How can I help my child learn to pay better attention to instructions and concentrate on his work?
October 16, 2007 10:42 AM   Subscribe

How can I help my child learn to pay better attention to instructions and concentrate on his work, without turning him into a perfectionist?

I have a 6-year-old son, in first grade, who is very bright. He has no trouble at all with doing his schoolwork - when he pays attention. He ends up with a lot of 100% papers, but several 60-80% papers, even though he knows how to do all the work.

The problem is that he's not being careful to read all the instructions; when there are, say, three things to do on one part of a worksheet, he tends to do the first one or two and forget the rest. Or, he'll assume he knows what to do, and do something that isn't what the instructions say to do.

My question is how I can help him do better. I'm currently taking the approach of having him redo the papers where he had significant problems, so he has some consequences for his carelessness, and trying to teach him that it's just as important to pay attention to the instructions as it is to know how to do the work.

Also, I'm trying to avoid the other extreme of turning him into a perfectionist that is devastated if he makes a mistake. I want him to do his best, pay attention, but understand that everyone makes mistakes sometimes.

I'm wondering if this is a good general approach that will just take some time, or if any of you have suggestions based on your own experience with this kind of thing. Thanks in advance!
posted by greenmagnet to Education (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm dumbstruck by the fact that a 6-year-old has homework, and that it's graded. He's six! His brain will catch on in a few years!

Praise the heck out of the accuracy and attention to detail of his 100% papers and ignore the other ones.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:47 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Don't press him. Just have him copy out the instructions each time he does a paper.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:48 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

In first grade, our teacher pulled that "read all the instructions" prank on the whole class.

You hand out an assignment and it says "Read all the instructions before doing anything." Then the instructions go on to list weird things to do, like run around the room, write your name on the board, do a jumping jack, etc. The very last instruction is something like "DO NOT do any of these things."

It was a hilarious lesson for the class, as numerous kids were doing jumping jacks, signing the board, etc, and they slowly figured out that not everyone was joining them. I suppose now it would be considered bad for the precious egos of those kids who did the things, but then, we loved it, and no one remembered the next day who did what. It was the "read all the instructions" bit that stuck with us.
posted by GaelFC at 10:56 AM on October 16, 2007 [6 favorites]

I used to do the same thing as a munchkin, and the day it stuck (well, for the most part) that I needed to read the directions was one day in class, when we were all given sheets with a list of instructions like "write this word in green crayon," "color the box red," stuff like that. At the very end was an instruction: "go outside to play if you read this first." Being one of the kids who had to wait to go out to recess REALLY made it stick with me.
posted by tigerjade at 10:58 AM on October 16, 2007

Of course, GaelFC's example (which I, too, remember from 1st grade) actually teaches children that adults sometimes make contradictory rules, and that it is sometimes impossible to actually follow all directions given.

While that is true, it's not necessarily a lesson you want a child to learn early on.
posted by The World Famous at 11:01 AM on October 16, 2007

Response by poster: A couple of clarifications:

- this is classwork, not actually homework. The only time he's had homework was when we were out of town for several days. I think the point of some of these papers is to get them used to following instructions.

- I was following more of the "praise good papers, ignore others" until he started getting a few more of the "others", and he was getting frustrated by it himself. Perhaps that is the answer...he'll learn in time just due to that.
posted by greenmagnet at 11:01 AM on October 16, 2007

Best answer: I would recommend teaching him to: bake, sew, do chemistry experiments (edmund scientific is a great resource here), play with simple electric circuits, write treasure hunts and have his friends do them, write "how-to" instruction manuals for his favorite hobbies, and start piano lessons. All require paying attention to all of the instructions and at least one is likely to be very fun for him.
posted by Eringatang at 11:04 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm currently taking the approach of having him redo the papers where he had significant problems, so he has some consequences for his carelessness

...will only teach him to hate homework, as he will associate a less than perfect job with punishment; so if you really want to him to his best, pay attention, but understand that everyone makes mistakes sometimes..., use your words. Remember, it's only Grade 1.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 11:06 AM on October 16, 2007

Best answer: have you thought of posing a question like "why do you think you got this question wrong?" he might be a little too young to figure it out by himself, but it might give an opportunity to discuss the importantce of reading the directions...
posted by ArgentCorvid at 11:16 AM on October 16, 2007

Response by poster: Eringatang: awesome idea. He would love things like that, and that totally makes sense. I'm going to give the treasure hunt thing a try for starters. Thanks!

BozoBurgerBonanza, I agree to some extent. I don't want to overdo it, and if it starts looking like it's not going to help or that he's starting to hate the work because of it, I'm going to stop. I'm only doing it when he missed large chunks of work because he didn't see the last two instructions, for example. Also, redoing one of these papers for him only takes about 3 to 5 minutes.

