listen to the ticking of a clock and have the child count the ticks slowly. With small children this has often the desired effect, because the mechanism of the watch is itself interesting enough to call for a certain amount of curiosity. And here is another hint. Intellectual curiosity, like every other kind, is stimulated by the gradual rather than by the sudden unfolding of the final result. Come to it gradually, lifting the veil of your narrative slowly so that you increase the wonder as to how it will end.
It will help in this matter of concentration if you use dramatic methods. Changes in the inflection of the voice, use of the face or hands or the arms, or taking sudden postures of the body, help here. This is because the eye sees a vivid picture, and associates the picture with the idea. A friend of mine uses what he calls the "physiological" method of teaching, by which he means that at important stages he places his finger on his nose in a quizzical way, and then the children know something striking is coming and they watch, while he pauses till every eye is on him and then he lets it go. The children rarely miss the point. Still another device he uses is to raise his eye-brows just before he has something important to communicate. Just imagine yourself talking with a friend. Suddenly he pauses—then his eye-brows go slowly up—you look and wonder and listen—and then he says slowly what he has to say. He has had your expectant attention, and by this little dramatic device he made everybody in the room stop talking and wait for his word.
There are many such little devices associated with something in the home which may be used. Ofter I used myself to say "The king will now speak!" and then instantly all my children would stop and look up and wait to hear what the king had to say. Every time you make such a pause you increase the power of self-inhibition or self-stoppage which is the beginning of concentration power. Such moments, when they become extended, are the source of mental power.
There is nothing in this world except a beautiful and upright character to be compared to a mind thoroughly under control in this manner. We must do much of our work under unfavorable conditions. There is noise about us. Presently the children must learn to work and study in the schoolroom where there are many other children. Much of the time we must go to our daily tasks when it is not pleasant, or we are not feeling quite up to the mark. Then we have to draw upon this power of fixing our minds upon the work, and going through with it even though the conditions are unfavorable or we are not in condition.
There is also a vast moral significance in this power. It is a safeguard against sudden flights of fancy, sudden and unwise decisions, and foolish impulses which are afterward greatly regretted. Probably there is no single excuse which is oftener made than this, "I did not think." But that is just what man was created to do, for he is a thinking animal. But he must not only think, but he must think wisely, and soberly, as St. Paul says, and he must learn to weigh evidence and not act rashly.
Concentration is the only true safeguard against panic of the mind. How much misfortune and distress has been caused by the fact that under sudden stress people have been unable to think steadily long enough to see just what was involved ! Many men have lost fortune, and good name, and many people have alienated friends and broken up delightful and useful associations because they could not, in the flood of their feelings, think steadily or long enough to clarify the issues. Your child must be made to stop, and look, and listen. That is one form of concentration. He must be made to hold his mind as the driver holds the reins of a horse. He must teach his mind to obey the rules of the intellectual road, just as the chauffeur has to observe the rules of driving his machine on the public highway.
You have often admired a beautiful machine in which all the parts worked smoothly and beautifully, and when it worked not only smoothly, and effectively, but silently, you were charmed at the perfection of the mechanism. In a similar way there is no delight like the delight of observing a disciplined mind working smoothly, effectively, line upon line, and each argument or statement coming forth clearly and forcibly, so that when the speech was over, or the argument was completed, or the sermon was finished, you had a clear picture of what the speaker wished to convey.
There is a story told of Father Taylor, the famous sailor preacher of Boston, who was once preaching to a large group of sailors about the danger of vice and wickedness, and the picture he used was that of a ship in a storm. He described the progress of the tempest, how the ship was gradually being broken up, first one mast, then another, and was helpless, her wheel gone, driving before the violence of the storm. Suddenly he declared she had sprung a leak and pictured the water rushing in ; and then he shouted "What now?" Then the sailors, who had been following, breathless, the description of what many of them had probably seen in part, being led along the climax to the story, jumped up and together shrieked out, "The life-boat ! The life-boat ! " That was a model of gaining concentrated attention, and by unfolding from point to point he secured not only concentration on his point, but action of the will on the matter he had in mind. So let it be with you when you present the matter. Steadily, interestingly, point by point, vivid, forcibly, and clearly, till your child learns to listen through to the end. That is concentration.
CONCENTRATION THROUGH QUESTIONS
Another mode of getting concentration is to arrange a group of questions bearing upon a single passage, a stanza of a poem, a figure in history, a battle for a picture, and make a rapid series of questions which require quick mobilization of the thought on that subject alone. It helps in this matter if the object is placed before the child.
THROUGH FIXED ATTENTION
Concentration is based upon fixed and undivided attention. This is secured by the careful reading or reciting of special passages of poems or narratives or incidents, all of which have a more or less clearly defined idea at their base, and then causing the same first to be repeated and then reexplained in the child's own language. All words or phrases should be made perfectly clear before leaving them or using them in their connection.
BY ASSOCIATION OF IDEAS
Concentration is often secured by association of ideas, that is, by taking groups of ideas and associating them so that when one is recalled the others will suggest themselves. Tales of adventures, or striking occurrences, or natural phenomena are useful here.
Sometimes concentration is gained by vivid contrasts. We often see one color more clearly by contrast with another strikingly different. So words or ideas are strikingly fixed in the mind often by being placed in striking contrast with others. Often a vigorous and obvious misuse of a common idea will lead to its instantaneous correction by the child.