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Strategies for Getting and Keeping the Brain’s Attention

Dr. Donna Wilson

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer
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A photo of an elementary-school boy writing in his notebook.

Editor's Note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University.

The human brain has an amazing capacity to wield a potent cognitive strategy: selective attention. When we consciously focus our attention on something, we bring the power of the prefrontal cortex to this endeavor. By honing our ability to focus attention at will, we can more effectively screen out two types of distractions:

  1. Input through our sensory organs
  2. Our emotional responses

Distractions via sensory input may be the easier of the two to block, according to Daniel Goleman in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. As educators, we may tend to notice the impact of sights, sounds, and touch points that draw students' focus away from lessons and learning activities. But while all of the sensory stimulations in the environment are readily obvious, emotions can be even "louder" when it comes to diverting attention in unwanted directions and making it hard to focus on learning.

Which Neural Network Do We Activate?

To help students learn to maintain focused attention, we can guide them to wire their brains for staying the course even during times of emotional upheaval, remaining level-headed, and riding the emotional waves of life. As with other skills, this cognitive strategy comes with conscious recognition and deliberate practice.

Brain research summarized in a briefing paper from the Dana Foundation indicates that attention activates not one but several neural networks, including an alerting network that signals the brain about incoming sensory stimuli and an orienting network that directs the brain to take notice of the source of the stimuli. A third network, referred to as executive attention, enables us to choose which of the stimuli competing for our attention we will focus our thinking on. In effect, executive attention functions as a control tower for guiding the brain's higher-level cognitive processes to land on specific tasks and information.

Applying this research, scientists suggest a different way of thinking about and addressing attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The "deficit" in its label suggests inaccurately that students diagnosed with ADHD have a shortage of attention, when in fact the problem may be that they have difficulty in allocating their attention on learning in the classroom.

Cognitive Strategies

This shift in emphasis about where problems with attention may lie, when combined with recent neuroscientific findings, suggests that explicit instruction on regulating students' attention may provide them with a valuable cognitive strategy to support self-directed learning. The focus of this instruction is on guiding students to understand that they can consciously direct and maintain their attention on learning tasks and that, with regular thoughtful practice, they can improve their ability to attend to learning.

1. Shine the spotlight on attention.

Introduce the subject of attention by asking students to share examples of being so focused on an activity that they've blocked out distractions around them, such as getting lost in a good book or movie, practicing the piano, or perfecting their jump shot in basketball. In the same way, they can purposefully focus their attention on learning, and shift their attention from one learning task to another throughout the school day. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of focusing attention, and students can train their brains to better control their attention. Brainstorm ways that regulating attention can improve learning, such as:

  • Paying attention to a lesson instead of being distracted by noise in the hallway or something happening in the schoolyard outside the window
  • Switching from learning one subject to the next or from one class to another
  • Putting aside a lunchtime disagreement with a friend to focus on class in the afternoon
  • Completing a homework assignment before turning on TV or a video game
  • "Turning off" worries about doing well on a test in order to stay focused and remember everything studied
  • Identifying what's most important right now and paying attention only to that most important thing

2. Emphasize that focusing attention is a skill that can be learned and improved.

Like any other skill, students can develop their attention for learning through regular practice and training. Give them good reasons for training their attention -- people who can take charge of their attention are better at remembering things and figuring out what new information means and how they can use it. They are better at metacognition and higher-order thinking processes. For practical tools to increase student attention and other thinking skills, check out these suggestions.

3. Pace your teaching with students' attention.

While attention spans vary between individuals, we've found that a useful rule of thumb is to focus on presenting new information in roughly eight-minute "chunks." Students under age eight may benefit from even shorter chunks of lessons and learning activities. In our book BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning, we suggest the acronym CRAVE as a way to remember five other strategies for keeping students' attention focused on learning:

  • Build curiosity for learning with "teasers" that get students interested in a lesson.
  • Look for ways to make lessons relevant to students' lives.
  • Ask questions to engage students in learning and inquiry.
  • Remember that variety is the spice of attention -- a mix of learning activities helps keep students engaged.
  • Evoke emotions. Just as emotions can be distracting, they can also be used to enhance attention by making a lesson or learning activity more interesting.

Advertisers use these same strategies to grab consumers' attention, so you might find inspiration for ways to adapt them to your lessons in a TV ad or on the side of a city bus! Keep this in mind as you guide students to improve their selective attention: The first step toward learning is paying attention.


Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. (2011). BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning. Orlando, FL: BrainSMART.

