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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Refocusing Students: How to Get Their Attention Back

Maurice Elias

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

Did you know that when reading, one's mind will wander 20 to 40 percent of the time while perusing a text, regardless of whether it is a book, blog, email, narrative, essay, or anything else? This is one of many fascinating findings reported in Dan Goleman's new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and it calls us to remember that students can't learn what they are not paying attention to.

As we enter the Common Core era, it's clear that students are going to have to read more deeply and carefully than ever if they are going to grasp the depth of meaning of the text. Reading experts will confirm that to get most out of reading, we need to immerse completely in the full context of the material -- we picture it, we integrate it with our experiences, and create a cognitive representation of the material that becomes a guide to how we understand and act in the world.

So it seems as if, as a practical matter, one of the most important activities of educators is to help build students' skills at refocusing their attention when it wanders. And since wandering attention is a norm, this should be developed as a universal skill and supplemented when needed.

In the Classroom

In Goleman's book, he discusses a growing number of computer-based games and procedures designed to help build attention. But for most schools, it is difficult to provide this to all students. So some simplified and practical alternative are needed.

Focusing Activity

Here are activities to help secondary students practice focusing their attention and then getting themselves refocused when needed.

Have students take out a piece of letter-sized paper, hold it sideways, and make a dot in the middle. Explain to them that paying attention is a skill they can practice and learn.

Ask them when it's important to them, in their lives, to pay careful attention. Take a few responses so that you are sure they understand its importance. Then, ask them to look at the dot and keep their focus on it. When they find their eyes moving away, have them raise their hands (as a variation, you can have them stand, instead). Once most hands are up, note how long it took and ask them what led their eyes to wander.

After these reasons are discussed, have them repeat the activity. See if they tend to do better. Ask them how they tried to maintain their focus this time. Point out to them that it is natural for us to shift the focus of our attention. It may be because our minds wander, or we get distracted, or other reasons they can provide. You can repeat yet again if you wish, or wait until another time. The point is that you want them to practice sustaining their attention and understanding how they do it.

Refocusing Activity

Now ask them to take another piece of paper, put a dot in the middle, and make an additional dot in each corner, so there are 5 dots on the page.

Next, have them put a number one next to the middle dot. Have them put a number two next to the one in the upper right corner, number five next to the dot in the lower right corner, the number four next to the dot in the upper left corner, and the number three next to the dot in the lower left corner.

Then, take them through the following steps:

  • First, ask them to focus on dot number one. If their attention wanders, have them put their hand up
  • After about 30 seconds, ask them to focus on dot two. After 30 seconds, ask them to focus back to one
  • Then, ask them to focus on number three. Then five, then four, then one. Any time they find their attention wandering before the 30 seconds are up, they will raise their hands (or stand up)

As in the previous example, have them discuss what led their attention to wander and have those who were more successful share their strategies. Repeat this activity periodically to keep their attention focused on the need to focus their attention. Consider pairing up your more and less successful students so that the latter are watching and coaching the former during practice.

They can point out the very first sign of eyes wandering and if their partner refocuses immediately and stays focused for the 30-second interval, they would not have to raise their hand/stand up.

Obviously, these activities can be adapted in many ways. But it's important to repeat them periodically, not only to help student master sustaining and regaining focus but to keep the matter in their consciousness.

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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