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Why Saying “Pay Attention” Makes No Sense

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When basic brain processing functions are not in place, it’s not always a choice to stay focused.

I’m not sure who coined the expression, “pay attention,” but that person obviously did not understand how the brain works.

First, the idea of paying attention is odd in that it infers the person receiving the information then owes something to the person who’s speaking or to the author of something being read.

But, what if those people are utterly boring? It happens, right?

In such case, why are the rest of us still obligated to forfeit our attention when the originator of such information is clearly dull? After all, even a highly well-organized brain resists paying attention to something that’s of no interest.

But then, how is attention affected when information is interesting and important—yet we have a disorganized brain? It turns out . . . this is a very significant variable.

Here are just a few examples of basic brain skills we may take for granted (if we have them) and how they may affect attention if we do not.

Primitive Reflexes
In natural brain organization, primitive reflexes are supposed to be integrated (most within the first year of life) so that voluntary movement and control are then possible.

However, when primitive reflexes are retained, we have to expend a lot of cortical activity trying to override them—which then distracts us from the task at hand.

Some retained primitive reflexes specifically trigger misconceptions about attention. For example, a retained Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) often makes it difficult to cross the midline to retrieve information that was stored in one hemisphere of the brain. In such case, we act as though we have no idea what someone has previously told us—that is, until we finally cross over to that side (which can be a few minutes or even hours later).

Or, when primitive reflexes are not integrated, we may not have acquired enough stability, especially around the midline and trunk, needed to sit still. So we constantly “wiggle” in our seat, which is also often interpreted as not paying attention.

Lower Brain Development
When the pons and midbrain are fully developed, we acquire automatic basic brain functions. For example, a fully developed midbrain automatically prioritizes and filters extraneous sensations (e.g. relegates clothing tags, the hum of an air conditioner, etc. to the “background”), sending on only important information to the cortex. That then makes it easy to focus on the task at hand.

In contrast, when midbrain development is incomplete, the cortex becomes bombarded with too much sensory information. So now, it must first direct its attention to that flood of sensory information as it tries to sort out what’s important and what’s not.

In general, whenever pons and midbrain development are incomplete, the cortex is preoccupied with finding ways to compensate for those missing, automatic brain functions—sometimes with success, sometimes not. But in all cases, the cortex is no longer able to do it’s “own job” as efficiently as if it weren’t preoccupied with picking up the slack for incomplete lower brain development.

Body Awareness
When we have good body awareness, we have an internal body map that allows us to know where our body parts are and what they are doing—without ever having to look at them.

However, if we do not have innate body awareness, we become distracted from whatever we are doing as soon as we don’t naturally sense a body part. For example, if we don’t “feel” where our feet are, we’re going to be preoccupied with that (which is why we may start tapping our foot)—no matter how much we may want to stay focused on whatever we’re supposed to be doing. In short, the brain will always address survival needs over everything else.

Vestibular Processing
Our vestibular system gives us many automatic functions, such as keeping our balance, staying alert, having good muscle tone, and maintaining a stable visual filed.

However, poor vestibular processing interferes with much of what we do throughout the day, including our ability to stay focused. For example, poor vestibular processing may make it impossible to “sit still and pay attention.” That’s because rocking movements “wake up” a sluggish system, whereas sitting still often results in zoning out. Low muscle tone also makes it difficult to sit in chairs without slouching or slumping.

Our attention is additionally challenged if our visual field is instable, since words may now actually move around the page as we read and write.

Poor balance is also a distraction. For example, we may have to expend extra cortical activity just to ensure that we don’t fall off the chair, or we may need to even get up and truly move around (since it’s much easier to balance while moving than while being still).

Eye Teaming
Good eye teaming allows our eyes to converge and diverge and align to see just one object, even though each eye is in a different field of vision. We need our eyes to team whenever we do near-point tasks, including (but not limited to) reading and writing.

However, without good eye teaming, we may see distortions when we read and write, such as words may blur or lines of text shift together, which then makes it difficult to concentrate. Consequently, we may look up and even gaze out the window since such actions provide temporary relief from the distorted text (staring into the distance does not require eye teaming).

And yes, it’s entirely possible that what started out as a compensation for poor eye teaming (looking up and away from the work) ends up distracting us with something else ( we’re now interested in whatever is going on outside the window)—but our original inattentiveness started with the poor eye teaming.

