Saturday, February 23, 2013

How to Get Kids to Pay Attention

Sorry, I don't have the answer for this one.

I am supplicating your help.

A few days ago I got an email from a woman who had just started doing one of my Mom's MTC lessons with her boys ( 8, 5, and 3). She wrote:

... I got ready to do honesty this week and started today because my oldest son was staying the night at his cousin's house and I thought things would go better with just the two younger ones. So, it went ok, but I realized that I am just not a very good teacher! It's not one of my talents and the kids barely tolerated me reading the two scriptures and listening to the song. They absolutely refused to listen to a scripture story.  I really want this to work! I  feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing,  but help! 

How do you make it "fun" for the kids instead of making them feel like you are subjecting them to some torturous lecture? If my two youngest aren't going to enjoy the material in the way I tried to present it, my oldest son, who has ADHD, is never going to go for it. Do you have any tips for presenting the material? I wish I could come see how you present the lesson to your kids, but since I can't any tips would be appreciated for someone who struggles to be an interesting teacher. Thanks for any help you can give me!

As I read her email I felt lots of sympathy and kinship with her, because despite how organized and orderly the lessons appear on my blog they very rarely turn out picture perfect. In fact, it has been a really big struggle for me to get my kids to pay attention and to maintain some semblance of family love during our "school" time. I especially find it really hard to keep Asher, my busy five-year-old interested for long. Rose doesn't seem to have trouble, but getting my little boy to focus can be hard!

Not my boy, but could be.

Here was my best attempt to respond to her question:

Some days my lessons with my kids go really well and other days they fall apart and are disasters! I have found that what has helped my kids more than anything is routine and consistency. For the first month we did lessons my kids struggled, but I just kept going and I had the same order and routine every day. Chores, pledge of allegiance, song, scripture story or story book , and activity (or no activity if things were too wild). After awhile they got comfortable with the routine and it got easier, but it was a struggle at first.

As far as being an interesting teacher. I think what has helped me the most is to let go of the "teacher" mode and just be a mom. I don't have to assume the role or persona of a teacher. I just need to be their mom,  to love them, and have fun. They don't have to sit quiet and reverently like they do at church, I don't expect that. I just expect that we are going to have fun and learn together, and hopefully feel the spirit.

Awhile ago I read a book called "Godly Play" by Jerome Berryman and basically his idea is that the true aim of religion is to get us to a point where Christ is our "friend"  and not just an authority figure in out lives. Christ calls himself a friend several times throughout the scriptures when the person he is talking to has reached the point where they truly are friends (see D&C 84:77). Berryman's argument is that when children "play" with religious ideas and are free to explore them in a play-like situation they learn to make Christ a friend, an integral part of their life rather than someone to be feared or overwhelmed by.  So that has been my overarching approach, to make spiritual learning fun and play centered rather than lecture or listening centered. But like I said, it doesn't always turn out great at our house either ;)

Don't be too hard on yourself. The key is just to be consistent and to experiment with what works with your kids. The more you pray to know what to do for your kids the more the lord will guide you!

I also have found that it makes a HUGE difference how prepared I am. If I haven't done my own scripture study, or prayed or mediated then things usually fall apart. Yet when I have prepared a lesson the night before AND have taken care of my own spiritual needs... things go much better. The days I am not prepared usually are the days that fall apart, mostly because I am cranky and impatient.

That was all the suggestions I had for her and I found myself wishing I had more to give her. I feel sort of like a hypocrite giving suggestions about getting kids to pay attention, because that is something I struggle with too. 

I would love to hear from other parents what tricks they have found to keep their children engaged as they teach them, during scripture study, virtue lessons, homeschool, tying their shoes, or whatever. Any help would be appreciated. 


  1. We were having a horrible time trying to get through the "war chapters" in Alma with my boys (ages 10, 7, and 4 - the oldest has ADHD). So I had them act it out. They took turns being Lamanites and Nephites and we designated certain areas of the room as the places described in the scriptures and they had a blast. They couldn't wait to read scriptures the next day...they were actually bummed when the "war chapters" were over!

    Another thing is to really involve them in the lesson/activity/whatever. Have the three-year-old hold the picture or ask the eight-year-old to read the scripture or the five-year-old to retell the scripture story. Give them paper and crayons and ask them all to draw a picture about the story while you're reading. Let them use their bodies and as many senses as possible. Maybe they need to hop on one foot while you're reading the scripture until they hear a certain word and then they switch feet.

    You can also try incorporating brief parts of the lessons into other things you're already doing. Play or sing the song while they're working on their chores. Read a scripture while they're helping you make (or eat!) cookies.

