Monday, April 1, 2013

Pay Attention! How to Help Children Focus in the Classroom

My student teachers have just submitted behavioral support plans for children with challenging behavior in their classrooms. One of the things I noticed was the prevalence of children who are having trouble paying attention to instruction. This might be the preschooler who can’t sit still during circle time or the 3rd grader who can’t stay on task during seatwork, or the 1st grader who stares into space during group instruction.

Most of my student teachers assume that the problem is one of motivation – that the children are just not trying hard enough to pay attention or they are not held accountable for their actions and need to be pushed harder. They are missing the possibility that these children don’t know how to pay attention.

Some children (and adults!) do not have the skills to maintain focus. This is part of what psychologists call “Executive Function” and it involves the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. When this skill is underdeveloped, it makes it hard for a child to control her impulses, maintain focus, and hold information in her working memory. It’s not really the case that the child can’t pay attention – it’s that she can’t pay attention to what you want her to pay attention to. Many children, especially those with ADHD, pay attention to everything happening around them, and can’t selectively focus on one thing. The good news is that paying attention can be taught.

In order to help a child learn to focus, you need to treat this as a skill that must be learned and practiced – just like learning the alphabet or how to multiply. Here are some strategies you can use:

Chunks & Breaks: Present the work to the child in smaller “chunks” that can be done in smaller stretches of time. If you want a preschooler to focus during circle time, have him participate for five minutes, then allow him to take a break and work at table toys for a few minutes and then repeat the demand to sit at circle. Be sure your circle time activities are interactive! If the child is in primary grades and needs to do seatwork, break up the work into smaller sections. After working on an assignment for five minutes, the child can get up and get a drink, walk around the room, and then sit down and start again. Eventually, when the child is successful at this, you can extend the amount of time before getting a break. If the child is having trouble, shorten the amount of time.

Timers: When used as a self-monitoring device, timers can help children gain some self-control. They can be used to help a child stay focused and take a break, as described above, or they can be set for smaller increments, say 30 seconds or a minute, to help children self-monitor. When the timer goes off, the child can check whether or not he is paying attention and on task. It’s important to let the child hold and monitor the timer so that he gets a sense of self regulation.

Cues: Be sure to give appropriate cues to let children know it’s important to pay attention. Not everything we say and do is of equal importance, so engage in a hand-clapping routine, or ring a bell, or do a call and response chant to be sure that you have all the children focused before giving directions, explaining a new activity, starting a story, etc. There are a number of  Brain Based Teaching Strategies that can help with this.

Meditation. Research shows that mindfulness meditation can help children and adults improve attention, focus, and self control. I recently observed an urban, public preschool classroom in which all the children sat cross-legged for about 5 minutes with their eyes closed, focusing on quieting their bodies and noticing their breathing. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it firsthand. Some of the children struggled to quiet their bodies more than others, but all were successful at quietly maintaining their stillness. Here’s a lovely article on meditation techniques that worked for one mom. Here’s a meditation video that gives you the idea of how you might guide meditation when first teaching it to children:


Give Feedback When Children Pay Attention. Often we give children a lot of attention for being off-task: we remind them to pay attention or sit still, we call their names, we walk over to them, we sit next to them, we hold their hands. All of these actions reinforce the children’s off-task behavior. Instead, connect to children while they are focusing. Say things like, “I notice that you are working hard. I see that you are sitting still. You’ve been working for 5 minutes without stopping.” Move next to children when they are focused. Tap their shoulder and let them know they are doing a good job. Ignore the little times that they lose focus. The need your feedback and support.

What have you found helps children to learn attention skills? Please share in the comments what has worked for you or any questions you have.

17 comments:

  1. This is such a helpful post on many levels. I especially appreciated your discussion of paying attention as a skill, not a motivational issue or conscious decision children are making. Your tips are also so helpful -- they demonstrate how important it is to teach skills like attending (or listening) just as we would academic subjects. I'm excited to pass this post along to many teachers and schools with whom I work!

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    1. Thanks so much, Margaret. I learn so much from my student teachers and I always hope that I can help other teachers to find more success and joy in teaching.

      By the way, your new book is on its way to me right now and I'm looking forward to reading it! Readers - check it out:
      Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More


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  2. This is very helpful and interesting. I appreciate this information. This is even very helpful for me I find myself loosing focus. Having an iphone makes focusing even more difficult. Im happy to learn that paying attention can be taught.