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Nick Jaworski's picture
Nick Jaworski
Former Edutopia Intern (Social Media) & Music Educator


Your points about engagement are very true. Obviously, an engaged student is going to have a better chance to staying focused than the student who is not engaged. Having said that, as someone who loves making music and has spent thousands of hours in a practice room, sheer interest does not equal an attentive brain. So, having said that, there is some balancing point between natural interest/focus and using strategies to help yourself (or your students) maintain interest.

There's also this larger point that not everything a teacher does is going to be naturally interesting for every student. In that situation, making students aware of their own focus and providing them skills to direct their attention (coupled with effective teaching practices) is probably a good strategy.

Andrew_Weiler's picture
Passionate about leading people to be the great language learners they all once were

Yep, you are right Nick, interest is not the same as engagement. That is the mistake that is made to often. It is a fine art to maintain one's level of engagement as an adult in something like learning languages or music. But that is in fact the what the stand out people have mostly achieved. In fact the same applies for any skill. Just read the stories about the people who did stand out.

To become an effective learner, I need to learn to recognise when I have strayed too far from what keeps me inspired and energised ( sometimes, the cause is tiredness, sometimes it is just I just need a break to let my unconscious sort out all I have done, sometimes it may be that I have let my intellect determine what I need to do not my heart, etc)

The teacher's task is to do what it takes so the learners in the class will WANT to engage in learning. That is the aim and that is what I try for every day and every moment whilst I am teaching. I am not talking here about providing "interesting topics" but about finding the level of skills the students have and pitch the activities just at that level, providing just enough challenge for the them so that they don't feel overwhelmed or bored.

When a teacher has done all the preliminary work and finds the sweet spot, everyone wants to participate because they have come to realise that learning is multi layered and by having learned to become more attentive, they can learn from whatever is happening.

Charlotte Dukes's picture

Great points! I love the acronym CRAVE! This is a great way to remember the five strategies for keeping students' attention focused on learning. I am excited to start using these in my classroom!

Dr. Donna Wilson's picture
Dr. Donna Wilson
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Charlotte,

Thanks for your comment and your commitment to applying strategies in your classroom that can increase student attention and engagement!

All the best to you!


Robin's picture

Thank you for this post! The information and strategies included are so practical and straightforward to implement. I particularly like that there are techniques for teachers as well as the link for student strategies. I cannot wait to add some of these to my always-growing repertoire of skills.

Dr. Donna Wilson's picture
Dr. Donna Wilson
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer


We are delighted to support teachers like you who are committed to life long learning as well as teaching! All the best to you and your students!


Dr. Donna Wilson's picture
Dr. Donna Wilson
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Greetings! I've had some questions about how to find more of our resources.

For readers who may want to learn about more resources and strategies:

For readers who may want to learn about NSU's Brain-Based Teaching degree programs:

MoniJoh's picture

Dr. Wilson,

I think your response to Gaetan is spot on. I do not have a lot of experience teaching but what I have learned from my limited experience in front of the classroom and my years and years of experience in the student role is variation matters. Especially, now more than ever in a day and age where our students' brains are trained on the pace of TV and technology. It is essential to come up with various ways of teaching the material and breaking up the curriculum in order to be absorbed more by the students. I know from personal experience the classes I took where there was classroom discussion I learned 100% more than strict memorization lessons. I love your comments about teaching how to capitalize on the type of attention. Helping the students focus and be able to almost compartmentalize their attention. I think one way to help with that ability is to make the information relatable. History for one might seem boring or in need of strict memorization but there are ways to bring what happened in French Revolution or Roman Times etc to life for the students in this generation. It just takes a teacher who is more willing to step outside of the box and take risks in their curriculum development.


MoniJoh's picture


I couldn't agree with you more! There is a lot of attention placed on entertaining our students. One way I think could help with the reflection is to have each student journal at the end of each class. Give them the opportunity to write in his or her own words what they learned or what might provoke future discussions in a notebook. In order to keep them accountable these journals could be collected periodically for a grade. It is very easy to have information enter one ear and out the other but I have found if a student is required to write about it and interpret the information in their own words they will be able to better identify and remember the information.


Dr. Donna Wilson's picture
Dr. Donna Wilson
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Monica,

I really appreciate your reflection and comments about teaching so that students are able to better pay attention to lessons through class discussions and other techniques for maximum student involvement. You are right on! Most all our blog posts to this date on Edutopia can be used to help students learn to manage their own attention over time too!

Best wishes!


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