Cultivating the Habit of Attention Through Reading

Habits homeschool Preschool Reading The Early Years

I remember trying to read to a young child once, and after very few seconds of starting a book, the child became inattentive and quickly hopped out of my lap. The comment that was made was that, that child didn’t like reading. But truly, it wasn’t reading the child disliked, it was that the child had not developed the habit of attention.
Now, some children are certainly born more attentive than others, but all little ones must be taught to keep their mind focused. Attention is a muscle of the mind that needs to be stretched and strengthened!

"Attention is hardly even an operation of the mind, but is simply the act by which the whole mental force is applied to the subject in hand."

Charlotte Mason, Volume 1, pg. 145

boy reading books under a tree.

Why is it important to cultivate attention? Well, have you ever been in a class where the professor incessantly follows “rabbit trails” and never truly gets to the coursework? Have you ever had a co-worker that struggled in collaborative meetings and couldn’t stay focused enough to contribute?

Or, do you yourself feel your attentive muscle weakening through social media over consumption, making it hard to even finish a news article without jumping to the next app? The habit of attention is incredibly valuable for nearly every aspect of life, but especially for children in their school lessons too. When something is challenging, it takes our whole amount of attention and focus to surmount the obstacle.

All of my children started out with the inability to be read to for long periods of time. I believe we are more naturally inclined to let our minds wander and let our attention jump from place to place (whatever is most exciting) than we are to sit and be attentive.

Charlotte Mason says something of the same:

“The help, then, is not the will of the child but in the habit of attention, a habit to be cultivated even in the infant. A baby, notwithstanding his wonderful powers of observation, has no power of attention; in a minute, the coveted plaything drops from listless little fingers, and the wandering glance lights upon some new joy. But even at this stage the habit of attention may be trained: the discarded plaything is picked up, and, with ‘Pretty!’ and dumb show (silent show), the mother keeps the infant’s eyes fixed for fully a couple of minutes- and this is his first lesson in attention.”

Home Education, page 139- 140

Charlotte Mason has a lot of advice on how to train a child’s attention skills when it comes to playing outside, but in my experience, we worked on this skill a lot when it came to reading.

Reading to my children allowed them to focus their mental effort and grow in their ability to sit still, be attentive and listen. Here is how we work together on growing attentiveness:

  • Start with short board books
  • Utilize rhyming books to keep young readers engaged
  • Vary books. This will help readers utilize different parts of his/her brain.
  • Don’t go back and read something they’ve missed. This allows inattentiveness to fester.
  • Start with a short amount of time. Try to keep a child’s attention through one short book. And then two. And three, and four. Over time, see if they can listen through 10 or 12 short books.
  • After their attention muscle is showing signs of being strengthened, continue to stretch it. Go for longer picture books. And then on to longer books with more and more text and less pictures.
  • Don’t be afraid to ignore your child’s request to read just a little bit more after a book is finished. Stop when he or she is still interested so they don’t learn to let their attention wander when they’ve had enough.
  • Save most questions and “rabbit trails” for the end of the book.

It is truly incredible to see how my children have grown and this muscle has been stretched. By two years of age, they’re able to sit through a handful of chapters with very little pictures.

I love connecting with my children this way, and I hope the skill of attentiveness serves them well throughout their education and beyond!

preschool curriculum shown in four photos

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