Keep in mind that people may also be missing basic brain processing skills than what are noted here. Or, people can be missing two, three or more automatic brain functions all at the same time—after all, there’s nothing that says we only get “whammied” once.

So, when we realize that a person’s brain may not be functioning as intended, we truly begin to appreciate how attention is not always a choice—even though saying, “pay attention,” infers otherwise.

That’s why I actually avoid ever thinking or using that phrase. Instead, I ask myself: How can I best engage (whomever)? That’s a very different mindset than just expecting attention.

Rather, such thinking now shines the spotlight on me to figure out how to make it easy for others to receive and process what I want to share. It also challenges me to regularly apply what I know about the brain and attention.

So, here’s a crazy thought. What if everyone agrees to chuck the phrase “pay attention” and, instead, focuses on how to engage others when sharing information? With that mindset, how might school be different? How might home life be different? How many kids would be so very grateful?

Maybe it’s time to find out.

The Taking Care of Business Quiz

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If feels good to “take care of business.”

What is Taking Care of Business?

It’s a cortex way of getting everyone’s needs met. When using this approach, we:

  • Know what we are needing and wanting
  • Consider what others are needing and wanting
  • Keep both in mind when exploring options
  • Are specific and clear as to what we’d like to happen and why
  • Avoid being both defensive or offensive
  • Offer doables that move the situation forward
  • Ask instead of tell
  • Infuse humor and creative thinking whenever applicable

Quiz Directions

So, how well do you “take care of business?”

To find out, encourage your kids and other family members to take the quiz.  Read each situation listed in the quiz and the possible ways to respond. Choose the answer that is most similar to what you’d likely do if you were in that circumstance.

When you’re finished, read the answers and explanations to learn which do and do not reflect taking care of business and why.

To note: This quiz includes problems that both kids and adults often face. So, if a situation seems more applicable for a child or vice-versa, just modify it. For example, a child who does not want to take out the trash can be easily changed to be an adult who does not want to do a particular assignment at work.

Last, it’s important to remember: Taking care of business doesn’t mean that we automatically get the outcome we desire. But, hands-down, it’s still the most likely way we’ll move forward.

The Quiz

Situation 1: You’ve heard that someone is spreading gossip about you that is not true.

a) You bad-mouth that person, as well.

b) You do nothing, and try to avoid that person as much as possible.

c) You call that person out in front of others, demanding an apology.

d) You approach the person and say that you’re thinking she may have some misinformation and would like to clarify (and then do that).

 

Situation 2: You’re informed of a new rule when you take your father to his health clinic. Starting today, all patients must show a photo ID. However, your father did not bring any ID with him.

a) You reschedule another appointment (and ensure your father brings his ID).

b) You firmly point out that this rule is new, and you were not informed of it previously—so it should not apply today.

c) You acknowledge that you don’t want the person checking patients in to get in trouble by sidestepping the rule, but you’re frustrated since you’ve driven a long way and your father needs this appointment. So, you ask if there are other ways to verify that’s him (e.g. confirm his address, phone number, social security number) that’s already in the computer and . . . with a twinkle in your eye, use your hands to frame his face and say, “And this could be the photo ID.”

d) You tell the person checking patients in (who knows your father) that it’s silly to ask him for an ID since he already greeted him by name.

 

Situation 3: You’re sitting on the sidelines during the tournament, and it doesn’t appear that you’re ever going to get to play.

a) You sit stoically, but then break down (i.e. become upset) once you’re alone with your parents.

b) You act as though you don’t care while everyone else is being subbed in the game (don’t even watch all of the game).

c) You get up and demand that the coach gives you a chance to play, pointing out that you paid your money to be in this tournament, too.

d) You are fully engaged from the sidelines, watching what players on the field do that may have earned them time on the field. After the game is over, you ask the coach to give you three specifics to work on that may result in more playing time for you.

 

Situation 4: Someone has just criticized you in front of others.

a) You defend yourself.

b) You say something that is critical of that person.

c) You say nothing.

d) You respond by shining the spotlight back on that person and saying, “What were you hoping I’d do with that information?”

 

Situation 5: You don’t like the chore of taking out the trash, but that’s the job you’ve been assigned.

a) You whine whenever you have to do this.

b) You approach your parents and say: I know that we all need to pitch in to help around the house, but you may not know . . .I really don’t like taking out the trash. Is there another chore I could do instead of that one?

c) You do a terrible job (e.g. spill trash), hoping that your parents will think they need to assign this chore to someone else.

d) You do it, but you scowl to make it clear that you don’t like this job.

