Our ability to focus depends entirely upon our sensory input and the brain's interpretation of that sensory input.
This concept is easiest (for me) to explain from a Kung Fu practitioners perspective and then apply it to academic skills such as reading, writing, and math. The same concept could be explained from a neuroscience perspective but for simplicities sake and to explain the origins of these ideas let's start with the knowledge of the ancient traditions.
I can still hear to this day my Grand saying these words
"Your Head Is Like A Conning Tower, You Have To Keep It Stable"
What did he mean?
Well, he was a gunner's mate in the Navy during WWII. He was explaining that if the commanding officer was thrown about in his vantage point, the conning tower, he could not command. There would be confusion and nothing else would operate well because effective management of all of the other functions of the ship was impossible.
For us, as students of Kung Fu this was a very effective analogy. It stated the importance of stabilizing the eyes and head for the purpose of mental focus. Without this skill, all was lost.
Mental focus is at the core of all proper Kung Fu training. Legends abound about the dynamic feats of Kung Fu practitioners. These are achieved, at least in part, by developing high levels of focus. This is not just the stuff of movies. This is training that goes back literally thousands of years.
For a moment, let's define focus a little differently. We can define it as a lack of confusion or lack of distraction. And we are speaking of mental focus not the focusing of light on the retina. However, keep in mind that mental focus is dependent upon sensory input. That means the sensory input must be as clean as possible. More signal less noise. And that the brain must choose the right signal. The right signal means not only the correct sensory input but what part of that signal. Imagine trying to write with a fly on your nose. The task of writing involves the kinesthetic sensory input from the fingers combined with the visual input from the eyes on the paper yet you are probably, unless you are a Zen master, more aware of the kinesthetic and visual sensory input of the fly walking around on your nose than you are of the fingers and paper. Correct signals but the wrong part of the signal.
So mental focus has a lot to do with receiving a good sensory signal, paying attention to the correct part of the signal or signals, and then interpreting the signals. and remember this is not all static, this is a control loop. the brain then has to direct motor responses to carry out the task and receive more clean signals.
Interestingly, as Dr. Robert Cialdini so astutely pointed out, our brains assign importance to what we focus on. Not the other way around, which is what we perceive. This concept is also very important in Kung Fu because we need to control our focus to be effective. To explain this to my students I use the analogy of texting and driving. When a person grabs a phone and starts texting while driving their brain automatically assigns all importance to the texting. We cannot simultaneously be aware of driving and texting. We think we can but truly the best it can do is switch back and forth quickly. And if there is something emotional in the text forget it, even the switching is shut down. The brain actually shuts down the perceptual signals related to driving. This is powerful, and in this case deadly stuff.
When my Kung Fu students lose focus on their immediate task I always chide them. "You were texting and driving, your dead".
In Kung Fu we are learning to maintain clean sensory signals under duress. There is a lot of fast physical motion and if the mind is not tuned there are emotional signals as well. To be effective at Kung Fu achieving this focus is a fundamental skill. Without it nothing else is even remotely effective. So we are very effective at teaching it. Not to mention that the methods of teaching it have been passed down for thousands of years.
The methods are simple. But not easy.
The discovery that these methods had an extremely positive effect on ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and other specific learning disabilities was purely an accident.
Obviously to be effective at Kung Fu these perceptual skills have to be highly tuned. For them to have a positive effect on academics we don't have to go that far. No need to become a Kung Fu master. No need to even train in it. Although I do highly recommend it for other reasons. We just need to get these skills functioning at a basic level. And that is relatively easy.
Basically what we do is learn to stabilize the eyes while the body is doing moderately complex motions. So what we are effectively doing is training the eyes to not get distracted.
Everybody, to some degree, has a lack of eye stability or eye control. However, for the majority of people, it does not affect their lives in any noticeable way. If they were to develop it they would certainly develop more focus. For operating at a normal level of focus most people have ample eye stability.
What we quickly noticed was that those with focus problems, such as ADHD, eye stability was a big issue. We also noticed a lack of eye stability in others who struggled in school. And thanks to our helpful local school principal who referred just about everyone in his school that was having problems to us. We had a massive sample set.
So we had class after class full of children with learning struggles. ADHD, dyslexia, Aspergers, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and more. And since we quickly recognized that the eye instability was preventing them from learning in our classes we put a large emphasis on our basic eye stabilization drills. And as it turned out, they began excelling in their academic classes as well. Additionally, many behavior problems faded away.
Were the eye stabilization drills the full cause of the correction? Probably not. We were also building confidence. We were teaching physical movements that developed high levels of proprioception. And as it turns out it looks like that may have been initiating neurogenesis and neuroplasticity as well. So there were multiple causes. However we could see a very distinct change with just a short class of eye stabilization drills as well. the students recognized it as well. They said their brains "felt different". And many of them latched on to the drills and practiced them for hours on end because they could feel the change.
We now know that the connection between the brain and eyes is amazingly complex. We actually see in small foval areas and then the brain stitches these together to form the picture. We do not actually see the whole picture at once. We just perceive that we do.