“I’m too poor to pay attention.”
I would love to say I can take credit for that statement because it sums up some of my experience working in schools. Our students are experiencing more and more difficulty with attention in classrooms.
As any good educator, I want to know.. “why?”
Is it environment?
- have we inundated our students with too much technology?
- have we put on the TV too early in life and not cultivated play?
- have we put too much pressure on younger students thus causing a fallout of anxiety and inattention that is hard to dig out of?
- is it what we are feeding our children? Dyes and chemicals that are wrecking the balance in their brains?
It could be all of these and more…
Is it nature?
- are kids just born with more inattention than before?
- have kids been like this and now we are overdiagnosing?
- have kids been like this and our culture now frowns on a child with too much energy?
It also be these reasons and more…
Causes and explanations aside, there is a very real problem with attention. While it is easy enough to spot these challenges, the real problem is what to do about it!
Here’s what won’t work:
- blaming kids for their inattention (He needs to work harder; She can do the work when she applies herself)
- blaming parents for the child’s inattention (Why don’t they take him to the doctor?; It’s the home environment, I’m surprised she gets anything done at all).
As adults (not just educators), we need to be aware of where we are placing blame. The words we use and the ideas we generate become the narrative that drive some children’s educational careers… and then their lives.
Here’s what will work:
- Empower children to be aware of when their attention flags
I can see it’s hard to focus right now, why don’t you get a drink and come back refreshed?”
This kind of strategy can set up meta-cognition about attention. In this way, children become more aware of themselves and when breaks are needed. Don’t we all need a break?
- Break down tasks into manageable chunks
I want you to start the first paragraph of this essay. Spend 10 minutes on it and come back to me either when it’s done or 10 minutes are up. That way, we can check in and see where you are.
This kind of strategy makes tasks less overwhelming for students with attentional concerns. Instead of seeing 30 minutes of writing with the concomitant distractions, 5–10 minute blocks allow our students to work at their own pace and get feedback regularly. The breaks don’t hurt either!
- Gauge effort
We are going to use this chart to see how much effort you are using. I want you to work as hard as you can, and we will talk about it when you are done. Effort is important because then I know that you are focused on our assignment.
This kind of strategy works because it praises effort instead of accuracy. In this way, we are encouraging our students to work hard and get feedback afterwards.
When students use the Effort Meter, they “score” their effort on a 1–5 scale. It is reviewed by the teacher after each period or block of the day and adjusted as needed (believe me, there are students who think they are a 5 all day long). Feedback is crucial during these times.
Remember, it is not about what the students did well, but what kind of effort they put in. If there are moments of inattention, you can talk about observable behaviors.
It looks like you had trouble putting in effort during Math, you seemed to be playing with pencils in your desk and looking at your neighbor’s notes. You think you put in a 4 for effort, but it might be closer to a 1 or 2. Can we meet in the middle for your score and try better next time?
There are a number of ways that we can highlight attention skills within a classroom. As educators, we need to work to increase awareness of moments of inattention. We also need to work to make successes more attainable for our students. By breaking tasks down into manageable chunks, it becomes easier to help our students find success. Putting forth effort is huge for some of our students. By getting ideas on paper or at least starting a project on their own, we are empowering students. Shaping those behaviors over time is an important key, but there needs to be a starting point.
Photo credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/homework-paper-pen-person-267491/