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The One Skill Every Pre-Schooler Should Know Before 1st Grade

Understanding the Child in the First Plane of Development, Part 3

“Did you see that?” my friend Brenda Mooney exclaimed. We had been chatting happily by the baby pool while Cecilia, my toddler, splashed in the water on the hot July day.

Miss Mooney was a directoress at a Montessori school. Her trained eye caught Cecilia in a classic moment of deep concentration. Miss Mooney sat still and lowered her voice as she began to watch Cecilia climb the pool’s little slide, situate herself, and slip down into the water, then struggle to climb out of the pool, ascend the ladder again, and enjoy another ride.

“That is amazing concentration!” Miss Mooney said. “She will repeat this work until she feels like she has perfected all the fine and gross motor skills it requires.”

Miss Mooney began to count. Eighteen times! Cecilia repeated this sequence 18 times!

At first, the sequence was excruciating to watch as she worked out her awkward coordination. I was tempted to jump in to assist, but Miss Mooney instructed me to just watch and offer help only if she is in danger, asks for help, or becomes frustrated. Cecilia never asked for help and each time her coordination improved. My daughter was gaining tremendous satisfaction from the struggle of learning to control her body and focus her attention on a deliberate task.

“The first essential for the child’s development is concentration,” Maria Montesorri once observed. “The child who concentrates is immensely happy.”

Once children enter grade school, however, teachers commonly complain about their inability to pay attention. Do children lose their joyful ability to focus on a task once they enter school?

Focus! Pay attention! Sit still! These are commands commonly addressed to children in school.

When a child fidgets in his chair, cannot repeat a question just asked of him, nor fix his attention upon a task, it can be exasperating for the adult with an agenda.

Several things may be the underlying issue in these situations including:

  • Children are designed to learn in motion. If your child cannot sit still, maybe he is not supposed to.

  • Poor manners and bad behavior, of course, can be part of the equation. But usually, there is a reason behind their inattention that is far less sinister.

  • Any number of natural barriers or a learning disability could be preventing them from paying attention.

  • But perhaps the most common (and most overlooked) cause lies within our distraction-filled lifestyles that prevent children from ever developing the mental muscle needed to support concentration.

Diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder continue to

skyrocket. According to the CDC's latest published survey in 2016, Diagnoses of ADHD had increased nearly 50 percent within an eight-year span (2003 to 2011), bringing the total number of American children with ADHD to nearly 6 million. Certainly, those numbers are much higher now.

While this diagnosis is hotly debated, most therapists suggest ADD/ADHD is a symptom of a wide variety of underlying causes. Much like a sore throat can have many causes: a virus, infection, injury, etc. ADD/ADHD may be a symptom of Dyslexia, Sensory Processing Disorders, or trauma, among many other things.

One of these underlying causes could well be as simple as underdeveloped or disrupted development of the brain’s concentration faculties. Some researchers believe that at least part of the cause of the enormous increase in ADHD cases is our lifestyle. Adults unknowingly interfere with the development of concentration in children through a hurried schedule; loud, flashing and interactive toys and screens; and by preventing children from ample active play.

“The power of concentration that these little children have is unbelievable,” Miss Mooney said as my daughter sat on my lap all wrapped in a beach towel after her exhausting sliding board exercise. Miss Mooney then told me about one early walker whom she had observed the week before. As he toddled through the house he came to a small ledge at the threshold of a door. An adult may describe it as a toe-catcher, a small ledge to step over. But to a little tike just learning to use those gangly legs for walking, it was an enormous obstacle — a mountain to be conquered.

He, at first, stumbled over the legend on his way to pursue some important baby business. Then turned back, placing his hands on the ground beside the ledge he carefully stepped -- one foot at a time -- over, then stood up. He repeated this back and forth step over the threshold for about 8 minutes until he could skip over it with giggles and claps.

It is easy to overlook the value of these little tasks. To the child, it is intentional work that should not be disturbed -- not even by offering un-asked for help or praise.