But yeah, I'm very aware of that danger and want to avoid it; I just don't want him not doing large chunks of the work and learning that's ok.
posted by greenmagnet at 11:19 AM on October 16, 2007

My question is how I can help him do better.

Let him fail. You can't fix everything for him, he has to learn some things on his own, even in first grade. So sit him down and explain what happens if he continues to get bad grades, by not following instructions, such as reduction of privileges and additional chores. Explain this several times, over the course of several weeks and if he gets bad grades, then follow through, while trying to help him understand why he got bad grades.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:20 AM on October 16, 2007

"pay attention you little shit!!!"

that's what my dad did and it worked for me
posted by Salvatorparadise at 11:39 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Six may be a bit early, but this research (sorry, didn't try hard enough to find the original) is an interesting read on the power of *appropriate* praise in helping kids. Wish I'd read it before mine got big!
posted by anadem at 11:44 AM on October 16, 2007 [4 favorites]

anadem posted what I was going to say.
Praise effort not results.
posted by jade east at 11:51 AM on October 16, 2007

When I was little, my dad me about the "trick-last-instruction" thing, and I remembered it all the way through school. When one of my teachers presented a version to us, I knew what it was. I think at least describing it could work for your kiddo.
posted by lhall at 12:04 PM on October 16, 2007

Best answer: My son is also six and in the first grade. I chalk up the lack of attention and concentration to his age and maturity. In other words, his behavior (and your son's) is completely age appropriate.

Mine does have home work 4 nights a week. There is usually 4 or 5 math problems, a book of reading (his choice), and some spelling words to work on. He also has to write a couple of sentences each week. In all, it can be an hour before he's done. In reality, it is probably 30 minutes of work, including the reading. However, he looks for distractions.

The article that anadem links really had a big impact on how we praise him. We work to point out how he is working hard and that's good. His spelling test from Friday came home and he was disappointed that he got 4 of the 6 words wrong. I assured him it was no big deal, that I knew he was trying hard and sometimes we just make mistakes. After having a conversation with his teacher, I really think this is a great approach. She talked about how, at this age, it is all baby steps in their ability to improve their attention span, reading, spelling, etc.
posted by onhazier at 12:26 PM on October 16, 2007

Response by poster: Great advice from everyone; thanks very much. The article that anadem mentioned very much hits home and I'm going to work on praising effort rather than intelligence. I also love Eringatang's suggestion of fun ways to teach the concept of paying attention to instructions.

Meanwhile, I'll keep in mind that he's just 6 and this is to be expected to some extent. Sometimes I think I have trouble remembering that since in some areas, he's pretty mature.

Thanks again!
posted by greenmagnet at 1:08 PM on October 16, 2007

A way to generally improve his attention span (or at least practice paying attention) could be some short meditation exercises. Focusing on the sense of hearing is a good one for kids this age.

For example, ring a bell and have him listen to it and raise his hand when he can't hear it any more (works well with bells that have a long, vibrational sound). Or, have him count how many breaths he took during the bell. Or, was he breathing in or breathing out when the bell rang?
posted by hazel at 1:29 PM on October 16, 2007

I tutor a 6th grader who has a tendency to skip directions and get low grades because of it. I think your son will get better as he gets older I wouldn't worry TOO much. However, I'm glad you are concerned now because if this does stick it's a bad habit and can really hurt his success in school. I really agree with what you are already doing- remediation of his work when he doesn't follow the directions. What you're doing is sort of a form of "overcorrection"- a behavior management technique. I don't think that will make him a perfectionist. With the boy I tutor I tend to say "look, you did all this work and still got a bad score just because you forgot to read the directions. It makes a big difference." What you're doing right now really emphasizes the idea of "doing all that work for nothing" because he realizes that when he skips a tiny thing, like reading directions, it means much more work for him later. That's a good lesson to teach. I think you have a really good strategy and he will catch on. It's good for him to learn early-on to read the directions thoroughly. There are college students who get low grades on projects because they fail to read all the instructions.

In short, don't worry too much, he's still young but I think what you're doing right now is still a good idea and your concerns are legitimate. I don't think it will make him a perfectionist and afraid to fail because he's not doing this extra work because he can't do the material, he's re-doing it because he didn't read the directions. I don't think this will make him a perfectionist, though it might make him cautious about reading directions and fine print (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).
posted by bobdylanforever at 1:50 PM on October 16, 2007

fun ways to teach the concept of paying attention to instructions

Yes. Probably physically active ones are best (with obvious penalties for missing an instruction, like the cookies come out all wrong, so it doesn't seem like an arbitrary thing).

