Our staff and students have returned from their three-week break with such energy and enthusiasm, and I hope that you have all enjoyed your first week of Term 4.
Like many of my colleagues and parents, I relished the opportunity to engage in some professional and personal reading over the holiday break. The irony is not lost on me that it has taken six months to complete the book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, written by Johann Hari, due to the many distractions and competing demands on my time and attention during the school term.
In preparation for this book, Hari travelled all around the world to research the systemic problem of why sustained and deep focus is increasingly hard for us all (I was relieved to read that this is not age related!). The multiple perspectives and compelling evidence presented by Hari led to a lot of reflection in the holidays around the implications of this research for me as an individual and also for our students.
Whilst Hari professes that there is no simple conclusion or solution to this problem to restore our attention, I have included below some of the key tangible take aways that resonated with me:
- The importance of monotasking: ‘flow state’ is the deepest form of focus and attention that we know of, but flow can only come when we are monotasking.
- The importance of sleep: physical and mental exhaustion is on the rise and the effects of sleep deprivation are especially terrible for children. While adults usually respond to sleep deprivation by becoming drowsy, children usually respond by becoming hyperactive and they begin to show attention problems rapidly.
- Artificial light and blue screens: to minimise disruption to the body’s natural rhythm and support with sleep patterns, it is recommended to have no sources of artificial light in bedrooms and avoid blue light of screens for at least two hours before you go to bed.
- The importance of reading a hard copy book: reading from screens trains us to read in a different way where we are more likely to scan and skim and this then influences how we read on paper.
- The importance of diet: in speaking with experts on the impact that our western diet has on our ability to pay attention, Hari identified three broad ways in which the way we eat is harming our focus. Firstly, we currently eat a diet that causes regular energy spikes and energy crashes. Secondly, most of us now eat in a way that deprives us of the nutrients we need for our brains to function fully, and the third reason is that our current diets aren’t just lacking in what we need – they also actively contain chemicals that seem to act on our brains like drugs.
- The importance of exercise: for years, scientists have been discovering a broad body of evidence showing that when people run around or engage in any form of exercise their ability to pay attention improves. Physical activity is particularly important for developing children as it is critical in supporting brain growth which in turn supports self-regulation and executive functioning.
- The importance of play: of particular interest to me was the research presented around the importance of play for developing children which has reaffirmed my strong beliefs as an educator. According to Dr Isabel Behncke, the Chilean expert on play, there are three main areas of child development where play has a significant impact. The first is ‘creativity and imagination’, where children learn to think about problems and solve them. The second is ‘social bonds’, where children learn to interact and socialise with other people. And the third is ‘aliveness,’ where children learn to embrace joy and pleasure. Children need multiple opportunities to play freely outside and act on their natural desire to run, as this is when they develop their most important life skills.
I strongly recommend all parents read Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.
Head of Junior School Kew