I have a friend who has a younger sibling, about ten-years-old or so, with ADHD. It’s exceptionally hard for this little girl’s brain to stop for any length of time, and focus on one activity. Even if she appears to be doing something continuously, she’s simultaneously talking about something else and thinking about ANOTHER thing separate from body and mouth. She even has trouble getting out her words, because there’s so many, she can’t finish. But I watch her with her family a lot, and I think another reason she feels so scattered and rushed about everything is that she doesn’t get the appropriate amount of encouragement and attention, recognition of her observations and thoughts.
When I read Johnston’s second chapter in Choice Words I instantly thought of this little girl. Yes, she has an even harder time expressing herself than a normal child, but I don’t think the rules that Johnston lays down should be any different for her. When he said, “With our assistance, children are expanding and learning to control their own attention, and the attention system is in many ways the “gatekeeper of knowledge acquisition” ” (12), I wanted to shake the book in glee. As teachers, we are supposed to further children’s knowledge, but also give them the tools they need to learn and behave themselves. We do that through our language, and it can have a very significant impact on how children view learning, the world around them, and their importance in it.
My friend’s sister constantly gets railroaded by “no”s. Everyone around her believes that the best way to handle her is to stop her in her tracks and force her on the path she needs to be following for the day. I always wonder why this seems like the best approach to them, because it clearly hasn’t worked yet. She continues to run off course, despite their limitations they try to put on her. Johnston’s text has confirmed in my mind the suspicion that I’ve had for a while now–that you have to help the children along through their own mind with encouragement, attention, and acclamation.
One of Johnston’s explanations of a key teacher phrase is, “The most important piece is to confirm what has been successful (so it will be repeated) and simultaneously assert the learner’s competence so she will have the confidence to consider new learning” (13). I think that this is something that little girl’s teachers and family members forget. When she brings them up a book and says, “I found this today, it’s really cool…” they instantly say back to her, “That’s great, but what are you supposed to be doing right now?” It always baffles me. They wonder why, when confronted with this statement, she merely continues on with her thought, and I think it’s simply because she’s trying to get her thoughts noticed and validated.
I worry that kids get labeled too much as “attention seeking” when they are trying to learn. I don’t think “attention seeking” is a bad thing, because kids need attention in order to figure things out. They aren’t adults yet, they need our help and encouragement to find out the things that we already know. Johnston draws attention (no pun intended) to directing the attention that children have in a way that affirms what they do right with the things that they do wrong, and so it helps them to hold the two side by side and try to fix their own problems. He says, “We can apply the same principle to a wide range of social and literate practices…I cannot overemphasize the importance of this discursive practice. Children with a solid sense of well-being are less likely to tell stories containing references to negative consequences or negative feelings” (14). I feel that Johnston is saying the more you positively embrace what a child is giving you, and then add on to it, rather than try and switch their direction, you achieve “attentional following” and therefore help them learn things easier.
Whenever I see my friend’s little sister I try as hard as I can to encourage what she is saying to me. Yes, that means that sometimes I stand for twenty minutes listening to a speech about how to bake clay figures so you can make your own toys, but it also means that she is gaining confidence in her own voice, how her own words are important. Children don’t think like adults do. We have to guide them to the information they need, and sometimes they are going to have to take a path a little less linear than we desire.