Books that Help us Teach—Focus and Self Control

by Meghan Fitzgerald

Focus and Self Control represent, perhaps, the most important set of skills we can foster to empower the learner in each child. Yet, focus and self control are, in and of themselves, pretty complex. But, we’ve found, that if you think of the four component skills that roll up into focus and self control, it’s much easier to understand how kids develop them and what we can do to support that development. Those four components include focus; working memory; cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control.

To help us all support Focus and Self Control, we’ve picked books from among our all time favorites that help us teach these four components. We hope you enjoy them both as great literature and as ways to inspire these important skills.


How to Find Gold by Viviane Schwarz

Component: Focus, Cognitive Flexibility

Maps and the secrets they hold are captivating. Even for our youngest explorers, the excitement surrounding a colorful map and the promise of finding treasure inspires focus. That is why we love Viviane Schwarz's book, How to Find Gold. It’s a marvelous and imaginative story about a little girl and her alligator friend as they both find and hide “gold.” To young children, this book’s blend of fantasy and reality will make perfect sense. We chose this book for its childlike sensibility, marvelous illustrations, use of maps and our belief that it is a great jumping off point for the kind of play that puts body and brain on high alert—the perfect way to build focus.


The Listening Walk by Paul Showers

Component: Focus

When the senses are stimulated, our brains become more alert, and we are better able to direct and sustain focus. Paul Shower’s Listening Walk is an old favorite of ours, as it inspires kids and adults to take walks, slowing down to really listen to the sounds around us. By doing so, we also take in a broad range of sights, smells and other sensations. Given the everyday setting in the book, you don’t need to be in a national forest to go on a listening walk. Read this often enough—you might just make listening walks a part of your regular routine too!


This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary

Component: Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive Flexibility, or flexible thinking, is, in short, the ability to shift one’s attention as a situation changes—and it’s essential for learning, especially in today’s ever-changing world. In order to do that, you need to easily consider things from different perspectives. An ideal way to support this is through pretending—and, thankfully, kids are designed to do just that! One of our favorite celebrations of pretending is Sara O’Leary’s This is Sadie. The gorgeous illustrations and language make you feel like you are right in the dreamy mindset of a pretending child. And, we’ve found, reading this together can inspire many imaginative adventures of your own.


Zoom by Istvan Banyai

Component: Cognitive Flexibility

Some other great ways to support cognitive flexibility are switching up the rules of a game, or being surprised when something happens that you didn’t expect, or in a different way than you expected it to. Perhaps the perfect book for this is Zoom by Istvan Banyai ever-shifting perspective and wonderful sense of surprise on each page is exactly why we love Zoom. With no words, there are no barriers to understanding this ingenious story.


We All Go Traveling By by Sheena Roberts, Siobhan Bell

Component: Working Memory

Working memory enables us to keep information in our minds, even as we are learning and doing other things. A great way to develop this oh-so-important mental muscle is to tell progressive tales or sing progressive songs—tales that repeat old language as they add new language each round. A wonderful book-song combo that does this really beautifully is Sheena Roberts and Siobhan Bell’s We All Go Traveling By. Given the wonderful language and sounds in this book, you’ll also stimulate the senses and support language skills while you’re at it!