 

Situation 6: Various co-workers never clean up their dishes or trash after eating in the staff lounge.

a) You complain about those who don’t clean up to those who do.

b) You send an email to all your co-workers saying, “Due to budget cuts, we’ve had to lay off the maid for the staff lounge.”

c)  You send an email to everyone saying, “Due to budget cuts, we’ve had to lay off the maid for the staff lounge;)  So, how about we agree to a day where each of us is in charge of making sure all dishes are washed and all trash is cleared from the tables?  If you’re willing to do so, please email me which day(s) would work best for you to assume that role. Thanks.”

d) Pick up after those who leave their dishes and trash—and do not say a word.

 

Answers

Situation 1: You’ve heard that someone is spreading gossip about you that is not true.

Answer: d

This response does not judge the person or assume she was trying to “hurt” you by telling others false information. It also gives you a chance to clarify, without putting the other person on the defensive.

Responses “a” and “c” will only likely escalate the situation. Even if in response “c” you note what information was false, that part of the message won’t be heard since the approach is accusatory and focused on making the other person admit she was wrong.

Note that response “b” is only a possible solution if gossip truly does not bother you or whatever is being spread will not cause future problems (as a result of others hearing and acting on the misinformation) or if you can actually avoid that person. Those are a lot of variables, which is why this response may not actually take care of business.

 

Situation 2: You’re informed of a new rule when you take your father to his health clinic: Starting today, all patients must show a photo ID. However, your father did not bring any ID with him.

Answer: c

This response acknowledges that the person who works at the clinic needs to do his job as directed while also giving him an opportunity to meet your need (i.e. have your father keep his appointment).

Response “a” meets the need of the person checking patients in, but it does not meet your father’s need to keep his appointment that day.  Responses “b” and “d” do not acknowledge that the person who works at the clinic is trying to follow the new rules and will likely put that person on the defensive.

 

Situation 3: You’re sitting on the sidelines during the tournament, and it doesn’t appear that you’re ever going to get to play.

Answer: d

This response allows the coach to know what you’re needing and wanting while shining the spotlight on him to give you specific ways to improve.

Responses “a,” “b,” and “c” do nothing to move you forward (i.e. get more playing time). In fact, response “c” is just likely to put the coach on the defensive.

 

Situation 4: Someone has just criticized you in front of others.

Answer: d

This response sidesteps a need to defend yourself, while asking the person who made the comment to clarify his intent behind sharing the comment.  By doing the latter, the focus is immediately placed on the person who made the comment, rather than on you.

Responses “a” and “b” will only escalate the situation.  If you say nothing (response “c”), you may still antagonize the person if he thinks you’re ignoring him (and he will then likely criticize you more).

 

Situation 5: You don’t like the chore of taking out the trash, but that’s the job you’ve been assigned to do.

Answer: b

This response acknowledges that all family members need to contribute and help around the house, while opening the door to explore whether there’s any flexibility in who does what job.

Response “a,” c,” and “d” do not take care of business because there is no acknowledgment as to why you might be asked to do this chore. Moreover, if continual whining or scowling or passive aggressive behavior (i.e. doing a terrible job) ultimately gets you out of doing the chore, you have not only missed an opportunity to take care of business, but your brain now also incorrectly registers that such unproductive behavior may be helpful.

 

Situation 6: Various coworkers never clean up their dishes or trash after eating in the staff lounge.

Answer: c

This response begins by using humor. Yet, unlike “b,” this answer also specifically notes what isn’t being cleaned in the lounge and offers a solution/doable to improve the situation. This response additionally asks, rather than tells, co-workers to take responsibility. Last, it gives yet another doable by spelling out exactly how coworkers can respond if they agree to be in charge of clean-up for a day.

In contrast, response “a” (like “b”) does nothing to improve the situation.

Yes, response “d” ensures that the staff lounge is clean. But, over time, you may start to feel as though you’re the only one being responsible and, therefore, start to judge or resent those who continue to leave their mess, as well as those who do nothing to remedy the situation.

 

 

Why Kids Lie

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After our child makes a poor decision, does he believe that lying is his best response?

There are three reasons kids lie.  When we understand those differences, we know how best to respond.

Kids lie because:

1) They don’t process information well.

