129. Distractibility

Please bear with me while I suggest an alternative way to look at distractibility. If you have a child who is distractible – perhaps one who has been diagnosed and labelled – it may be hard to
hear this. If you are one of the diagnosticians, you may feel that my perspective on this issue is naive, counterproductive, and maybe even dangerous. But I’ve sometimes used this perspective in working with children, and seen good effects. A person who is distractible is someone who does not attend to the matters some other people want them to attend to. The distractible person may want to pay attention, to some degree, but doesn’t. The result is that this person ends up having difficulty doing many of the things that would add up to success in school.
As a distractible person, I’ll flit from point to point on this subject. There are so many things I want to say, and I’m afraid I’ll forget some of them if I try to write an organized, coherent article. Maybe when I’m done I’ll reorganize the article so that you can follow me better. Maybe not. Maybe my distractible style will help me make my point.
A child in one of my classes had a reputation for having low intelligence. Test scores and a host of knowledgeable adults had helped to build this reputation. So a science consultant who came to my class was baffled when this child seemed to have more success than any other child with a certain lesson. It was a lesson that involved noticing details of a phenomenon. I suggested that a child with “low intelligence” might have more success because there were fewer preconceptions. Preconceptions can be distracting. When I took my class on that three-day field trip to Cape Cod I keep referring to, the distractible children in my class were hard to pick out. If I asked children to find as many insects as they could on a beach, some distractible children had an easier time of it. If you do too good a job paying attention, you may sometimes miss a lot. I’m glad I was distractible as a teacher. It made it easier to keep my class focussed; I’d immediately be distracted by comments or movements that were not “right,” and correct them. Distractible children can’t get away with as much if they have a distractible teacher. When I work with a distractible child, I assume that the attention span will be short. If the rest of the class is supposed to do something that requires concentration, I build distractions into the modification for this child. As a volunteer, I’m freer to do this: “Write word number three, and then squeeze my hand as hard as you can.” The child is more willing to write word number three, and afterwards, to write word number four, if there is an activity in between that has nothing to do with either word. If we accept distractibility as a given, and plan accordingly, it’s less of a problem. I’m not denying that it’s a problem, but imagine being captured by aliens who wanted to experiment with you. They wanted to see whether you, like them, could count the number of meteors in a meteor shower. If that ever happens, I hope you’re sufficiently distractible.

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