Power of Attention


Big Idea: Whatever we focus on, we get more of.

Goal: To create images of  expected behavior in an adult’s/child’s brain. 

Skill: Assertiveness 

Structures: Visual Routines, Daily Schedules, Conflict Resolution Time Machine

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Imagine that you’re walking down a dark sidewalk, using a flashlight to light your path. Whatever you shine the flashlight on is illuminated. Everything else fades into the background.

Our attention works the same way. When we put our attention on something, we place an inherent value on it. Our attention signals what we value and teaches children what to value too.

Consider your classroom, home, and/or relationships:

  • Do you focus on hurtful or helpful behavior?
  • Do you emphasize problems or solutions?
  • Do you tell children what not to do, or do you teach them what to do instead?

When you focus on punishing hurtful behavior instead of teaching helpful behavior, you will see more hurtfulness. When you spend more time talking about problems than finding solutions, you’ll get more problems.

Focusing your attention may seem simple, but its power is far-reaching. The key is to become conscious. What do you value? What outcomes do you want? Is this where you’re focusing your attention?

With the Power of Attention, you can consciously choose to focus your attention on what you truly value. You will recognize the good in yourself and others, teach children what to do, and generate more of the behaviors and outcomes you desire.

Why do we tend to focus on what we don’t want?

You might be thinking, Wow! That sounds easy! But as you start practicing your Power of Attention, you’ll notice that your focus is repeatedly pulled toward what you don’t want.


The primary function of your brain is safety. Because the structures of your brain are constantly scanning the environment for threats, your instinct is to focus on what is going wrong. What could be a threat to your safety and well-being?

This is doubly true when you’re in a survival or emotional state. In the lower centers, your brain goes into defensive mode. It puts all its energy into alerting you to the danger and stopping the threat.

There’s no energy left for solving the problem! And as long as your attention is focused on the problem (or threat), it’s not open to a solution.

When you’re upset, you’re always focused on what you don’t want. To focus on what you do want, you must learn composure and self-control. Once you’re calm, you can reach your executive state and access the skills you need to focus on what you want and find solutions.

The Power of Attention in the Wider World

Your attention significantly impacts your view of yourself, others and the world around you. In our culture, we focus too much attention on lack, wrongness and “not-enoughness.” When this happens, we constantly judge others and ourselves. We stifle our creativity, uniqueness and ability to form genuine connections. Ultimately, we hurt our potential for growth and success.

We would be much happier and more effective if we viewed ourselves as enough. In order to experience yourself as enough, you must view the world and the people in it as enough too.

Practice becoming more aware of where you are focusing your attention. When you find that you’re focused on judging or fault-finding, try shifting your attention to empathy, positive intent and gratitude. See the positive, have faith that all is well and actively calm yourself.

Where we place our attention literally alters the structure of our brains. The term neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change in response to changing needs. When we focus our Power of Attention, we direct our brain’s neuroplasticity. When we focus our attention on negative messaging, we strengthen these pathways and become more reactive and hurtful. We also put stress on our immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems.

On the other hand, when we focus our attention on the positive, we strengthen these pathways to become healthier, happier and more loving. We can present our best selves to others, including the children in our care.

The Power of Attention with Children

If we want children to be successful, we must learn to focus on the positive actions we want them to use. It isn’t easy. We’re accustomed to saying:

  • Don’t run.
  • Stop hitting.
  • Don’t touch that!
  • Why are your toys all over the floor?
  • You know you’re not supposed to say that word!

The problem is that instructions about what not to do aren’t especially helpful. If you were learning a new skill and someone kept telling you, “That’s not how you do it,” or, “Not like that,” you’d probably grow frustrated and ask, “Well, what am I supposed to do?”

In fact, children younger than five or six have difficulty comprehending negative verbs, such as “do not.” Tell a child, “Don’t run,” and his brain processes, “Run.” It’s no wonder children are sometimes confused by our angry responses to their disobedience!

In Conscious Discipline, we understand that children use the tools they have to meet their needs. Misbehavior indicates that a skill is missing. When we use the phrases above, we aren’t teaching children a better way. We aren’t providing them with any new skills or tools.

Let’s say that when a child wants a toy, he snatches from his classmates. You can tell him not to snatch ten times a day, but if that’s the only way he knows to get a toy, he will continue snatching until he learns a better way. To replace the old skill, the child needs a new skill. You must tell the child what to do instead.

