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Brain-Based Learning

Strategies for Students With Scattered Minds

Teachers can help students strengthen their brain's executive function with "workouts" in which they practice pausing, prioritizing, improving their working memory, and mapping their options.
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Imagine a team without a coach guiding players toward working together to execute a winning strategy. Imagine a company without a leader to make sure that employees across departments are equipped and organized to collaborate on continually improving products and increasing sales. Imagine a marching band without a drum major to lead musicians through their complicated maneuvers while staying on beat. 

The brain’s executive function network performs in the same capacity as a coach, CEO, or drum major: directing one’s thinking and cognitive abilities toward setting goals and planning to achieve them, establishing priorities, getting and staying organized, and focusing attention on the task at hand. Now imagine trying to perform those abilities if your brain’s executive functioning system wasn't working effectively -- no coach to develop a game plan, no CEO to help you organize your resources for accomplishing your goals, no drum major on which to maintain your learning focus. 

That’s the challenge facing students with attention deficit disorders, who in effect struggle with executive dysfunction. As a former classroom teacher and school psychologist, Donna worked with many youth who had great difficulty with various executive functions, including:

  • The ability to inhibit behavior, which often resulted in impulsivity, an abundance of movement, and difficulty following instructions
  • Initiation and planning behavior, the lack of which made it hard for students to get started on classroom work and assignments and maintain their focus on learning tasks for the duration required to complete them
  • Working memory and the ability to selectively maintain attention on information needed to complete a learning task 
  • Cognitive flexibility, or the ability to recognize when it may be useful to adjust one’s thinking and action based on new information

As we noted in our post Strategies for Strengthening the Brain’s Executive Functions, children and youth can be taught to develop their executive functioning to become more successful self-directed learners. Explicit instruction about executive function and how to improve it is especially useful for students with learning challenges, as they can benefit the most from learning to rein in and consciously direct their "scattered minds."

Executive Function "Workouts"

Practical instruction to help struggling students hone executive function offers potential dual benefits. First, students will be better prepared to improve their performance in school and, later, on the job. Second, you can reduce classroom management issues by teaching these students strategies to avoid distractions -- and to create fewer distractions for classmates. If you need to guide youth with attention deficits, put these strategies to work in your classroom:

"Just a moment, let me think." Students who exhibit poor impulse control often benefit from additional adult support, including one-on-one strategizing about ways to overcome habits like blurting out an answer without thinking it through or behaving in ways that distract other students. For example, you might suggest that an impulsive student repeat the question either out loud or silently before answering. Maybe you'll agree on a "secret word," a password that you can say to remind the student about using his or her executive function abilities. Incorporating regular opportunities for movement into lessons can also help students reduce impulsive behaviors and stay focused on learning.

Start with the end in mind. Initiative, defined as readiness and skill in taking action, applies many aspects of executive function to maximum impact in school, work, and life. To help students develop initiative, guide them to establish their clear intent for a learning project as the first step in setting out a concrete plan to complete the task. Then if they start to go off task, they can revisit their clear intent: "Is what I’m doing now helping me to achieve my goal?" Breaking down learning tasks into a series of instructions is another useful strategy that models for students a step-by-step approach to direct their attention toward a small, discrete action that will move them closer to accomplishing their clear intent. Each little success along the way -- clicking another item off the to-do list -- can help keep students focused on big goals.

Learn to remember. Researchers working with students with attention deficits found that training to improve working memory (PDF) helped them avoid distractions and improve school outcomes. A variety of strategies have been developed to bulk up working memory. We've found that teachers and students alike enjoy and find useful a recall activity that we call Memory Pegs, which employs association to enhance memory. To help students recall the names of the first ten U.S. presidents in order, for example, guide them to say the names as they tap "pegs" on their body in descending order: George Washington (head), John Adams (shoulders), Thomas Jefferson (heart), all the way to number ten, John Tyler (toes). 

Consider more options. Cognitive flexibility is a form of higher-order thinking that students can apply in creative problem solving and in weighing the pros and cons of multiple alternatives. Students with ADD may grab on to the first idea or answer that comes to mind. You can teach students to map their options with a graphic organizer that places the problem or question in the middle and encourages them to surround it with two or more solutions -- and the more the merrier. Option mapping reinforces that there is often more than one way to solve a problem or think about a concept. That in itself is a useful example of executive function at work!

