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.