Paying Attention vs. Being Engaged


We hear it all the time — kids being told to pay attention. 

From an adult’s point of view, this really means — think about what I am telling you to think about.

And when kids don’t look like they are thinking about whatever is on the adult’s agenda, they are said to be “not paying attention.”

In a school setting, these kids may not fit common descriptions of engagement, such as those offered by school principal Ben Johnson, which I featured on my Rules of Engagement page. I think Johnson makes good points about what engagement can look like in a classroom, but over my years of homeschooling, I’ve become aware that kids can also be extremely engaged in learning even when they do not have the appearance of “paying attention” that adults expect.

I’ve also realized that looking engaged takes its own energy and focus, and that kids in a homeschooling setting can have the luxury of not looking engaged, if their parents allow for it.

For example, my active young boys played constantly and quietly while I read to them. They built with Lego bricks on the floor in front of the couch, they played in the sandbox for hours, they whittled with their pocket knives at the picnic table, and they wove on their homemade cardboard looms — as I read book after book to them.

You may have heard me tell this story at a homeschool conference — I even read aloud to my sons as they circled around me on their scooters in the parking lot of our apartment building. I remember fondly that we covered all the Greek myths this way.

Certainly, this fits no description of what paying attention should look like. And yet, without a doubt, they took it all in. I knew they did, because they talked about what I’d read, they created art that reflected the reading, they asked questions about the books, they did projects that showed they’d integrated the knowledge.

They simply did not have to spend a lot of energy looking like they were paying attention in order to learn.

In my upcoming talk on Engaged Homeschooling for the 2014 VaHomeschoolers Conference and Resource Fair, I’ll compare and contrast the appearance of paying attention with the authenticity of engagement.

Paying attention vs Engagement

  • Do not automatically equate kids looking like they’re “paying attention” with “engagement” – and help your kids know the difference.
  • Children who are said to be “not paying attention” are probably attending to something, just not what the authority figure wants.
  • Children can fail to display signs of paying attention – of attending behaviors – and still be highly engaged in learning.
  • Some children at some ages in some situations need to display non-attending behaviors while learning certain things. For example, fidgety and physical children often need to be doing something while listening or thinking, in order to engage. 
  • A good goal is to help these fidgety, physical kids how to “do something” while listening — but without disrupting others.
  • Attending behaviors are developmental, personal, and situational.
  • Attending behavior should be learned and can be learned by most kids for reasons of etiquette, respect, and social/academic acceptance – but should not be confused with automatically indicating authentic engagement.
  • Provide kids with tools and developmentally appropriate expectations for learning to demonstrate respectful attending behaviors — but to enhance learning at your house, remember you can also let them learn when they don’t look like they’re learning.
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