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HoffmanR's picture

A teacher in a unique position to evaluate this article, I have ADD, and teach utilizing many of these methods. I think that the authors suggest numerous high-quality strategies especially getting students up and moving, and utilizing lists. Where I take exception from my own experience is the development of alternative strategies. My problem was just the opposite of the author's suggestion. I came up with so many different strategies, many of them unique, that teachers who insisted on using their strategy, became upset; "Yes, that's very nice, but we're going to do the problem this way so we don't confuse the other students." Also ADD/ADHD students can exhibit "hyperfocus" on a project if the problem or project engages them. In fact, you might need to deal with perseveration of ADD/ADHD students.
Teacher: "You need to go eat lunch now!"
Student (in a begging voice): "Can't I just work for a couple more minutes? I'm almost done with this part of the project."
Otherwise, this article provides great ideas for teachers!

(2)
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Greetings:)

Thanks for your positive feedback about the blog! Beyond the strategies in this blog posting that teachers and students have found useful, we agree that it is important for teachers to consider the strategies that students themselves are useful for them so that they can remain focused to complete assignments.

Sincerely,

Donna

Daizichka00's picture

I really enjoyed reading this post as it hit close to home for me. I think it is fair to say many people, not just young student, have scattered minds. While I hate to admit it, my mind is scattered more often than it is not. There is more to than just relating to these students with 'scattered minds' - the question becomes, what can we do about it?

Educational Therapists work with students with "scattered minds". One of their many jobs is to work on executive functioning and to help students with scattered minds become more organized as they are trained to teach these skills. Instead of giving a student a quick fix in order to help them with their 'scattered mind', right here, right now, we must gain an understanding of what is causing them to have a scattered mind in the first place. This will help us gain a better understanding of the child and how they are 'wired'. The work of Educational Therapists does just that - they look for the reason behind the scattered mind - and find ways for students to become more effective learners. By implementing different tactics, like the ones mentioned in the article, students can learn to contain their thoughts and their minds. By being provided with the tools and resources, whether it be from the classroom teacher or through an educational therapist, students can gain control of their mind that was once 'scattered'.

Julie Norman's picture

I loved reading this blog post and all of the strategies that you mention in order to help refocus children with "scattered minds". I am currently studying educational therapy and am intrigued by the challenges of executive functioning that many children face and am thrilled to read about effective strategies to implement with students during intervention programs. Thank you for your expertise!

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

We are glad that you enjoyed our post. Indeed, it seems as if today's culture can cause many to be scattered. To your point what can we do about it, while we can't change the culture here and elsewhere we have written about many strategies that can be used in schools [and at home] to help students focus on instruction and do develop greater selective attention. In this blog as you've noticed we have discussed four such strategies and provided couple links. Additionally, you might want to take a look at the most recent 'Brain-Based Learning Resources" list here at Edutopia for many more strategies. You can find it at - http://www.edutopia.org/article/brain-based-learning-resources

All the best to you!

Donna

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

Hi Julie,

Thank you for your kind words and best wishes to you on your journey to become an educational therapist. You might be interested to know that when I was a practicing school psychologist now more than 15 years ago, I found that most students who were referred were lacking in cognitive and metacognitive skills that could help them succeed at school. Importantly, these skills can be learned and taught. You might want to check out other blogs we and others have written at http://www.edutopia.org/article/brain-based-learning-resources Also we have a new book out with ASCD that melds well with our blogs.

All the best to you!

Donna

Angie Pintos's picture

I'm a college student (English teacher-to-be) and I've recently discovered that I've had ADD all along. Some of my friends suspect they have it too. Honestly, I read through most of this blog (I couldn't actually focus so long), but I find it too general and vague. Did you use any specific strategies yourself to get you through college? Would you mind giving me some advice?

BTW, I'm gonna go to a specialist to have sb do some one-to-one follow up on me, but do you think I should go to a psychiatrist specifically?

Thank you very much!

Angie Pintos's picture

I'm a college student (English teacher-to-be) and I've recently discovered that I've had ADD all along. Some of my friends suspect they have it too. Honestly, I read through most of this blog (I couldn't actually focus so long), but I find it too general and vague. Did you use any specific strategies yourself to get you through college? Would you mind giving me some advice?

BTW, I'm gonna go to a specialist to have sb do some one-to-one follow up on me, but do you think I should go to a psychiatrist specifically?

Thank you very much!

Apostolos Vranas's picture
Apostolos Vranas
A Teaching Experience of 25+ years

I have found out that memory pegs (association links) work excellently in all environments, whether with children with scattered minds or with dyslexia or with no condition at all. And they can work in all subjects, too!

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