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Helping Students Develop the Skills to Focus

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development 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.

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Maurice J. Elias

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

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Lilit's picture

As a student who often had trouble focusing, I find it to be extremely important to be able to help children be focused during instruction. I was a good student - I never got bored on purpose. As strange as that is to hear, it is true. I think that only those who have experienced similar feelings will be able to understand. Nevertheless, as teachers, we need to make it our job to get the students involved. I like the examples provided. Those are all great tools on getting students focused. I especially like ideas of using technology in classrooms. Kids nowadays are very intrigued by computers and other such devises. If they are able to use computers, they will be more focused on what they are doing. By finding great scholarly websites where students can learn while playing games, we will have hit jackpot.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


I'm helping Helena out with the track meets and yesterday afternoon was the junior varsity regional championship. Elbows and knees ... going as fast and as high as they can. Helena teaches language arts across the hall from me. She's the school's track coach.

At the track meets I use the school's track and field team official megaphone so everybody can know real well how high and how fast their child went. You put that thing up to your lips and squeeze that trigger and blast out words that crackle like lightening.

I thought to bring it to class today. I thought to use it in class. By talking into it. The megaphone.

And now I'd like to offer up to my friends in the teaching business that the greatest tool for teaching 8th graders Georgia history is available at Radio Shack. It's the AmpliVox S602M 25W Piezo megaphone with a detachable mic. The model number is S602M and the catalog number is 55025884. There's also a switch you may accidentally push--twice--that makes the megaphone produce an extremely loud siren sound. Let's make that: siren brain-melting blast. I cannot tell you how loud this siren brain-melting blast is, but if you wanted to get the attention of some kids in Afghanistan while you were teaching Georgia history in the United States back over across the Atlantic Ocean then this is the switch you'd push on the AmpliVox S602M 25W Piezo megaphone with a detachable mic.

Georgia history spoken through a megaphone. The genius of it boggles the mind.

By the way, the greatest teaching tool on Earth for inattentive school kids costs only $109.99. It's worth every single nickel. Their extremely attentive expressions today were worth priceless Confederate bills.

Ashley Wheat's picture

I, too, believe that this is a great idea and will help to improve my students academic skills greatly. I am implementing this for sure tomorrow.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Kids who once could sit and focus, just can't anymore. They now fidget from needing more and more stimulation. This brave new world is all over the map.
This is wonderful. Thank you! Will share all around my teacher universe.

Abdul Mueed Al-Qazi's picture

Amazing, what I did before reading in order to train the kids for better focus was something more like pressurizing them to remember the list which I just read out and recall, or recall the pictures which I showed on the ppt etc. This activity is very good, thank you.

Jackie Taylor's picture
Jackie Taylor
1st/2nd grade teacher

This year I have 5 students diagnosed with ADD/ADHD as first and second graders. I am pulling everything out of my tool box to help them learn how to be attentive and respectful, while really working to keep any 'sit time' short and engaging. It is a real balancing act!
I like the idea of this activity because I work with my students on reflecting and solving problems. This has students generating and adjusting strategies for focusing in a fun way. I am excited to give it a try!

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Jackie, as a colleague I strongly encourage a read of Chris Mercogliano's text, Teaching the Restless: One School's Remarkable no-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed. Without drugging a single child he had excellent results, not with a miracle curriculum or strategy but rather through a unique perspective on what it means to be educated.

Jackie Taylor's picture
Jackie Taylor
1st/2nd grade teacher

Thank you for the book recommendation - I have read some about the Free School in New York before and am intrigued by its philosophy and success.

My school is based on Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, with small class-sizes, integrated, thematic-based learning, and multi-age classrooms. Our students have a 5-acre rural campus with a wetlands to explore. My students have an hour of free play outside every day. We value student choice and individualized learning. While we are not as open as the Free School, we are far from a traditional school environment as well.

With that being said, it can still be challenging for children and I am always looking for ways to help them thrive at school. Have you found that you are able to incorporate ideas from the Free School into your own school?

Raymond A Bell's picture

Awareness is the precursor to focus. Although generally associated with improving one's tennis game, Tim Gallwey's groundbreaking book "The Inner Game of Tennis" is really about how we learn... and how we get in the way of that process. To learn more visit link below listen to Tim explain what is The Inner Game and it's relationship to how we learn.

MMann's picture

Someone earlier made the comment that children don't need to be taught how to focus, and that all you need to do is watch a child intently focused on some playground activity to see this is true. Unfortunately, that is a severely flawed view. It basically gives in to a person's desire to concentrate on things they like and not concentrate on things they don't like. At no time should we be giving children the impression that this is OK, though. Life is full of times when we absolutely MUST focus on things we may not enjoy doing--completing taxes, driving a vehicle, taking medication, etc. This same person spoke about how various school subjects were not "exciting" to many people, as if that is an excuse for not paying attention to them. Again, this is a dangerous message. We teach children these things to expose them to as much of human knowledge as we can, in the hopes that they will be able to further that development and lead productive, fruitful lives. Doing important things which we may not like doing is an integral part of life. Children must be taught to focus even when they are engaged in something they don't like. It is a vitally necessary skill which will serve them well when they become an adult.

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