Challenges with focus and attention can become a huge roadblock to learning for kids and young adults. Simply put, attention is critical to learning. If students can’t focus on the lesson, they are going to struggle with understanding the new content. If students can’t focus on the directions, they are not going to know what to do. If learners are unable to switch their focus, they are unable to initiate new tasks. When students have difficulty with attention skills, it can be challenging for the educator, but also extremely frustrating for the learner.
It’s important to note that this article isn’t specifically written for kids with ADHD. That is because many kids (whether diagnosed with ADHD or not) have challenges with focus and attention. As always, it’s more important to focus on the interventions and supports than the label. With that said, if you feel your student or child does have symptoms of ADHD, it’s important to share those concerns with the school team or pediatrician.
What is attention? Attention is a fascinating multi-faceted skill. It is so much more than just being able to stay focused. Attention involves having self-awareness about your level of attention so that you can direct and re-direct your focus, as needed. It is being able to ignore distractions, like a cell phone or friends talking nearby. Even further, attention is being able switch your focus to more important information or a new task, such as when new directions are being given while working.
• Examples of Attention •
It’s important to note that attention is an academic skill, but it is also a life skill. It’s really a prerequisite to be able to learn new information. People need to pay attention while hearing new content, but also when having conversations with others. Here are some examples of what strong attention skills might look like:
- Keeping eyes on the teacher and listening while learning about a new skill.
- Quickly being able to switch focus from one task to another.
- Making eye contact and listening to a peer during a conversation.
- Listening and thinking about directions being given by a teacher or boss.
- Being able to stop, focus, and listen when important information is being conveyed.
• Possible Signs of Challenges with Attention •
Challenges with attention can have big impacts for students. As previously stated, when learners aren’t able to focus on new material, this makes learning that content that much harder. Similarly, when learners aren’t focused during instructions, they won’t understand how to proceed with an activity. Simply put, attention challenges become a major roadblock to learning.
Possible signs of attention challenges might include:
- A student constantly staring out the window or down the hallway instead of watching the teacher during a lesson.
- A learner who frequently misses hearing important instructions for tasks and then isn’t sure what to do.
- A student who constantly plays with objects (pencils, toys, etc) instead of working on assigned tasks.
- A child who is unable to finish assignments due to various distractions.
• Interventions, Supports, and Strategies for Attention •
Here are some strategies, activities, and ideas to help learners with attention challenges in the classroom:
- Teach about attention and other EF skills explicitly
- Give clear, one-step directions
- Teach how to stay organized
- Highlight most important directions on assignments
- Use alternative seating options (wobble stools, standing desks)
- Teach and use classroom call-and response
- Exercise prior to working sessions (ex: basketball in the gym)
- Use a chime before giving important information
- Incorporate movement during lessons and activities
- Use visuals as reminders and supports
- Reduce distractions around the room (ex: too many posters or a fan nearby)
- Use preferential seating (find where the student can focus the best, as this is different for every child)
- Incorporate hands-on learning activities
- Use a study carrel (you can buy one or build it out of cardboard!)
- Add center activities to allow for more movement during tasks
- Break longer tasks into smaller, more manageable ones
- Provide fidgets (and explicitly teach how to use them as a tool)
- Practice mindfulness and relaxation strategies to calm the mind
- Give break breaks between lessons and activities
- Teach students how to check in with themselves
- Give jobs between tasks (ex: carry folder to another teacher for movement break)
- Set a timer for work sessions
- Consider a white noise machine or playing classical music during work sessions
- Listen to music in headphones while working
- Use focus app
- Assign a study buddy during work sessions
- Play attention-boosting games and play activities (like Simon Says)
- Use student interests in lessons
- Take turns working (student completes one problem independently, adult completes next)
- Provide extra time to complete assignments
• Strategies for Parents to Support Attention Skills at Home •
It’s important to note that parents and families can also implement strategies to help at home! Here are some strategies parents and families can use at home strengthen skills for attention:
- Be clear with directions (and give fewer words)
- Allow wind-down time after school
- Build in routines and consistency
- Develop a “homework space and time” (and stick with it)
- Teach self-monitoring
- Break longer tasks into smaller, more manageable ones
- Keep an organized and tidy work space to reduce distractions
- Give check-ins during longer work sessions (“Show me what you accomplished so far.”)
- Reduce distractions (television, cell phone, computer)
- Model focusing while the child is working (read while they do homework, for example)
- Use a white-noise machine
- Give breaks after work completion
- Incorporate rewards for completing chores or assignments
If you notice that your learners need some extra support with their attention and other executive functioning skills, I have units to target executive functioning skills for middle and high school learners and executive functioning skills for younger learners. Get all your materials in one spot to make teaching these skills a breeze!