In such instances, they really think they heard you (or someone else) say something—even when that’s not the case. There’s often even some shred of “truth” to their fabrication.

For example, suppose our child hears us say that we’d love to go to Hawaii for Christmas, but her brain processes that as  . . . We’re going to Hawaii for Christmas!

So that’s what she tells everyone. She may even get upset when called out for her “lie”—since she really believes that’s what was said.

2) They don’t interact well in social conversations.

The intent, here, is not to create a lie to evade responsibility for something they may have said and done.

Instead, such kids come up with something often wildly preposterous as a way to circumvent feeling uneasy and to start or become part of an on-going conversation. For example, they may say that they saw a famous pop star when they were at the store.  Or they’ll say something such as, “It snowed at my house yesterday”—but they live by the beach in Southern California.

When called out on the whopper—which is what usually happens—the child insists that whatever she said was the truth. In fact, the more someone challenges the whopper, the more adamant she becomes.

So the whopper becomes a way to shift an initial friendly conversation into an argument. And guess what?  That kind of interaction actually feels good and familiar to the child who told the whopper. So, now she’s at ease (which was the original, subconscious goal).

3) They want to avoid judgment and punishment. 

From these kids’ perspective, it’s more appealing to lie than tell the truth because the former (at least) creates the possibility of avoiding a negative response.  In other words, this kind of lie is more of a protective, fear-based reaction to how such kids project someone might respond if they “find out” what they did.

There’s a common thread among kids who tell these kinds of lies.  Usually, those in charge of them tend to be attached to an outcome, judge if such outcomes don’t meet their criteria, use lots of judgmental words in their daily interactions, and resort to punishment if behavior is not up to their standard.

So how do we respond to such different kinds of lies?

If we realize that our child doesn’t process information well, we initiate a general discussion on this topic. We make sure to do this when we’re all “in our cortex” (versus right after there’s been a miscommunication).

We may even play the game “Telephone” to underscore the idea that communications are not always processed as they were actually said.  We then establish some kind of code word to use if our child now says something that she believes to be true, but we know . . .  wasn’t actually processed as intended.

At various times, we can also ask our child to tell us what she thinks we just said (especially if we don’t think she processed the message). Doing so gives us a chance to clarify any misinterpretation, right then.

If our child tells whoppers, we no longer call her out.  In fact, we completely ignore all whoppers. Instead, we use that as our cue to see how we might include our child in the current conversation in a way that puts her at ease. We may also seek ways to help her, in general, become more skilled in the art of making conversation.

If our child tells lies as a fear-based reaction, we first reflect on how we actually deal with mistakes in our home that perpetuates such fear.  Do we yell? Do we judge? Are we demeaning? Do we immediately punish?

If so, then it’s really no surprise that our child concludes it’s better to lie than tell the truth—even though such conclusion is not viewed similarly by others.

But trust is also a two-way street. While we want to be able to trust our child, here’s the second part of that equation: Does she trust us?  In other words, why doesn’t our child believe she can tell us the truth?

That may be a hard question to answer. But more times than not, such answers are the catalyst for changing a child who lies into one who tells the truth.

We may also ponder these questions: Has our child ever had a positive experience where telling the truth served her well? Has anyone actually taught her how to take responsibility if she makes a poor decision?

I’m not advocating that if kids tell the truth, then they just waltz away without any more ado.  Not at all.

But if our kids don’t first trust us enough to share the truth, then we miss incredible opportunities to teach them.

For example, when they feel secure enough to admit when they’ve “messed up,” we can now help them explore ways to rectify that situation. We can teach them not only to learn from their mistakes, but also how to accept responsibility for their actions. It seems like those experiences would build ever-lasting character and serve our child—in the long run—far more than issuing a generic punishment for lying.

So I’m not sure that it’s ever helpful to view a child as “a liar.”  Instead, we can opt to hear such responses (if they happen) as mere feedback that gives us insights—both about our child and ourselves—so that we may know how to respond in a way that moves everyone forward.

Giving and Receiving

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Do we give to others, but deny others to do the same for us?

Giving and receiving are part of the same circle; we can’t have one without the other.

Yet, after we’ve become parents, that circle is often lopsided, with the greater emphasis on the giving side. Somewhere along the line, we seem to forget how to also receive graciously.  We’re overwhelmed, tired, frustrated—but when people offer to help, we often brush them aside, saying, “I’m okay.”