You could say, for example, “When you want a toy, say, ‘May I have a turn?’” Now the child has a new tool in his toolbox and a more effective, less hurtful way to meet his needs.

By using descriptive language about what to do, we can focus the child’s attention on the actions we want them to use. The key word here is descriptive. Telling a child to “be nice” provides little helpful information. Instead, tell the child exactly what you want her to do: “Say ‘Excuse me’ when you want your friend to move.”

Now, instead of simply telling you not to say, “Do not,” I’ll provide you with some helpful tools to use instead!

Power of Attention Tool #1: Pivoting

We use the word “pivot” to describe shifting your attention from what you don’t want to what you do want. This shift is crucial to effectively teach children and create positive change.

When you feel yourself getting triggered by a child’s behavior, take a deep breath. Say to yourself, “I’m safe. Keep breathing. I can handle this.” Then ask, “Do I want more of this behavior?”

If the answer is no, you can choose to pivot, shifting from what you don’t want to what you do want and then stating it assertively.

Here are a few examples:

  • “Don’t touch that!” to, “Hold my hand so I can help you touch delicate objects safely.”
  • “No hitting!” to, “When you want to get your friend’s attention, tap her gently on the shoulder like this and say her name.”
  • “Stop grabbing!” to, “When you want a marker, say, ‘May I borrow the marker please?’”

Pivoting Practice Activity

Pivoting is a difficult skill that takes a lot of practice. Since we’re more likely to remember experiences that are accompanied by motor activities, you may wish to sharpen your pivoting skills with the following activity.

  • Step 1: On your own or with a partner, make a list of scenarios that are likely to trigger you in the classroom or with your own children. Then, complete Steps 2-4 for each of your triggers.
  • Step 2: Walk two steps, focusing on what you don’t want in an upset tone (e.g., “No hitting!”).
  • Step 3: Physically pivot, rotating on the balls of your feet and turning yourself in the opposite direction. Take deep breaths and say, “I’m safe. Keep breathing. I can handle this.”
  • Step 4: Take two steps forward and transform your negative statement into a positive statement that clearly tells the child what to do (e.g., “When you want to get your friend’s attention, tap her gently on the shoulder like this and say her name”).

Power of Attention Tool #2: Noticing

The Conscious Discipline skill of noticing has many uses, including helping children develop their Power of Attention. Noticing requires us to describe what is happening without judging it. When we notice something, we bring it to our awareness. This allows us the opportunity to change the thought or behavior (if we choose).

Noticing children directs their Power of Attention in the same way, creating self-awareness and empowering change. When you notice a child, you describe what the child is doing without judging their actions as either positive or negative. It’s also helpful to include physical modeling of the action.

Here’s a video of noticing in action in a classroom:


Now, read the following statements and note the difference between judging and noticing:

Noticing Judging
Lauren, you pushed your chair in just like this (demonstrate), so our classroom is safe. Thank you for pushing in your chair.
Jonah, you picked up your supplies and put them back in the bin just like this (demonstrate) so our School Family can use them again tomorrow. That was helpful! Look how clean your table is! I wish everyone cleaned up like Jonah does!
Derrick, you worked hard on number four and kept trying until you figured it out. That took persistence. Great job, Derrick! You’re so smart!

Power of Attention Tool #3: Visual Expectations

When we use the Power of Attention, our goal is to help children form a clear picture of what to do in their minds. We can accomplish this through descriptive language, physical modeling and visual expectations.

Post pictures of what you want children to do throughout your classroom or your home. This may include visual schedules and class-made routine books featuring photos of children successfully completing their daily activities. You can also post pictures of expected behaviors, such as how to sit during Circle Time, where to put the blocks when it’s time to clean up, or how the bathroom should look when it’s clean.

When you create a clear picture of what you want, your day is less stressful, and children are more successful.

Final Thoughts: Power of Attention

Focusing on what you don’t want creates more of what you don’t want in your life. Become conscious of the occasions when you tell yourself and others what not to do. Listen to your internal speech and the way you talk to others.

Then, redirect your attention by focusing on what to do and what you do want. If you’re upset, this will require you to gain your composure before you can access your executive state and direct your Power of Attention.

As you learn to focus on what you want, you’ll see more of what you want in your life. You’ll have the power to view yourself and the world around you more positively, create more happiness and success, and inspire lasting change in your behavior and the behavior of children.

Next Steps

More Helpful Resources for the Power of Attention