monkey minds have a hard time focusing

We All Lose Focus Sometimes

sponge bob in school


It happens to all parents, tutors, and teachers. You’re working with a child in reading or math, and you think things are going pretty well. You’re even feeling proud of yourself … you are inspiring a child to learn!

Then your intrepid student says something like, “I think Sponge Bob is on right now.” Sigh.

What to do?

I have wondered this myself, many times. My approach has always been to respond with something like, “That’s nice! Now, what did you say is the answer for six times six?” I admit. This is a short-term solution.

Stopping Monkey Thoughts in Their Tracks

Then, last week someone in a tutoring group on Facebook mentioned a blog post she had read, in which the author suggested introducing students to the idea of the “monkey mind.” It turns out that the original post was on one of my favorite sites, The Tutor House. It was a guest post by educational therapist, Anne-Marie Morey.

Her idea is simple. Explain to kids that all of our brains spit out random thoughts on a pretty regular basis, like monkeys jumping from tree to tree, making it hard for us to focus on one thing. Tell them that a great way to rein in the monkey mind is to recognize when it is jumping to another tree. This is called a “monkey thought.” If we recognize the monkey thought as it is happening, we can bring our attention back to the subject at hand before we get derailed.

monkey thoughts derail focusThat sounded great to me. So I modified a clipart image of a monkey to include a thought bubble, where my students and I could keep track of our monkey thoughts. Then I printed the page and placed it in my tutoring folder. I couldn’t wait to try it.

Fast forward to this morning. I introduced my 10-year-old autistic student, Tom, to the concept of the monkey mind and monkey thoughts. He was intrigued, asking whether I have monkey thoughts too. I told him that I have them all the time, but that when I see them coming, I do my best to stop them in their tracks and get back to what I was doing. I proposed that we keep track of our monkey thoughts during the session, and that maybe, just maybe, over time we could both get to the point where we wouldn’t have any monkey thoughts for an entire session! Tom was on board.

Right away I caught myself thinking about something I wanted to introduce in the following week’s session. I reported my monkey thought to Tom and recorded it on the sheet. Tom was next. In the middle of a hot game of division checkers, he started talking about the Mona Lisa (Tom is an avid fan of da Vinci). We looked at each other and he said, “Aw, that was a monkey thought.” I placed a mark in Tom’s column.

And so the session went. Once Tom had 3 marks on the page, he started negotiating. “If I win multiplication dominoes can I take 2 marks off?” I agreed, saying that this was, after all, our first time trying to control our monkey thoughts.

When the session was wrapping up, I proposed that starting next week, we should not take off any marks once they are recorded. Then we’ll be able to see how well we’re doing from week to week. Tom grudgingly agreed.

We’re In This Together

giving a hand upOne thing that I feel is very important in this approach to helping a student improve his or her focus is to make it a “we” thing, as opposed to a “you” thing. I volunteered myself for the first mark on the sheet, so Tom did not feel that I was pointing fingers when I gave him a mark for changing the subject. We were in it together, and that made it more comfortable for him.*

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works over time, but I was very encouraged by our first try! I’ll keep you posted!

* I borrowed this idea from a story I once heard about Winston Churchill. I have no idea whether it is true but it illustrates a great approach for working with other people. At some state dinner or other, Churchill was informed by the hostess that Lord something or other had just pocketed one of her silver spoons, and she wasn’t sure what to do. Without a word, Churchill picked up a spoon from the table and slipped it into his pocket. Approaching the would-be spoon thief, Churchill pulled the spoon out of his own pocket and said something to the effect of, “The game is up — they’re on to us. I guess we’ll both have to return our spoons.” The stolen spoon was returned and Lord whatever-his-name-was saved face.

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