My dad, who lives completely on his own, now needs help getting his weekly groceries. Mind you, he can still do all the shopping; he just can’t drive to the store any more. So, I wanted to arrange a schedule where family members came and took him to the store each week.

As expected, his first response was no.  He just could pay someone to do this.  But I was armed with my giving and receiving speech.

I told him he had given so much throughout his life, yet I couldn’t recall a single time he had ever asked someone else for help. I talked about his lopsided circle when it came to giving and receiving, and how it wasn’t fair to my sisters or me if he didn’t allow us to help him.  I knew I had to offer a fresh perspective in order to circumvent his knee-jerk “I can take care of this myself” response.

Guess what? We’ve not only set up a grocery store schedule, but he loves doing it this way! He still gets to do the part that’s fun for him (picking out his own grapefruit, deciding what cookies he wants, etc.), all while enjoying the company of one of his girls during the excursion.

But we don’t have to wait until we’re 94 to open some space to allow others to give to us.  However, the first step may be to make it known that, yes, we’d love some help.

That’s especially true if we’re now thinking, “Well, no one ever offers to help me.” Chances are  . . . they did a long time ago. But after so many refusals, people do quit asking. Of course, we don’t ever have an expectation that someone should help us.

So, what else gets in the way of receiving graciously?  There’s pride (I’m confident and capable) or self-judgment (I should be able to handle this on my own) or just plain habit (I’m used to doing everything myself).Yet, each of these thoughts push others away from helping us, and so our giving and receiving circle remains lopsided.

For kids, receiving is a natural.  However, their giving and receiving circle is often tilted heavily on the receiving side.

So how can we balance that? Well, we can encourage our kids to routinely give gifts that require no money.  For example, they can give thanks for the rain and sunshine (since we couldn’t live without either!).  They can give their time, such as visiting a senior home or even just calling up Grandma or Grandpa to chat.  They can give away something they own to someone who may appreciate it more. They can give a smile to someone who is feeling down.

Sharing is also a form of giving, so kids can be encouraged to share a toy or treat, or even share a creative idea that they may have.

In truth, there are endless possibilities when it comes to giving and receiving.

So maybe this upcoming holiday becomes an opportunity to begin balancing our giving and receiving circles if they’re out of whack. For example, if we fall short in the latter category, we now open space for others to help us.  If our kids fall short in the former, we now redirect them to adopt more of a giving than receiving mindset.

And when we do so, we discover that the spirit of giving and receiving . . .  is truly one and the same.

Why Kids Slouch

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We can glean clues about a child’s brain organization by how he sits in a chair.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to associate slouching with being inattentive.  That’s why we often hear adults telling kids, “Sit up, and pay attention!”

Yet, I know many kids who actually pay less attention when made to sit up straight.

How can that be?

Well, some kids have retained primitive reflexes.  In such case, sitting upright in a chair isn’t as automatic as it should be.

For example, a child with a retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex will experience difficulty doing movement that goes against the pull of gravity.  So these kids can only sit upright for a very short period of time before being “pulled down” (i.e. gravity wins).

This then explains why such kids sink lower and lower into their chair, or they sprawl across the desk when reading and writing.  At least, in these positions, they can start to concentrate on the task as hand (they’re no longer distracted by fighting gravity) . . . that is, until they’re, once again, told to sit up straight.

Some teachers mistakenly think the child who always puts his head on the desk while writing is not going to bed at an appropriate time. She may even call the parent about this.

If the parent does not also understand the connection between retained primitive reflexes and difficulty sitting upright in a chair, she may now put her child to bed earlier (even though she’s a little miffed about the call because her child does go to bed at a decent hour).

Yet that mom can put her child to bed at noon or earlier—and he’s still going to go down, down, down when sitting in a chair.  He’s wired to do so.

But now, the teacher may think the parent is ignoring her bedtime concern or lying about his real bedtime. After all, the child is still always sprawled over the desk. Since the mother is putting the child to bed earlier, she may start to think the teacher is just out to get her son.  And all the while, no one understands the real reason the child slouches.

We’ve actually all experienced fighting gravity while sitting up. Think when we’ve had a bad flu. Suddenly, trying to sit up (let alone straight) is very cumbersome. We’d much rather be lying down, right?  Imagine, then, how difficult this is for kids with primitive reflexes, who have to deal with this all the time.

So, maybe the next time we see a child slouching . . . we let it be.

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