    The little things are cumulative. Don't feel like it all has to be done at once or that you're a failure if it doesn't turn out exactly the way you pictured it. Just try again another way, another time. :)

  2. I think your response was perfect and honestly, helpful to me at least! Thanks!

  3. To the person with the question: yeah for even trying! I've seen so many people afraid of the process that they're afraid to start. So yeah for even doing that!
    I do have a few suggestions:
    1- start small. I'm talking really small. 2 minutes per lesson one day. Three minutes the next. And then PRAISE the kids for paying attention and good behavior.
    2- lower your expectations. Plan on getting a lot less done in each lesson that you expected. And know its ok! At least you're doing something and hopefully the Spirit will be there each time. That's the point, right?
    3- be flexible - with your teaching style and the way you present the material. And know that even after you find a way the kids respond to well for a period, it may eventually not work and you'll need to switch things up. That's ok!
    4- we have a psychologist friend in our ward who was once one sons primary teacher. Each lesson he would put five or so treats out per kid (small, like m&m's). And if a kid was disrespectful, not obedient, etc., one candy or treat disappeared. This worked amazingly well with that hard, large class. We did it at a point with our family and used it for about 2 weeks straight, then for another couple weeks here and there and then gave it up. But we are willing to bring it back if we need to! Usually we strongly dislike bribing for good behavior. But, hey. It worked.

  4. 5- as was already mentioned, involve the kids in teaching. Even the three year old. They will love to be involved and get so much more out of it.
    Most of all - don't give up! Keep going! You can do it! I promise. My kids are 2, 4, 6, and 8 and we still have really hard lessons where I mutter to my husband "what is the point of all this?!" But most of the time it is good and spirit filled.

  5. I'm sorry to leave so many comments, but my computer keeps not letting me add more in the box, and this is something I'm passionate bout. Like I when I ask my husband what the point of this is? It's to teach our children and pray they grow a testimony that they can and are eager to share with others. To be lovers and teachers of Christ and His gospel. That's a big thing and its worth struggling the hard days! We are to the point where we have short gospel study time at breakfast and dinner every day. Lie I said, some days it is still hard but it is always worth it. Don't give up!

  6. This whole "make homeschool FUN!" thing was a big stumbling block for me for a while. My oldest was like the kids she describes, balking at ANYTHING school-like that I asked him to do. I have finally come to the conclusion that it's OK if school isn't fun. If he is forced to sit down with me and learn something, he will learn that learning is work but it's worthwhile work. And even if he doesn't like the way I do school, I am positive he would like going to school even less.

    I can't make them like it. And I don't like to make them do it. But I love the scriptures, and I love having the Spirit in our home. Our homeschool looks like this: I call my kids to come do school with me and I make it as inviting as possible by sitting on our comfy couch with room on either side so they can each cuddle me (I have a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old). We read scriptures, and I ask them nicely to sit still and listen. I may have to ask repeatedly, but I keep my voice nice and I don't give up. I show them by my voice and face how much I love what I'm reading, and they notice. I show them that it makes me sad if they're not reverent, and it makes me happy when they listen and ask questions. I hug them close and love them no matter how they behave. And then after scriptures, we do something kinesthetic, b/c they need to wiggle after sitting for a few minutes!

    And when they had a hard time learning something, I point out to them the benefits of learning. Like, if they had a hard time sitting still during scriptures, I find ways to liken what the learned to their day. Or if they had a hard time with writing, I show them how much better their writing is than the last time we wrote together.

    I also go into this whole homeschool endeavor with the attitude that learning what they need to know is the responsibility of my kids. I tell them I'm happy to help them, but in the end it's their job to learn, and they are the ones who will suffer the most if they don't learn what they need to. I'll tell you in about 20 years how that's worked for us ;) I do see that even after a really hard day, my kids are excited and happy to do homeschool again the next day, and will remind me when it's time to get started.

  7. My best advice is to keep it short. Like 5 or 10 minutes sometimes. Then, when you can see you can go longer, do! This way they learn to enjoy the time together, have positive feelings, and you add to it. You can also break stuff up throughout the day, rather than in one sitting. If you can see they can't stand listening to scripture passages (yet), just start with part of the scripture and then summarize the rest. Sometimes even just a summary is all they can handle.

