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Helping Students Develop the Skills to Focus

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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In Dan Goleman's new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, he shows the importance of being able to direct and sustain our attention on everything from, well, everything! Not paying attention is downright dangerous. The inability to focus and sustain attention can rob us of relationships, deep knowledge, career accomplishment, peace of mind, and high test scores. But, as Goleman's book makes clear, we can learn to focus.

See all videos from the Daniel Goleman on Cultivating Focus series.

A number of social, emotional learning curricula have developmentally sequenced activities to build this skill over time. Below, you will find an activity adapted from the Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving curriculum. With adaptations, as noted, you can literally use this lesson plan for grades K through 8. The lessons have a dual focus (pun intended!) in that they also build vocabulary and language skills. It is based on the enduring favorite children's game, "Simon Says."


Step 1: Good listening is very difficult. When is it important to be a good listener?

[Take a few responses: during a test, during an emergency, when someone is giving you instructions about when and how to do something, when someone you care about is telling you something important.]

Step 2: We are going to practice listening. I am going to read you some words. [Use List 1] I want you to clap your hands every time you hear the word, "cat," and only clap when you hear the word "cat."

[After they are finished, comment on how they did. Ask, "What was challenging about that?" "What word was most confusing to you?" "What helped you to listen well and only clap on "cat"?]

Step 3: Now, we are going to try again. I will read you some words from the same list, but this time, I want you to stand when I don't read the name of an animal. When I read the name of an animal, you should be sitting down in your seat. [Adjust the pace to make it a little challenging.]

[After they are finished, ask if this was harder or easier and why. Ask, "What did you do this time to help you concentrate more?" Expect them to say that they looked at you doing the reading, they kept themselves still, they faced you, or that they kept thinking about what the instructions were. You may want to keep and post a list of "Ways to Focus Better" for students to refer to when their attention is wavering.]

Using the List Words

Repeat as needed with the other lists. For List 2, try "cat" again as a focal word, and then try using articles of clothing as a challenge. They can clap, stand or sit, snap their fingers, raise one or two hands -- whatever will keep it interesting.

For List 3, the keyword is tree. The challenge would be things found in a backyard or park area.

For List 4, there are many complicated challenges you can try. Consider words that relate in any way to animals (this is also a vocabulary/concept grouping issue. You may need to repeat this a second time, after reviewing all the words that have something to do with animals, including trunk, steak, bleat, hoot, howl, meat -- this will also help them with homonyms); words that don't start with the letter "b", words that do or do not end in the letter "k" or "t".

cuts coat horse cut dog cow cat
horse cuts cut cow cut dog cat
coat cute horse dog cute cow dog
cow cut cat cat dog horse cut

cat shoes pants coat cute dress cut
cute cut pants shoes dress cat shoes
coat dress pants cut dress shoes cut
coat pants cute cat coat cut shoes
cute coat cat pants cat cute dress

bush leaf true tree grass tire tear
tree true leaf tear bush tree leaf
bush true tire tear grass tire grass
true tear leaf bush grass leaf tear
tire true tree tire tree grass bush

break beak bent boat bark bow
beak boot beak beat bleat boat
coat cat bat beak boot hoot howl
break steak beat meat mote boat bark
bunk flunk bunk gunk trunk beak beet

Bottom Line

The students have fun with the activities, but the most important element is reflecting on what helps different people listen and pay attention. And through that process -- and practice -- students develop more ideas and strategies to improve their focusing skills.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Theresa St. Clair's picture
Theresa St. Clair
eighth -twelfth grade Business teacher from the Caribbean ( St. Lucia)

I totally agree about this creative idea. I am definitely going to use it with my 10th graders and of course tell my colleagues about using this strategy. Thanks for sharing

MSimon's picture
1st Grade STEM Teacher

This is a great idea. It ties into the whole brain learning approach and Steven Covey's leadership habit of seeking to understand. As a first grade teacher, it is important for students to listen, and focus so they can make the connection to reading. This will be fun to try, and I think it will be very beneficial!

rene sardina's picture
rene sardina
K-8 music teacher

I loved reading the article on focusing. I will use the listening and focusing activity with my students tomorrow, and I will share the blog and the activity with my other teachers.

IteachurkidzWA's picture

The discussion of ages, how to teach focus!!! Thanks for the idea to improve student attention to active listening. I hope it will be useful and fun for the students...

Jones Murrey's picture
Jones Murrey
Content Writer - Academic Wrtier - Business Plan Writer - Article Writer

This is a great idea for students to develop their learning skills.
I would like to suggest that student have to participate in skills & learning development program and workshops including: IT training, study skills and information about further sources of advice.

Workshops are suitable for undergraduates, taught postgraduates and research postgraduates, and are completely free (subject to a non-attendance fee).

Postgraduate students should look out for sessions and workshops run by the Universities and Graduation Schools.

Hope this should also help to develop skills and focus on their academic achievements.

David's picture

This is powerful and very practical . I really will like to find the way to apply this in my Maths class. I recently began to device strategies to get the students attention in the class but as see this as very practical and effective from what I read here.
Thank you very much.

Andrew Wood's picture

I think I'll give this a try tomorrow with my high school students. If it goes well I'll have to look for more similar activities. I think it's great for after lunch or the last hour of the day when students seem to really struggle to focus. Thanks for the idea.

David Yam's picture
David Yam
9-12 High school Mathematics Teacher

This sounds like a great idea. I think it will really help students to notice the skills they need to really stay focused to comprehend something they want to hear and and understand.

Angela Lavrinc's picture
Angela Lavrinc
First Grade Teacher from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I grew up hearing the phrase, "practice makes perfect."

In my first grade classroom we practice math skills, reading skills, social skills, and organizational skills. In order to improve any of those skills, we need to have good focusing skills. I am excited to use this fabulous strategy to practice focusing skills with my students!

chanel's picture

I think this is a great idea to help with following directions and help with listening skills.

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