Pay Attention! How to Help Children Focus in the Classroom

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 selfregulation.
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.