Low attention is not a moral failure.
The picture I got from talking to the teacher about the boy was very different from the picture I got when I worked with him.
“He leaves things blank on worksheets,” his teacher, a stern “old-school” older gentleman, told me. “No matter how many times I tell him to check the back to see if there are more questions on the back, he can’t remember it. His handwriting is sloppy because he’s just not paying attention to whether he’s forming the letters correctly. He misses letters in words because he’s not paying attention to whether the words make sense the way he has them written.”
The boy working with me loved my therapy room and spent the first ten minutes bouncing off the walls, swinging on the swings, jumping on the crash pad. He eagerly and agreeably came with me to the table to work on the evaluation, focusing as hard as he could on the first page, then the second. After two, I asked him if he needed a break, and he cheerfully told me he wanted to keep trying.
Three, four, five pages in, his attention was starting to slip — I saw it too, just like his teacher had seen it. He started missing questions; his handwriting started decreasing in quality.
Not because he was bad. Just because he was tired.
His brain was at the end of its rope. It couldn’t hold focus on drawing shapes and lines that long.
I, too, hit that wall all the time. For me, it’s usually at the end of the day, especially a long day in my office with little movement and little outdoor time. I sometimes power through it by having a snack or taking a walk. Sometimes I stop working and come back to the task later.
His wall comes sooner — after only a few minutes. That’s not a moral failure on his part. People use “paying attention” to mean “listening”, and they use “listening” to euphemistically mean “obeying”, and they attribute obedience to a moral success and therefore — one slippery slope later — not paying attention is a moral failure.
It’s not. My little buddy just got tired. We all get tired. It’s hard to work on things handed down to you by your superiors when you’re tired. Even if you love them and want to do your best, it’s still hard.
It can get better. It’s a skill that can be learned. But the more antagonistically someone treats you while you try to learn it, the harder they make the process. It doesn’t have to be that way.