  8. There are lots of great ideas given in the comments before mine - but I do have a couple of suggestions to add/build upon.
    Consistency - this is the key. Everyone involved may not get something out of each lesson - but there will be bits and pieces that are learned and remembered over time. Best of all - if nothing else - they will remember that their mother was teaching them the gospel.
    Reward/Consequence/Bribery - call it whatever you want, but for some kids it just works. My kids are 10,9,7,5, and 2 - for some of them it works, for others it doesn't.
    Busy Work - depending on the types of learners you have it may be helpful for them to have a quiet activity to work on while you are teaching. (Of course this also depends on the type of lesson as well.) If it is more of a listening activity they can play with blocks or playdough or anything they can work with quietly while listening to you teach or read to them.

  9. We teach a lesson from Preach My Gospel every morning with breakfast and a lesson from the Book of Mormon every night with dinner. The kids are sitting and their mouths are full so they are quieter. Our goal is to read through a Book of Mormon and mark it for each child who gets baptized. Reading (and by reading I mostly mean telling the story and reading a couple key verses) the Book of Mormon at dinner this way we have been through it 3 and a half times, and we will continue on like this.

  10. Hi, I just found this blog, it's great! I also love the thoughtful discussions. Like the Wright Family I would say, I have 3 boys 5,3,1 and I read them scripture stories while they eat breakfast or lunch and that is good- stuck in high chair, busy eating. :) And I recently read a homeschool blog post a mother wrote about spending more couch time (versus in a desk or stricter setting) and flexible time and trying less to make the home environment like school. To me that means the pressure is off in a lot of ways.

    I've been trying to get my 5 year old to practice piano and having practice at the same time each day helps him be mentally prepared.

  11. I recommend a book I bought at last years LDS Holistic Living Conference called "Parenting A House United: Changing Children's Hearts and Behaviors by Teaching Self Government" by Nicholeen Peck. I feel like the things our family has learned and applied from this book are making a real difference in how my husband and I teach our children and how our children receive our teaching. It's available at

  12. Below are some things I have found helpful as I have worked with pre-school and Kindergarten age children. Engaging children in a variety of ways will help them stay focused. Have them repeat a word with you, use hand signals on certain words, give a thumbs up or thumbs down as you read or discuss certain actions/ideas that or good or bad, stand up when you hear a certain word mentioned. There are good resources and ideas in "Teaching No Greater Call" book and the "Sharing Time Outline" offers good suggestions in the margins as to how to engage children. Having children participate rather than just listen, will help them stay focused, remember, and understand. It also helps to keep lessons short and simple with a lot of variety with alteration between sitting and moving activities. Use lots of visual aids so children can SEE as well as listen.

    1. I agree completely! I was amazed when I was working in Primary to look through the resources and see how they helped me be a better mom too! After all, it's probably the biggest thing mothers do is to teach!

      I also think that remaining upbeat and positive (even when we're just pretending) helps. Kids are so sensitive to our moods. I think usually if it's something we love, kids pick up on our enthusiasm but if it's just another chore for us to check off the list then it's harder. Also being sympathetic to their level of sitting and listening - "I know it's hard but we can do this!" goes a long way.

  13. I have no kids, and am certainly not an expert, but after working with pediatric patients in an inpatient psychiatry unit for a couple of years, I have learned a few things while leading group therapy sessions where I was supposed to teach them particular concepts. First, all kids are different and not everyone will be as interested in the material as others-as you are sure to know. A couple things I have found helpful when working with ADHD kids/defiant kids/aspergers/distracted kids etc...

    1-do your lesson in a small space with limited distractions. I have found that sitting around a table together is sometimes helpful. Another idea may be to sit in a smaller room, or even to tape off a section of the floor for everyone to stay in-turn it into a game with some sort of positive reward for staying in the lines the longest-or having it be a safe island where if you step outside you melt in the hot lava (this could even be related back to the Gospel where Christ/scriptures/being obedient/etc helps us to be safe)!

    2-With kids it is so very important to give them positive feedback and validation. It may seem like overkill, but especially with little ones and those with ADHD, praise them for the little things they are doing. For example, "You are sitting so nicely!, I appreciate how well you are listening. Thanks for focusing so well. You are thinking really hard about these things! That was a great answer! etc" Try to really focus on complimenting their actions rather than just saying things like "Good job!"

    3-Giving breaks is helpful for little kids. They have a much harder time sitting still at paying attention. You may try saying, "let's sing a song, and then we can play a wiggle game etc.

    I have now lost my train of thought. Just have fun with the kids, and be grateful that God is giving you such great opportunities to further develop the spiritual gift of patience ;)

  14. One thing she could try is once a week have one of her boys help her teach the lesson. That way they have a vested interest in learing about it and get the pride and joy of sharing it w/ their siblings. That would also give them some one-on-one time w/ their Mom while preparing the little part of the lesson they would help with. :)