When a small child is deeply focused on a task, do not expect his body to be still. Children are designed to learn in motion and they will be actively engaged with a task they are concentrating on. A classic example of this is the child with the light switch. Or the toddler dropping a toy off the highchair top, or the child meticulously stacking all the soup cans from your pantry. Whenever possible, allow this work to continue until the child is satisfied.

“Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity,” wrote Dr. Montessori. “It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched. After all, we too sometimes feel unable to go on working if someone comes to see what we are doing. The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist. Naturally, one can see what he is doing with a quick glance, but without his being aware of it.”

Concentration is the sacred work of the child. Children are driven to develop this skill from the beginning. Within the first moments of a new life entering the world, the infant already has an astounding ability to focus. If uninterrupted, a newborn will stare into his mother’s face for up to 45 minutes before looking away. But failing to recognize the child’s need to study the world around them, we snatch them away straight from birth to the wash table. We weigh and measure and slap goop on their eyes.

When a mother hears a baby cooing in the crib, the natural impulse is to rush in and greet him before his happy coos turn to cries. But if she rushes in and greets the child without first observing,

she risks disrupting the child’s focus. The baby is likely hard at work learning to use their visual processing systems as they study the mobile. Or maybe the baby is concentrating very, very hard on his gross motor skills — getting those yummy toes into the mouth can be hard work. But not knowing to protect concentration, parents routinely enter the child’s environment demanding attention unaware of the consequence. Instead of bursting into the baby’s room with good-mornings parents can learn to hold still, look silently into the room to observe before approaching. If the child is actively engaged in something, hold back. Once he looks away, then enter the room. This little discipline will pay off in the academic years.

The kinds of toys commonly offered to children further interferes with their natural inclination to focus. It may look like a child is focused when watching their favorite cartoons, but passive entertainment is very different from active concentration. To be focused and concentrating, a child must be actively working to learn or improve a skill. In other words, they are practicing.

Watching a screen does not require this part of the brain to be engaged. A good rule of thumb for determining if a toy is aiding concentration or harming it, is to ask who is working harder, the toy or the child? Toys that take batteries to flash, sing and move are working much harder than the child. With each electronic impulse the child’s concentration muscle atrophies or halts development. We think we are helping a child learn to read when we give him an educational show to watch but with the images on the screen rapidly changing the child’s attention span is trained out of him and his most valuable academic muscle - his concentration — once again pays a heavy price.

"An observant child should be put in the way of things worth observing," Charlotte Mason once said.

Give infants mobiles, toddlers a latch board, water, or blocks. Allow older children long uninterrupted time with LEGO or art or monkey bars — whatever holds their interest. Whenever possible do not hush a babbling baby. They are concentrating on language. Never enter a room talking. Look before distracting a child.

The reality for most children is that adults demand their attention from the moment they are born, preventing the child from ever developing their ability to set to work on a task to truly and deeply learn from it. Often we interrupt children simply because we do not see the value of what they are doing. The child’s brain then becomes formed to require frequent distraction and is incapable of the rigorous attention required to learn letters, memorize math facts or write a story.

The single most important academic skill for a preschool student is concentration. Long before we teach letters, shapes, or colors, the child must first fully strengthen their powers of concentration or he will struggle far more than needed.


By Judith Jolma, Founder of Sophia Homeschool.

Sophia Homeschool teaches parents how to homeschool. Learn more about our training at

Learn how to create a homeschool method and environment based on your family's needs so you can thrive. My Foundations of Homeschooling Masterclass teaches parents to work with their budget, schedule, learning style, teaching style, and resources so each member of the family has his or her needs met— including yours! Learn to create a peaceful and joyful learning environment that lasts a lifetime. Identify learning differences and adapt your educational plan accordingly. Unlock the mysteries of teaching multiple grades at once. By knowing what your needs are, you will save thousands of dollars, time, and energy on methods that do not work. We will end homework battles and restore your relationship with your child.


For more help with SPED check out our Complete Guide to Homeschooling Children with Learning Disabilities.

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