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    1. How true, TajAmira! I also lose focus a lot and I find these same techniques help me, too!

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  3. I absolutely love this video it's very peaceful.

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  4. I also loved the video! I am definitely going to try meditation with my children. This is my first year teaching and I am struggling with some cases of aggression from a couple of my students. Mediation sounds like a good method to calm them down and set them up for a great day! I am going to start with something quick and increase the length of the activity as the children’s attention span increases.

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    1. Heidy - have you been able to try any of these meditations? How is it working out for your class this year?

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  5. Thank you for this post. I just had yet another teacher tell me how bright my son is, but that he just has trouble staying on task. The first time I heard, "Your son is a bright kid but he has trouble staying on task", I wasn't too concerned. At that point, he was in preschool. Then there was the Kindergarten teacher who told me the same thing. That time, I kind of blew it off as I had this feeling that she just did not like my kid and in my mind, his behavior chart and comments confirmed that. Then, there was his 1st grade teacher, who told me the same thing. And like me, she didn't seem too concerned with it, since it was the very beginning of 1st grade. Now, I've had yet another teacher express her concerns with him to me and I'm starting to come to the realization (get past the denial) that we need to do something about his focus issues. As a teacher and sufferer of ADD myself, I know how important it is to face these demons and teach him how to function (without meds if possible) so that he can be successful. I will be trying some of these tips and hopefully being able to convince his teacher to help me in the process. I don't want him to get to the point of feeling hopeless and giving up, especially when I can see how incredibly bright he is for his age.

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    1. I'm glad your son's teachers at least see how bright he isl! Often teachers have difficulty seeing anything but the difficult behavior, and they are rarely trained in how to teach children how to focus or cope with wandering attention. It doesn't help that most public school classrooms are incredibly filled with distractions of all kinds!!

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    2. Dear Anonymous-your reply was a huge help to me today following teacher conference yesterday where I am hearing the same thing-"own little world, staying on task, doing his own thing" Praying for appropriate resources and not wanting to jump to conclusions. Thanks for sharing.

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    3. Hi Muriel, Thank God for sites like this and with a 'comments' section from other parents. I, too, just had a parent/teacher meeting yesterday and came home very upset. My son is one of the youngest in his Grade 3 class. He, too, is finding it very hard to focus on what's being asked of him. It isn't only in the classroom, though. I'm finding it getting harder and harder to have him do what's asked of him at home, too. Without a problem! I'm taking him to the Dr. this week to get a referral to have him tested as well as his blood tested to see if there is a deficiency of any sort. I have been looking up ADHD symptoms and there seems to be a correlation between it and (I believe it was) magnesium. He is a great little boy with a good heart and, academically, smart as a whip. (Thank God!!) but this focus/behavior (?) issue has to turn around. I work in a high school so I see, everyday, what can happen to kids who do not get it together when they're young. Thanks very much for this info.

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  6. Very very handy allocation particularly for me. As a teacher of pre schools I'm benefited to get in such advise. I hope now I will able to assist my children to focus in the classroom. Thanks a lot.

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  7. I have a 6 year old in 1st grade and he has trouble stayign on task with his classwork because he isnt paying attention. The teacher says he wont give her answers when she asks because he doent know what going on. She says he will sometimes just sit there thinking about something else. He does this at home too. When its homework time he will write a word and just sit there and think for minutes about the next word even though he already knows whats next. The teacher says his grade could drop. Im really worried about this, and I've heard of ADHD I am worried this could be a symptom. Any suggestions ??

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  8. Thanks so much. This is very interesting and helpful. :)

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  9. Hi I would like to comment about the annonymous Feb 26th chat. I have a wondeful little girl and she to is very distracted in class. She is so clever and homework is not a problem. I focus on the good part of everything she does and comment on her when she writes nicely and motivate her as much as I can. But, i cant be in the classroom and I am very concerned about her in class as her assesments are getting worse. She is currently in speech therapy classes once a week to assist with auditory processing issues but I wish i could do more. Can anyone suggest something else to try ... I dont want this little person close in.

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  10. They can be used to help a child stay focused and take a break, as described above, or they can be set for smaller increments, say 30 seconds or a minute, to help children self-monitor. When the timer goes off, the child can check whether or not he is paying attention and on task. It’s important to let the child hold and monitor the timer so that he gets a sense of self regulation. Make Him Desire You Review

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