But games -- card games, board games -- could also work. 6 is a good age to start elementary strategy games, and talk through the strategic decisions he'll make. For example Battleship, checkers, Carcassonne, Coloretto, Match of the Penguins (or any of the other kids' card games by Gamewright), etc. A fun way to get used to the idea that some projects have rules, and you need to understand the rules to decide what's your best move.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:36 PM on October 16, 2007

Should have included: Notice that I didn't recommend games that have a lot of dice-rolling. Those are ok first games, but they quickly teach kids that all that matters is luck, you can't affect your chances of winning - so why bother playing? You want to get some games where his decisions DO affect his chances of winning. It's good to have some element of luck, so that he isn't crushed by superior players -- but be sure there are ways his decisions matter in the game.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:40 PM on October 16, 2007

I'm glad anadem mentioned that article, because it saved me the trouble of tracking down the link. When it was first published I forwarded it to the parents of my godson, because it gave me so much insight into my own well-intentioned but slightly screwed-up upbringing.
posted by jon1270 at 3:29 PM on October 16, 2007

Eringatang's advice is excellent, especially the ideas that have him try out the role of giving others instructions. Children that age are often not used to teaching others, and being on the other side will help them understand the value of the instructions.

When I was in third grade, our class had an assignment where we had to write lists of instructions for simple, everyday activities like making a peanut butter sandwich or brushing your hair. The teacher would then try to follow the directions as they were written, either by asking questions or physical demonstrations, and if the directions
weren't specific enough, the results were often hilarious (e.g. a sandwich with the peanut butter and jelly on the outside). It was a memorable, fun lesson and helped me tremendously with both reading and writing clear instructions.

One way you can do this is by having a "secret drawing" activity with your son, where your son instructs you to draw something piece-by-piece without telling you what the subject is, similar to the old Sesame Street segments You can take turns being the artist and director, though make sure he gets ample opportunity to be the one directing. Keep it lighthearted and fun, as opposed to lesson-y. If he enjoys drawing, he'll probably love this. If he hates drawing, try something like the peanut butter sandwich instructions I mentioned above.

(The above is from my girlfriend, who's not a member but wanted to contribute to the discussion anyway.)
posted by ignignokt at 4:16 PM on October 16, 2007

I hate those "trick-last-question" things. Who's to say that you should follow only the first and last instructions? If you read all of them first, you still wouldn't be doing the last instruction until the very end.

As for your son: I like the suggestions of making it fun. Maybe as an addition to that - orienteering? Or following a map of some kind besides treasure hunting? Geocaching may be a good idea.
posted by divabat at 4:46 PM on October 16, 2007

A good habit to instill now might be something like: Think you're finished with that worksheet? Check to make sure you didn't leave any blanks! Check both sides of the paper! Re-read the directions and make sure you caught everything. Etc., as sort of a finishing routine. It's useful for just about every task he'll ever encounter from here on.

Also, I've been playing Big Brain Academy on the Wii, and it's got a number of the type of questions that you'll get wrong if you don't actually read the directions. Games like this might bring the point home to him more thoroughly, since the attention to detail goes beyond schoolwork alone.
posted by xo at 7:30 PM on October 16, 2007

I remembered something about First Grade this morning. The worksheets were SO BORING that we had contests to see who could fill them out the fastest, instead of get the highest score. We had a need for speed. This was encouraged by the teacher, who gave gold stars to the first three students to hand-in their worksheets. In your son's case -- check with Teach: if he is sitting next to someone he is competitive with, this could result in hasty work.
posted by Eringatang at 1:47 PM on October 17, 2007

One practice I use as a teacher is to give the instructions, and then call on a student to repeat the instructions back to me. Then I clarify if they were fuzzy on any part of the instructions. At home, maybe just having him read the instructions aloud would slow him down enough to take them in.
posted by Riverine at 4:34 PM on October 18, 2007

I have a six year old who is also in first grade. He is home schooled. When he does sub-par work for lack of following directions, he is simply told "that's not good enough, go back and try harder".

Sometimes he's frustrated or angry that he doens't earn a reward or get to move on to something more fun. In those instances we sometimes just tell him that, like it or not, he has to do it. Other times we'll explain that if he'd done it right the first time, it'd be done now.

My father used to say "if it's worth doing right, it's worth doing right the first time". I know he didn't coin the phrase, but that only proves the point. What worked a hundred years ago still works. While the media we use to educate may have changed, we haven't. Most children still need to *learn* to follow directions, *learn* to work hard, and *learn to check the work.
posted by kc0dxh at 5:38 PM on October 18, 2007

« Older Midrange gaming laptops?   |   work blog question Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.