614. Selena

Selena is one of the children I work with. Very often, she seems to be in her own world, sometimes concentrating on a useless task she’s given herself (e.g., scraping the yellow paint off a pencil), but more often, reading a book. The books she reads are the kind teachers often wish children would read, but she reads while Rick, the teacher, is talking to the class, and she misses much of what he says. For example, one time all of the children had handed in papers, but one didn’t have a name on it. Rick handed back the corrected papers and then held up the one without a name on it. He got everyone’s attention (he thought) and asked whose paper it was. No one answered, and perplexed, he put the paper down. A few minutes later, Selena finished whatever chapter she’d been reading and said to Rick, “I didn’t get my paper.”
Selena had been reading, and her attention had been lost deep inside her book. She’s in the habit of getting into books and blocking out the sounds of the classroom, many of which don’t seem to mean much to her. Unfortunately, the teacher’s words (one of the sounds of the classroom) often contain information that could help Selena do well in school. So far, she’s been able to find ways to compensate for missing what she misses; she’s intelligent, and she’s not falling behind much.
There’s a lot of talk nowadays about “attention deficit,” and some adults I talk with are tempted to apply that phrase to Selena. But I think her ability to attend is remarkable; I don’t know many children who can focus so well on reading (or scraping the yellow paint off a pencil) while so much else is going on. I think there’s no attention deficit there – just a “priority deficit;” Selena would succeed in school more if she had a better sense of when to attend to what.
I asked Selena whether she was able to listen to Rick while she was also reading a book, and she said she could. I asked her whether she wanted me to talk to Rick about this, and she said she did; reading is important to her, and Rick often tells her to put her book away. I’ve spoken with Rick, and though he doesn’t like telling a child to stop reading – though it goes against his grain – he really wants Selena to be part of the class, and that often involves listening to instructions or explanations.
I volunteered to monitor Selena’s attention – to sit by her whenever she’s reading and cue her in when something important is being said. But Rick said that Selena has got to learn to monitor herself, and that the scenario I suggested would get other children to see what they would consider an unfair exception to policy. I think Rick respects Selena’s love of reading (though perhaps not her fondness for taking paint off pencils) and regrets ever having to say, “Selena, please put away the book.” And I think he was tempted by my offer to monitor Selena’s attention so that she could read as he spoke words that didn’t apply to her. But I think he’s wise to remind me and himself that Selena has to learn to monitor her own attention.

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