• Mindful Mondays: Mindfulness Supports Our Ability to Focus


    Children are often asked to focus and pay attention, but they’re not always explicitly told how to do it. Being able to focus can be extremely challenging for children and for adults.

    People often drive home without remembering if they stopped at all the stop signs, or they find themselves in a middle of a conversation they have lost track of, or, in the case of students, they may be unable to answer a question after having their names called upon repeatedly. This is because we often don’t even realize that we’ve lost focus. 


    In part this is because we are constantly bombarded with stimulus and information that our mind needs to sift through. Our phones add to the distraction and are shaping the way we interact with each other (increasingly via a screen) and the way we focus.


    Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, describes how the way we think is being altered by the internet. He argues, “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.” Whether it is true that the internet is making us shallow thinkers, it’s safe to say that our mind is being asked to process and think in ways that a lot of us didn’t do just five to ten years ago.


    Our kids are being raised in a world that demands this kind of disjointed thinking, and they don’t know any other way. They are being asked to understand and interact in ways that are vastly different than the way most adults around them were asked to. Carr explains “a popular medium [such as a cell phones, computers, and the internet] molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.” This New York Times article collaborates these assertions by explaining how technology is rewiring our children’s minds so that they have a harder time focusing their attention and developing relationships outside of their digital persona.


    Perhaps that is part of the reason why so many students are disengaged from their education. Teachers College Record recently published Engaging Youth in Schools in which a study “using a sample of students from high-performing high schools . . . [found] that only 1/3 of the sample is regularly engaged affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively in schoolwork. This fully engaged minority, who tended to be higher achievers, were less likely to fall victim to a variety of health problems. On the other hand, lack of full engagement was associated with frequent worry, depression, anger, and compromised health outcomes.” Our students’ ability to engage with their education and benefit from it will depend on their ability to focus and maintain sustained focus.


    Mindfulness supports focus because it inserts a pause and slows us down enough so that we’re not jumping from one thought (or source of stimulus) to another.

    When we slow down or pause, we can realize we’ve lost focus and then place focus on what we need to be focusing on. These are two distinct skills—the ability to notice when we’ve lost focus and the ability to place our focus and attention where we want to place it. Mindfulness supports both by asking participants to pause and bring awareness to the moment and, if need be, to anchor their focus to help sustain attention.


    There is promising research on the way mindfulness supports youths’ ability for sustained attention and in reducing mind wandering. One study explains that “mindfulness-based interventions for youths have potential utility to improve attentional self-regulation.” The authors of the study call for more research to see how mindfulness operationally supports attention regulation. But they also believe there is enough empirical research suggesting that mindfulness training impacts our ability to regulate attention as measured by tasks that monitor conflicts in the information we’re processing.


    Another study describes undergraduate students in their early 20s who were randomly assigned to a two-week mindfulness intervention and then asked to complete a reading comprehension task based on the GRE and a working memory capacity task. It found that “mindfulness training improved both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion of the GRE and the measure of working memory.” While this study is with young adults, it shows promise in the ability that mindfulness training has in supporting all our students’ abilities to focus and succeed in school.


    If we really want to support our children to do better in schools and be able to develop the abilities to focus and have sustained attention, we have to help them develop those skills. Mindfulness activities can help.


    Little Flower Yoga introduces activities to support students in noticing when they’ve lost attention as well as activities that help them anchor their attention. This helps students strengthen their ability to place their focus where it needs to be. Remember that it’s not a question of whether our kids will lose focus but rather what skills and strategies our students have to employ when they do lose focus. 

    This article is part of our Mindful Mondays initiative. Receive weekly emails with instructions for the practices of the week, links to guided practices, and suggestions for implementation by registering. The program is free for all. Sign up now to access this week's recorded practices for you and your students!


    Argos Gonzalez is a teacher, lecturer, and mindfulness and yoga instructor.  He has 13 years of experience teaching high school in the Bronx and teaches pre-service and in-service teachers at Hunter College School of Education in NY.  Argos is certified through both Mindful Schools and Little Flower Yoga (LFY), and currently serves as the director of professional development for The School Yoga Project, a program of LFY. For more information about Little Flower Yoga and The School Yoga Project, visit www.littlefloweryoga.com. Contact Argos by email at argos@littlefloweryoga.com

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