I find so many students have a lot of difficulty with sustaining attention throughout the day. Most of these students have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but many others are struggling as well.
Perhaps it’s because it’s unnatural for kids to be forced to sit in desks and listen for six hours a day, maybe it’s because technology has shortened attention span, maybe we’re eating too much sugar, or exercising and going outside too little. Whatever the reason, it’s hard for many kids (and many adults, too) to maintain attention throughout the day.
Many of our students are easily distracted by what’s happening around them, or are often daydreaming, or in “their own world” throughout the school day.
Here are some of my top tips for helping students with sustaining attention.
REDUCE EXTERNAL STIMULI
There are a lot of external stimuli which could distract all our kiddos, let alone the easily distractible ones!
Both visual and noise stimuli can be major issues in a typical classroom.
To minimize visual distraction, try to ensure that there is not a lot of clutter at the front of the room, where you are expecting students to look. If a student is very distractible, you will also want to minimize distractions throughout the room, as they will be likely to look around and become interested in things on the walls, floors, and so on.
You can try to provide students with tripods or study carrels to work in as well. These will ensure they can’t see outside distractions and can focus on their work in peace. Be careful with these, though, you want to let students know it’s a tool to use and never force them to do so. If you tell kids they have to work in an isolated area, they may consider it a punishment and feel left out from the rest of the class. You never want kids to feel like they don’t belong with everyone else.
For noise stimuli, do your best to make sure things which can be noisy in a classroom are muted as best as you can.
For example, you can put felt or tennis balls on the bottom of chair and table legs to avoid noisy scraping. Allow students to listen t music while they work on their own headphones, rather than play music for the whole class.
Using an FM System when you teach is a good way for students to hear your voice over noises outside the classroom. Noise cancelling headphones are a great way for students to block out outside noises while they work independently. You can also allow students to work in various areas that they find are less distracting.
All of these are great ways to provide students with a less distracting environment.
CUE STUDENT BEFORE GIVING DIRECTIONS
Sometimes students are off task or not paying attention because they missed directions. This can happen a lot if they have ADHD, if the classroom is noisy, or if you are giving instructions while students are not listening or are talking (big no-no).
To help with this, make sure you specifically cue students known to miss directions before you begin.
Depending on your teaching style, your relationship with the student, and how they feel about being “called out”, you can do this in different ways. You might want to just outright ask them if they’re ready, you can quietly walk over to them and tell them you’re about to give directions, you could come up with a gesture together, or so on.
Ensuring they’re paying attention is a good way to ensure they will actually listen to instructions and any teaching you do, which will help them focus when it comes time for independent work.
HAVE STUDENT TO REPEAT INSTRUCTIONS
Another trick when it comes to giving directions is to make sure students actually listened and understood what you said.
The best way to do this is to have them just repeat what you’ve said.
I will often do this as a whole class, so I will “randomly” select one of my students who tends to forget what to do and ask them to repeat what we’re supposed to do for the whole class.
I pose this as them helping us all by reminding us what to do, but I’m cuddling two birds with one hug, because I’m also making sure they know what to do.
If this is something you don’t think would work in your class or with the personality types of your students, you can just check in with them right away when you’re done speaking to have them share with you what they heard. This way, you’re not putting anyone on the spot.
ACTIVELY INVOLVE STUDENT
If a student has the opportunity to get bored or distracted, they’re going to take it.
One of the best ways to help this is to ensure many of your lessons are hands-on and exciting. If a student has to actually stand up, move around, and work cooperatively with peers, they have to stay focused.
Working in group projects where everyone has a specific role is good for this, having discussion groups can help, doing hands-on activities like Science experiments are always a hit, having students walk around the room and ask one another questions, and so on are all great ways to get kids moving.
You really want to avoid doing the same old “boring” things each day which can cause kids to become bored. It won’t necessarily result in more work for you. For example, centres are a great way to have kids doing something new each day, but you only need to set them up once and then rotate every few days, weeks, units, or so on.
There are times when we’re teaching that we can’t really get away from lecture-style classes. Obviously, we try to avoid this because we know kids get bored and, hey, I hate listening to myself talk for a whole class period, too!
Whenever you’re able to, try to make the information you’re talking about more exciting to kids.
You can dramatize in many different ways. I mean, you don’t have to put on a costume and recite a soliloquy, but you can if you like.
Dramatizing information can be as easy as creating slideshows with memorable memes or GIFs that students will like. You can also call up volunteers to help show information.
Drawing pictures, showing videos, playing music or other audio, and bringing in models or artifacts are all other ways to dramatize information.
When you can present information to your students in a more interesting way, there’s a much higher chance that they’ll pay attention during class and will be less likely to get distracted.
REWARD PAYING ATTENTION
Remember to always be looking for things kids can be successful at. Even the smallest amount of focus should be rewarded, because for many of our students, even that little bit is extremely difficult.
Every time you catch a student who is often distracted paying attention and remaining focused, make sure you praise them. Let them know you’ve seen their effort and you notice how much they’re trying.
If you think it will work better, you can also formalize this praise into a reward system with the student. You can organize this according to how many tasks they are able to complete, how long they can pay attention for, or how many time you catch them being good.
Of course, make the reward something that is going to work for the student and slowly start to make their challenge more difficult, hopefully improving their ability to focus over time.
BREAK ACTIVITIES INTO CHUNKS
If an activity or a lesson is too large, a student with issues focusing is going to get extremely overwhelmed and begin to lose attention.
If you’re asking a student to begin a project, task, or activity, then help them with breaking it into chunks. Ideally, you should do this with the whole class, letting them know what steps to complete in order to finish. Then, any students that need a bit more support can get further help from you in breaking down steps even further or helping them get started.
If you’re teaching a lesson, break it into segments as well so that students don’t spend the whole period doing one thing. If they’re expected to sit and read, or listen to you, or answer questions, or so on for 45 plus minutes, well, they’re going to get bored.
Break your lessons into direct teaching time, individual work, group work, class discussions, and so on. If you’re doing several different activities and students are interacting with the material in a variety of ways, there’s a significantly lower chance that they’ll get bored and distracted.
USE PHYSICAL PROXIMITY
Sometimes, having the teacher nearby can help a student to stay focused. If there’s a fear of getting in trouble, or if your voice coming closer cues their attention, kids’ ears may perk up a bit.
Try to walk around the class while you teach and while kids work.
As you move around, you’ll easily see if your easily distracted kids are working or are beginning to lose focus. You can come around and just place a hand on their desk or shoulder to remind them to get back to work.
You can also check-in with them to see if they need to grab some water or take a body break. If you notice many students beginning to get wiggly, it’s probably time to move onto a different activity or check-in with the entire class to see how they’re doing on an assignment.
So, what do you think about these tips and strategies? Have you tried any of them in your own classroom? Did they work? Let me know!
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