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7 Ways to Increase a Student's Attention Span

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Student focusing on a book

Children often struggle to pay attention, but when they are given a task they view as challenging or hard, they are even more likely to give up before truly trying. If you notice a child that is regularly losing focus during challenging tasks, here are some strategies that might help increase that attention span and improve the overall outcome of tasks.

1. Include Physical Activity

Kids who struggle with attention often do better if they are given brief breaks for active play. Taking a break to bounce on an exercise ball, breaking up learning into chunks, and outdoor play times, or providing a quick stretching or jumping jacks break in the classroom, can all help the attention-challenged student stay focused. Starting with 15 minutes of active play before a challenging task can also help a child stay more engaged.

2. Have "Attention Breaks"

Teach the child or children what "paying attention" means and how it looks. Practice attentive behavior in non-threatening, non-crucial times during the school day. Then, at periodic intervals, have practice attention breaks. Using a timer or an app on the phone, have a signal go off during the work period, and have the child mark whether he/she was paying attention. This can help train a student's brain to understand what attention looks like, and how often he/she is tempted to disengage.

3. Adjust Time Frames

If you find that, no matter what you do, the kids just can't seem to stay on task, it may be time to break content into smaller time intervals. Remember, children can concentrate on one task for two to five minutes per year old. For example, if you have a classroom of 6 year olds, expect 12 to 30 minutes of attention for your students.

If you need to adjust time frames for all or some of your students, do so. Using timers, have the student who is struggling with attention show his/her work after a short period of time. This breaks up the task and allows the child to keep working without feeling completely overwhelmed. Consider calling the child to your desk for these checks. This provides the physical movement that the child needs in order to stay engaged, and also gives you the opportunity to monitor his/her progress.

Also, be cautious about lengthy lectures with kids with short attention spans. These children need to be kept involved with the material, so ask for responses regularly on the subject matter you are discussing. Even a simple question, asking for a raise of hands, can be what is necessary to keep students on task.

4. Remove Visual Distractions

When a child is struggling with a difficult task, clutter in the classroom or on the desk can make it impossible to keep his/her brain where it needs to be. Remove unnecessary clutter and visual experiences from the workspace. This gives the child fewer excuses for not focusing on the task at hand.

5. Play Memory Games

Memory isn't really a muscle, but it can help improve focus. Memory games help hone that focus for kids in a fun way, so that they are able to concentrate when something challenging is presented. Have regular times in the normal school day where the class plays memory games, or work with the attention-challenged students outside of normal class time to play concentration games. Add memory games to classroom electronics to encourage this type of play during free time.

Memory games do not have to be complicated. Even a simple game of red-light-green-light, I-Spy or Simon Says forces a child to concentrate. Memory matching cards or the game Concentration can also be used to increase attention.

6. Rate (and Change) Tasks

If you notice a child is constantly avoiding work or seems overly distracted, ask that child to rate the level of challenge found in the activity on a scale of 1 to 10. If the child indicates the activity is an eight or higher, ask what could be done to make the task a two or three. Sometimes, you will get excellent insight into what you can do to help the student decrease his/her level of frustration.

7. Break Tasks into Pieces

If these strategies don't work, look at the task itself. Can you break it into smaller chunks? Have the child focus long enough to perform part of the task, then take a break, coming back to the project to finish. Children with attention struggles may actually perform the requested task faster with this strategy than if they simply tried to finish it all in one sitting.

Some kids are going to struggle with attention more than others. As a teacher, you can take measures to help improve concentration for your students. All it takes is a little extra thought and work on your part to bring significant change for your students.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Leah Frye's picture

I really enjoyed reading about your 7 tips to increase the attention span. I completely understand how children get off task and lose focus in the classroom, I was that child. I still lose focus as an adult. I am confident these tips will work for students and teachers. I can not wait to use these strategies in my classroom.

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Samantha's picture

I really enjoyed reading your post! I work with kindergarten and keeping their attention is hard enough. I found these tips to be very helpful and I am excited to use some of these strategies this upcoming year!

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Kate Nettlebeck's picture

Great tips! I teach kindergarten and LOVE showing following directions videos on youtube during my brain break times. It gives kids an opportunity to get those wiggles out and it only takes about 5 minutes. I am excited to try the memory game activity to help build stamina this year. Thank you!

TINA's picture

This is a very informative post. I have 2 boys that were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. We tried medications, cognitive therapy and Karate Classes. The Karate Classes and some cognitive therapy were most effective because the instructor incorporated Yoga and Meditation taught the boys how to redirect their beautiful minds and stay focused on a tasks. It took time and yielded positive results. They did Karate for 3 years and the School Teachers applauded-they recorded much positive results on their grade cards!

Kirsten Joyce's picture

These are great suggestions Mr. Reeves. Taking a break to bounce on an exercise ball, outdoor play times, or providing a quick stretching or jumping jacks break in the classroom I am certain are excellent suggestions based on my experience/common sense.
For me, the very reason that the students lose focus on a task is because it's either too easy or too hard for them. So teachers should take a close look at the activity and make sure it's the right skill level for their student. As what they say, a great tactic to help increase your student's concentration is to split the task up into smaller pieces.

David Reeves's picture

Great point, Kirsten. It's always a good idea to reevaluate whether a student is unfocused due to the level of difficulty of the task. It's important to note whether the whole class is unfocused or if it's only one or two students.

Ellen Falsey's picture

I was thrust last minute into a third grade one year, after several years working with 5th and really 6th graders. It was almost like my first year all over again, baptism by fire. I wish I had these great tips and was ready to recognize the problem. The 3rd graders were much less focused on school and the purpose of their whereabouts. We had never had a 3rd grade before as we were converting to k12 from middle school. So great articles like this I always remember in the event I experience a drastic change again. Thanks.

David Reeves's picture

Hi Ellen, I'm glad this article could be of use to you. Different attention spans at different grade levels definitely change the way you have to organize your class time.

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