Staying “On Task” — By Bart Theriot

a bored Caucasian teacher forcing the hand of a bored Caucasian childA child’s ability to “stay on task”  is an important indicator of both current and future self-directed learning and a host of other foundational skills and work habits. Understanding student observations in this area is far more complex than simply noting whether the child is actively at work or not.  The fact is, if we consider children more wholistically, we are likely to find that they are almost never truly “off task.”

I sat down to write this blog post, as I normally do, without a whole lot of premeditation.  I usually write when the motivation strikes and I have a few minutes to devote to the work.  I have no idea how long it will take to bring the post up to publish quality.  However, I must assume whether from a self-chosen break, an unanticipated distraction or the appearance of a more time-sensitive task, this post will not be completed through one continuous, unbroken effort.  There will come a time, or more likely multiple times, when I will be “off task.”  Fewer, shorter off-task moments or longer periods of uninterrupted focus might dictate the speed with which I complete this post, but do not necessarily equate to a better result.  Therefore, the evaluation of my work is not just a question of how quickly I will get back to it but what is the value of the time spent away from it?

In your own adult work habits, high productivity is often synonymous with efficiency.  In fact, “time-spent” is a favorite, albeit blunt, metric of many management assessment tools.  However,  this is also a function of our adult appreciation for product over process, which clearly belies the usefulness of this metric for children.  The superficial consideration of the “work smarter, not harder” concept devalues what happens in between those moments of productivity.  Yet, no adult would be so simplistic to view their own work efforts as a binary process.  For some reason, this logic is not always applied to children.

If understanding the relationships and behaviors within a child’s daily work were as simple as drawing a line between on task and off, this would be a very short and pointless blog post.  So, let’s break down the following situation. It is one with which anyone who has ever worked with a child is intimately familiar:  A teacher sits with a child, less than half-way through the lesson.  Eventually, the child begins to fidget, squirm and generally disengage.  Productivity and concentration are, to put it mildly, at an ebb.  Normally, in this case, a teacher might attempt to refocus the child.  At home in this moment, parents often press the child to keep at it until the work is done.  Indeed, there are times when this may be the right approach.  However, in these cases, success is only accomplished through the adult’s efforts.  It also contaminates a pure assessment of the child. There is a better way, which is almost always appropriate, that empowers the child to find his own success and learn how to manage the situation independently in the future.  Here’s how we do it and you can do it too.

In our Montessori classrooms, when we notice the child beginning to disengage, we quickly assess our options based upon what we know of this child and the history of our work together.  When disengagement and fidgeting are common behaviors, giving the child tools to manage these on his or her own is more important than the subject matter being taught.  This idea assigns new value to time spent “off task.” However, accepting this new goal is usually the step most often missed by the adult.

Rather than ignoring those clear signs from the child and soldiering on with task completion as the only goal, a Montessori teacher might pause the lesson and engage the child differently.  “It seems like you’re wiggling a little bit and having trouble paying attention to the work.  Do you think taking a short break might help?”  Usually, very appreciatively, the child answers “Yes.”  At that point, we might ask the child what are good things to do during a break -providing suggestions if needed.  Then, we encourage the child to engage in one of those activities and let us know when they are ready to return to the work.   Most children will eventually find their way back, but the teacher will keep an eye out for those who might need a little help.

Think, for a second, about how a child might feel in that exchange.  Especially one who repeatedly struggles to maintain attention. View it in direct comparison to those times instead when the adult reverts to a task master, dragging the child across the finish line, sometimes kicking and screaming.  By being offered time to reset, the child knows that the adult is a partner who recognizes their needs and sees them as a person worthy of trust. For teachers, this strengthens the partnership and builds goodwill for future moments when the child must devote attention to an undesired task. For parents, sharing that trust and respect with your child is always a win.

Now consider the larger value of that experience as it relates to the child’s future, especially when it is repeated more than once.  What a wonderful skill to learn at such an early age.  I promise it works for every type of learner.  In fact, I submit, that a child who already can sustain attention on work from start to completion, probably does not need to focus upon that skill all that much.  Rather,  a child like this would benefit from learning how to take breaks just as much as the child who struggles to focus.

If the child disengages from work, then teach him how to take a break.  In the world of child development, there are relatively few if-then equations as straight forward as this.    However, when it comes to children, technique must always be accompanied by philosophy.  Without the underlying belief in the value of “off task” work, parents will find this technique unsustainable. Offering that break feels like a risk and undoubtedly cuts into the already precious few minutes available in a parent’s day. Even though in plain analysis, battling a child to press on through distraction clearly sounds like a conflict to be avoided, ironically, many parents confuse it for the path of least resistance. Eventually, it is all too appealing to revert back to simply getting the work done and the only way to do that is to stay “on task.”