It can be easy to get frustrated when your son takes hours to complete a simple worksheet of math problems – especially when you know that he could plow through them in twenty minutes if he really applied himself. His inability to focus may not be due to laziness though, or even ADHD. It may, research suggests, actually be the result of having a sharper than average mind.
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Working memory is key to learning because it refers to the ability to hold on to information throughout the completion of other mental tasks. For instance, imagine you are packing up your diaper bag to take your son to the pediatrician, and as you are making sure you have everything your husband asks you to bring home AAA batteries and strawberry ice cream. You drive to the pediatrician, update your insurance information, receive a diagnosis, pick up a prescription, drop off the dry cleaning, and then arrive at the store. Working memory is your brain’s functionality that allows you to remember the correct ice cream flavor and size of batteries. Working memory is not only crucial to everyday tasks and the learning process, but its capacity has been associated with general measures of intelligence, such as reading comprehension and IQ score.
A study by researchers Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jonathan Smallwood at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, published in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reports that a person’s working memory capacity correlates to the tendency of their mind to wander during a routine assignment. The archetype of the absentminded but brilliant scientist, this suggests, may have some scientific backing after all.
It may be tempting, as the parent of a daydreamer, to push her to engage and focus more – and this is, of course, necessary to some degree. However, as cognitive therapist Dan Roberts advises “If your child is a bit of a daydreamer, I certainly wouldn’t worry about it.” Your child’s brain may be more suited to performing a number of different tasks at the same time – which could certainly serve her well someday as she juggles a career, family, and hobbies. After all, many job descriptions request that the applicant be a skilled multitasker.
For exceptionally bright children, daydreaming may also be a sign of boredom. If a child already has a strong understanding of the material being presented, he may let his mind wander simply because he does not need to listen. Even if the material is new, he will likely pick it up faster than the average student, causing him to be bored during the repetition and practice that is necessary for most other children. His mind is still working – it’s just not working on the material being taught in class.
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Whatever the reason for your child’s daydreaming, it is likely that the wheels in her little mind are turning more quickly than you would think. Daydreaming has long been linked to creativity, and is known as a valuable tool for artists, writers, and poets, as well as inventors and entrepreneurs. Virginia Woolf, in her novel “To The Lighthouse,” describes it as “losing consciousness of outer things…her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting.” While this knowledge may not be useful in getting your child to buckle down and finish his chores, it may help you to find solace in the kind of mind you are molding to put out into the world.