Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Helping the Unfocused Mind: Teaching Strategies for Students Having Difficulty Getting and Maintaining Attention

As Levine (2002) states, attention is the brain’s manager, including a complicated network of controls that regulate most of the processes involved in learning and behavior. Levine, an authority in brain research and founder of "All Kinds of Minds", adds that attention does not accomplish anything on its own, but rather it helps the brain determine what to do, when, and for how long. Children who struggle paying attention in the classroom, also known as children with short attention span and/or inattentive students, frequently exhibit problem behaviors such as:
•Distracted by background stimuli (irrelevant visual, auditory, and/or tactile stimuli)
•Shifting from one uncompleted task to another task that is also left unfinished
•Losing and/or misplacing the books and materials necessary for completing the task; forgetful
•Do not pay attention to details, and due to this, they make careless mistakes
•Do not seem to listen
•Difficulty organizing tasks (what comes first, next...), i.e. skipping steps and/or failing to follow the right sequence of steps
•Difficulty distinguishing between the relevant aspects of the task and irrelevant aspects

Due to a lack of organization skills, inattentive and unfocused students need help in structuring their school day (in getting organized), including materials, workspace, group dynamics, transitional times, and handling choices (Rief, 1993). When dealing with inattentive and unfocused students, the teacher needs to provide the structure using communication that is clear, descriptive, and that tells students exactly when, how, and for how long they are going to work (remain on task) on the assignment or they need to pay attention (listen). In doing this, the teacher is taking over as the executive or manager, showing and modeling to children how to plan, organize, and complete tasks. Next, I list some guidelines.

Guidelines to Help Students Focus Attention (Written Tasks)

•Before children begin to work on a task, have the class identify and list the steps for completing it, including a time estimate both for each step and for the whole task. You can write the estimates on the chalkboard, so that you prompt students when the time to complete each step is near.
•Write the list of steps on the chalkboard (a key word or a key phrase for each step is enough), and have children write the same list on a notepad or an index card. As students complete each step, they cross it off the list.
•Make the habit of saying, listing, and posting all the steps that are necessary for completing a task or project.
•Provide a timer or stopwatch for children to monitor their work time.
•Give children ample warning when an activity is about to change. For example, you can say, “You have five more minutes of work time left. In five minutes, we move to…”
•Make sure that students know exactly how long they have to work on the task. Set up benchmarks like, “Pages 12 and 13 should be completed by 11:15.”
•Read the directions aloud, and have students follow along, underlining or highlighting the most important information, explanations, key words, and/or steps. In addition, have children write the correct number above each step, i.e. 1, 2, and 3.
•Break a longer task into several smaller and easier tasks. For example, using index cards or a notepad, children write down each smaller step required to complete the assignment. Children work on one index card or step at a time, keeping all other index cards out of sight. As students complete each step, they throw away the card for that step, moving to the next index card.
•Give reduced assignments to your inattentive students, so that they can complete seatwork. For example, the inattentive child completes only five problems of the twenty problems on a page, or completes the odd problems but not the even problems.
•On a chart or an index card, draw a model (e.g. a solved three-digit multiplication problem) that children can follow visually. Color-code each step/place value, and have children compare their finished products with the model shown on the chart. Tell children that their completed problems must look like the model, only the final answer is different. If their work looks different, they know that they changed or skipped a step. Allow students to use colored pencils or fine point markers to solve the problems, so that they too color-code each step or place value. However, make sure that everybody is using the same colors shown on the chart. For example, the first step is always blue, the second step is always green, and the third step is always brown. This color-coding system makes easier for students to pinpoint where their errors are.
•You can reduce the amount of visual material that children need to pay attention to by drawing a circle around or tracing with your finger (framing) the important information on the chart or diagram. Teach children to consistently draw circles around and/or highlight important visual information.
•Cue students by saying, “You need to look at the _____ (e.g. timeline) closely, so that you can find two effects of the civil war.” Repeat the same cue as needed to keep children focused.
•Teach children to frame or highlight the operational symbols in math problems (i.e. addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division).
•Inattentive and unfocused students need successful experiences in completing tasks. This will be easier to accomplish by giving children short and very specific tasks to complete so that initially the time they need to spend on task is short. We also need to be sure that the tasks we give for independent seatwork are challenging but not frustrating to children, that is, with clear directions and a list of steps the child can do the task. Only after success with shorter tasks, we increase gradually the time we expect the child to remain on task.
•Use class rewards for remaining on task and/or for paying attention. Distractible students tend to concentrate better when teachers consistently acknowledge and reward focused attention and on-task behaviors. The literature researched indicates that rewarding one student for paying attention often has the effect of improving other students’ attention skills.
•Help children get and stay organized by using simple strategies like color-coding their notebooks, using notebooks with dividers, using different folders to file their work, using planners, and consistently using daily, weekly, and monthly schedules. Teach students how to follow a schedule.
•When you are handling inattentive and unfocused children, keep your expectations humble and real; one task left without completion should not be a big deal when the child managed to finish two other tasks. The two finished tasks, however, are a big deal; acknowledge the child’s success and reward him or her.
•Encourage neatness but do not penalize sloppiness. Give children a neatness list to follow (children write checks or “yes/no” for each completed item on the list).
•Give children written tasks with built-in checkpoints along the way.
•Use the “5 More Rule,” that is, have the inattentive child commit to work solidly for five minutes or pages, and when the child finishes, praise the child’s success and ask him or her to work solidly for five more minutes or extra pages.
•Tell the child the requirements for completing the task, for example, say, “Your math is finished when you complete all six word problems and I check that all procedures and final answers are correct. Do not start the next task until your peer buddy tells you to go ahead with the next activity.”

