I have papers to grade for my college class and I'm having a hard time staying focused. I get a drink, put in a load of wash, check my email....you probably know the routine yourself. So why should we expect young children to be any different?
Many children learn quickly how to escape for a little while from their work. They get up to sharpen their pencil. They ask to use the bathroom. They get a drink of water. They rearrange items in their desks. They run over to put something in their cubby. If you notice these behaviors, you can start to figure out the reason for needing to escape.
Is the work too hard? If so, try breaking it down into smaller steps. Instead of writing a paragraph, ask the child to write the first sentence (then give positive feedback and ask him to write the next one, etc). Is the work too easy? Provide more challenging activities or additional work for when the child is done early. Is the child having trouble getting started? Use high-probability requests in which you ask her to do something she is very likely to do, then follow that with the more challenging request.
Often the child is just having trouble staying focused - an issue of immature self-regulation. You can teach her some self-regulation strategies such as self talk: “I can keep going.” “I can work hard.” Or “Am I working hard?” “Am I doing my work well?” You could also give the child a timer and have it set for a couple of minutes. When it goes off, check in with the child to see how she is doing. Gradually extend the time period. You can also consider reducing distractions. Is she sitting too close to others? Facing the window? Can you reduce the noise in the room?
The other self-regulation technique is teaching children how to take a reasonable break. This could be stretching, getting a drink, closing their eyes for a minute and putting their head down. We all need a break, as I can attest. So teach children how to take a quick break, and get right back to work. It may be unreasonable to expect children to work for more than a few minutes on difficult activities without a quick break.
For preschoolers, breaks are unnecessary during center times because the children are self regulated. It is during group times that children will sometimes struggle to maintain their attention - such as sitting still through a longer story, or listening to a teacher-directed lesson. Be sure to keep an eye on the children so you know when group time has lasted too long, and give the children frequent breaks by allowing them to move around throughout your activities.
And finally, remember to give yourself a break when you need it. Teaching is an incredibly demanding job in which you need to concentrate and be alert constantly. So if you feel yourself getting irritable, or worn out, try to take a break whenever you can!