Why Focus and Self-control Are Important

by Meghan Fitzgerald | Tinkergarten

"When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of its education." —Maria Montessori

As much as I love the open space in my Western Massachusetts home, I am so grateful for all the moments of connection and learning I got with other parents, caregivers and wee ones on the playgrounds of Brooklyn. 

One Brooklyn afternoon in particular still influences the way I think about focus and self control. My normally-active, nearly three-year-old Maeve was coming off of a dreadful cold, and she was sitting uncharacteristically sedentary in the sandbox. In contrast, a similarly-aged little guy was bringing loads of spirit to his play. Bearing his fireman costume, he hopped in and out of the sandbox, alternating between sand play and orbiting the premises. Every so often, he’d stop to make a psssht sound and aim his pretend hose at various structures, then he’d be back on his “rounds.” 

I was so taken by how engaged he was in so many things—moving his body, dumping water and sand, and pretending to fight fire—that I nearly ignored Maeve to marvel in all of the work he was doing. My flow broke when his mother leaned over and said, “How do you get her to be so focused? I wish he could pick something and stay with it. He has no attention span.” 

She went on to share how hard it was to get him to follow directions, sit quietly and stay with tasks, and how she worried that he’d never be ready for school. 

I remember pausing, frozen with inner conflict: “Wow, how can we see the same child in such different ways? How can such active engagement appear as lack of focus? But who am I to judge anyone else’s parenting? I’d hate it if someone judged me. Her perceptions are hers to have...”  Unable to stay quiet, I shared how curious I had become about how young brains develop and how focus, in particular, develops at early ages. I asked her if she had read the book I was reading -- Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky -- and shared a bit about it. 

I’m not sure I made a dent in her thinking, but that moment really changed mine.

Focus and self control are critical, foundational skills. They are the building blocks we need to form a larger set of executive functions that enable us to manage our attention, our emotions, and our behavior. Without the ability to direct and shift our attention as needed, we can’t effectively take in and process information, collaborate, reflect, evaluate our options and act in service of goals. And this couldn’t be more true in our world that has become increasingly distracting.

"The more time I’ve spent interviewing and filming the best researchers on early learning, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that focus and self control are central to the other essential life skills… Put simply, if we want to achieve our goals amid everything else that is going on, we have to learn to be focused and we have to learn to have self control." ~Ellen Galinsky, Mind in the Making

But, what does it mean to learn these skills?  Focus is so often mistaken for the ability to sit still. But it shouldn’t be, because learning to control your own attention, emotions, and behavior is an active, messy process -- just like all learning. On that Brooklyn afternoon, Maeve was not more advanced, she was really just sick, and our fireman friend was actively learning these skills.

Thanks to modern science, we are lucky to be able to see into the brains of young learners. A baby’s brain is primed to rapidly form new connections, driving her to experience as much as possible. As a result, a preschooler’s brain is full of the overproduced connections of infancy. It’s lacking the organization our adult brains enjoy, but full of possibility and the drive to test different connections. This helps the brain to identify and hold onto what is important and to allow what is not important to fade away. By the time children are in elementary school, they have made massive strides in controlling their impulses, identifying interests and sustaining attention. But they’re still missing years of experiences that help them develop and integrate all of these skills. 

The more experimentation, experience and active engagement our children enjoy, the more creative, flexible and, yes, focused their brains will become. Their brains are not optimized to sit still, to always stay calm or to easily comply with directions on the first try. They need to move in and out of play, to discover their interests, to experience dysregulation in order to learn how to regulate once again, and to learn for themselves when and how to direct and shift their focus.

The good news is that it’s so much easier than we might think to support kids in developing focus and self control. 

First, think long term. Executive function skills and the parts of the brain that drive them to start to develop in infancy, but they do not solidify until early adulthood. We have plenty of time on this one.  

Next, eyes on the right goal. The goal is not to have a child who sits quietly and stays on task in response to our direction. Your child may elect to sit still and play quietly, but that should come from within. Really, our goal is for each child to develop the set of approaches, strategies and skills that allow him or her to direct and sustain his or her own attention, control his or her own emotions and act in a way that serves his or her own goals. 

Support them. Once you start to understand how this fascinating set of skills work, and how they develop, you’ll find ways to support them at every turn. And, it can really help to break up focus and self control into smaller, more manageable pieces. In Mind in the Making, Galinksky breaks down focus and self control into the following four components: 

  • Focus: the capacity to direct and sustain one’s attention.

  • Cognitive Flexibility: The ability to flexibly shift one’s perspectives or the focus of one’s attention, adjusting flexibly to changing priorities, rules or demands. 

  • Working Memory: Being able to hold information in your mind while working with it.

  • Inhibitory Control: Resisting the strong inclination to do one thing in service of something that is more appropriate, or that serves a greater goal. 

About The Author

Meghan Fitzgerald is the founder of Tinkergarten. After 16 years as an educator, curriculum developer and school leader, Meghan has her dream gig—an entrepreneur/educator/mom who helps families everywhere, including hers, learn outside. Prior to Tinkergarten®, Meghan worked as an Elementary School Principal, a Math/Science Specialist & and a teacher in public and private schools in NY, MA and CA. She earned a BA with majors in English and Psychology at Amherst College, an MS in Educational Leadership at Bank Street College, and was trained to become a Forest School leader at Bridgwater College, UK. When she is with her kids, Meghan is that unapologetic mom who plays along with them in mud, dances in the pouring rain, and builds a darn good snow igloo with her bare hands. Read the original article.


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