Guidelines to Help Students Focus Attention (Oral Tasks)

•Teach your students exactly how to pay attention, for example, say, “Look at me when I talk” and “Watch my face when I speak.” Even the behavior of consistently looking at you when you speak and making eye contact may have to be rewarded.
•Tell students in advance for how long they will have to concentrate, for example, “We will be working on _____ from 10:20 to 10:40.”
•Cue students to listen by saying, “You will need to listen closely for _____ (e.g. two important cities or one important person).” Repeat the same cue as needed to keep students on track.
•Explicitly tell children what to listen for, for example, “This information is important to know.” Alternatively, you can say, “Listening now. This is important…”
•Emphasize key oral information in the lesson by changing the pitch of your voice. Make students aware that, when they listen attentively, they will be able to notice how your voice changes when you say a key word or a key phrase.
•To get children’s attention, vary the tone of your voice during your lesson, for example, louder, softer, faster, slower, and/or whispering.
•Use voice control, that is, look at the inattentive and unfocused student in the eye, lower the tone of your voice, and drop the pitch to get the child’s attention. Under no circumstances you should scream or yell to get a student’s attention. (Never works!)
•Use the "whispering technique". When you are about to give important information, say, “What you are going to hear is important, and for that reason, I am going to whisper to you. Only if you are very attentive and listening carefully, you will be able to hear what I am going to say. Ready to listen? On one… 3… 2… 1…”
•Use countdowns (delivered in a soft and measured voice) and prompts like, “Ready, Set, Now…” to prepare children to listen.
•Use proximity control, for example, stand next to the inattentive student and touch the child on the shoulder.
•Use private gestures and gestures for the whole class, for example, go over to the child (proximity control), look directly into the child’s eyes, and tap your chin three times to indicate that you want her to focus on the lesson. For the whole class, you can tap your ear three times to indicate that you want the class to listen. Discuss with children in advance the meaning of the gestures.
•To keep children engaged in the oral lesson, make your lesson shorter and interactive. Every three-to-five minutes, stop to check students’ comprehension, to ask children to expand or elaborate on the information, or to give their opinion.
• Another strategy is to split your lecture into four or five shorter segments where you have children switching from listening to writing and back to listening, or they do different five-to-ten minutes activities. For example, you can divide a 40 minutes lecture the following way:

 Five Minutes: mini-lecture (first part)
 Ten Minutes: filling-in the outline and checking answers
 Five Minutes: mini-lecture (second part)
 Ten Minutes: finishing the outline and checking answers
 Ten Minutes: making a drawing or sketch that represents the main points in the lesson and sharing their drawings

•Refocus the students’ attention. Anticipate those moments in the lesson where the children’s focus and attention may drop and plan for activities that refocus, for example, summarizing, finding main ideas, completing a timeline, or drawing/sketching.
• Use a deck of index cards with each student’s name on it. Randomly, pick a card from the deck to call on students. Replace the card back in the deck each time.
•Reinforce visually the information that you are presenting orally. For example, on the chalkboard, write key words, key phrases, and/or page numbers. Always include visual references in your oral lessons, for example, pictures, charts, graphs, diagrams, or flow charts.
•Reinforce the important information in your oral lesson using advance organizers, for example, Venn diagrams, timelines, main idea and details diagrams, or cause and effect charts.
•Prepare outlines that you fill partially for children to complete as they listen to the lesson.
•Have the inattentive student repeat or rephrase your directions so that you can check if the child understands.
•Ask for specifics, for example, “Will we do problems three and five?” “No.” “Why not?” “We are going to do only the even numbers.”
•When you give instructions, avoid unnecessary talking; excessive verbalizations will only confuse the child with limited attention and concentration. Provide clear, descriptive (how to) instructions, indicating only the relevant aspects of the activity.
•Pay attention to children when children are paying attention; acknowledge it and reward the class. Focus your behavior management on praise and encouragement rather than giving negative attention to negative behavior.

To finish reading this article click here.

A Call to All Teachers:

Proudly announcing our new group for educators worldwide, “We Teach the World.” Our aim is to connect teachers and related school personnel all over the world, so that we can share much-needed ideas, strategies, and lesson plans as well as all kinds of resources in classroom management and in student discipline. Coordinating our effort worldwide, we can tell each other where to find important resources and information. If you administer a teaching blog or have created educational resources to facilitate our job, you are welcome to share them here. As long as they contribute to education, we want to know of your business. Teachers with questions, post them here; mentors and seasoned teachers, your valuable experience and unique perspective matter to us, so make your voices heard. Because isolated, we teachers are imaginative, resourceful and resilient, but connected, connected we are imaginative, resourceful, resilient AND powerful. To join us, click on, “We Teach the World.”

Of Interest to Teachers...
Watch Your Language! Ways of Talking and Interacting with Students that Crack the Behavior Code. To preview this book on Amazon, click here.


  1. I wish my son had teachers like you, he was always thrown out of class as he couldn't concentrate. he could do the work but then when finished he would whistle and tell jokes. Too late for him now.http://www.excitingifts.com/

  2. Thanks for these are great suggestions. I'm a student teacher in second grade and I plan on using many of your ideas.

  3. Hey these are great tips but can you give me advice with this same issue but with pre-schoolers? Many of the oral ones are very helpful but i just wanted to know if you could be more specific with that age?

  4. The first and perhaps most important management strategy is to insure that all students understand how attention works and identify their particular profiles of attention strengths and weaknesses. Then, students should be taught attention management strategies. Attention management strategies

  5. Thanks for this wonderful article . This is one of the great challenges of teaching. Thanks for explaining the points . This strategy should be followed in all private elementary schools to make teaching more easier, more effective, and a lot more fun.