George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Encouraging Young Children to Develop Their Attention Skills

Teachers can help young students learn how to focus during class meetings by taking a multisensory approach that addresses their developmental needs.

August 4, 2022
Preschool teacher with students during circle time
Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Attending an education conference creates the opportunity for me to take on the role of a student. It doesn’t take long for me to learn that sitting and listening is a challenge—and I’m a teacher. I bring a journal to take notes, drink water to stay hydrated, and take walking breaks in between sessions to recharge.

Over the years, I’ve noticed there are a variety of ways that I make adjustments to help me as I learn. I make sure to have a comfortable seat during staff meetings, and chewing gum helps me focus while writing conference reports. Likewise, I think it’s important to help young children find the tools that help them to cue in, activate listening skills, and engage in learning experiences.

Use a Multisensory Approach to Help Young Children Learn to Focus 

Taking into account what we know about preschool- and kindergarten-aged children is an important first step in designing a classroom that supports their learning. Children learn best through a multisensory approach, not only in their play but also when gathering for class meetings (morning meeting or circle time). When children’s visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile senses are tapped into, they’re able to engage better, absorb, and recall what they’ve learned. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that the classroom environment and experiences are visually and auditorily appealing, are open-ended for exploration, are hands-on, and offer full-body learning. 

I’ve noticed that this multisensory approach is often available for children during free play but less accessible when it’s time to sit for a class meeting. In the past, I worked tirelessly to gather kids in a circle with a song that reminded them to sit “criss-cross applesauce.” It was exhausting to try to hold their attention as I put on my show. Their lack of attention let me know that I needed to involve a multisensory approach, as well as make adjustments to how we gathered and engaged together. I needed to consider being flexible with the time based on kids’ attention span. I also realized that I needed to modify my teaching approach so that it wasn’t just teacher-led and also offer tools to keep my students’ attention. 

Since I fine-tuned my approach, my class meetings have a much-improved look and feel. At the beginning of the school year, I introduce a variety of tools to the class that they may access before our meeting. These tools include different seating options, fidgets, and supports such as lap weights, headphones, and clipboards. I show them how the tools can be used to help their bodies pay attention, and we test them out together.

For example, an extra-wiggly child might benefit from a bumpy cushion, which offers movement. Scoop seats provide extra core support, and weighted lap cushions can be calming. The fidget tools can be helpful for busy hands that need something to touch and manipulate, and headphones help to minimize sound.

I let kids know the purpose of these tools—they’re meant to help them listen and pay attention. If the tools aren’t working, we can try something different or use them at another time. These extra supports are always available throughout the school day, so kids learn autonomy in getting what they need.

Stay Flexible and Be Realistic About Students’ Attention Span

The overall experience of coming together as a group now looks and feels child centered. We often gather with a song, a stretch, or a fingerplay. Kids anticipate and look forward to revisiting favorites. They not only contribute their ideas but help lead routines, like going over our schedule of the day or taking on class jobs, like counting how many kids are present. Multisensory modes are incorporated as children listen to a story and then act it out, engage in yoga and meditation, and play group games with real-life visuals, such as What’s Missing, Simon Says, and I Spy. 

I’ve learned to be more flexible and read the room. Sometimes an impromptu breathing exercise is necessary to bring the group back, and sometimes it’s time to wrap it up. Research shows that children’s attention span is about 2 to 3 minutes per year of age. This is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind so that you don’t set expectations beyond what’s developmentally appropriate for your students. 

To me, saying goodbye to “criss-cross applesauce” means that there’s more than one way to sit and engage in learning. It means that it’s OK for kids to connect with supports that help them access learning and build their overall attention. 

Sometimes, we’ll gather in a circle so that we can see each other’s faces, and sometimes we will all be moving together. It’s OK for some kids to sit close to the front on a cushion while others sit on chairs in the back. 

I’m grateful to be a teacher at a time when we’ve moved beyond a one-size-fits-all approach and instead intentionally partner with kids to discover what helps them as learners. Young children will take these tools with them on their academic journey as the demands of school increase. How empowering for children to be able to advocate for themselves by saying what helps them learn best!

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  • Classroom Management
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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