Recently a friend of mine asked me for some suggestions for her children who are having some focusing problems. Here are some ideas that I came up with. These are not in any particular order of importance but just a list of ideas as they came to me.
When we are talking about focusing and attention span, teachers sometimes confuse this with managing information. To me, that is mixing apples with oranges. These things deal more with managing your attention than managing the material. Of course, if you can manage your attention, the managing the material will be a byproduct. In education, it is important that a student learns to focus on important information for an appropriate amount of time in order to maximize learning (and pass tests, of course!)
Sometimes paying attention for long periods of time depends on the interest in the subject. Of course, the more interested I am in the subject the better I pay attention. Of course there are times that even though I am very interested in the subject, I just can’t seem to focus. I love hearing the sermons at church but I usually have trouble focusing when I am listening to others. I have found a strategy that works for me such as knitting while I am listening. This enables me to focus on the speaker. Students need to find a strategy that works for them which may be doodling, playing with a squishy object in their hands, or standing up at the back of the room.
I also believe that we build up our ability to pay attention, just like I do when I am practicing running. When I started out, I did short periods of running and then gradually increased my time. Eventually I was able to run for an hour without stopping. I think this interval training could be used to help people work up to training on focusing. First get a baseline on how long students can pay attention without being distracted but do this several times so you can get an average. Then try to increase slowly but it is important to explain this to the students so they can actively work towards this increase. Allow students to chart their progress so they can see their accomplishment (which is pretty motivating for some). Take breaks. Many small breaks are better than one long break.
Sometimes students will process too little or too much information. They are so overwhelmed with all the information that it is hard to decide what is important and what are supporting details to that important fact. Consider reducing the work if it is just copying or busy work. If there are a lot of questions, break them up into smaller segments and give the student one segment at a time so it isn’t overwhelming.
Group like problems together. Have the students look through the problems first and mark the ones that require the same skill. Then do them all first. Then go through and mark the others that have the same skill and do them next. For example, mark all of the problems that require addition and do them first. Then do the ones for subtraction. This helps the student focus on one skill at a time rather than going back and forth.
Sometimes the students are easily distracted and then it is hard to focus back on to the task at hand. I know that when I am working on a project, it is hard to stop and then come back to it. I’ve either lost my momentum or I can’t remember where I stopped at. This can be very discouraging and I can lose the motivation to continue or finish what I’m working on. Consider earphones students to block out distracting noises. I had my students listen to instrumental music that I chose for them. Sometimes they would submit music for me to approve of and if it was soft quieting music I allowed it.
Special seating may help. Sitting near the adult may help them focus. Many times my students were put in the front of the room to help curb their behavior but actually sitting in the very back row so that they could get up and stand for a few minutes if they got antsy was more beneficial for them. They didn’t distract others and they were able to move around.
Break an activity into a sequence and write this down so the student can refer to this when needed. Everything has an order to it but we are so used to doing things, we take this for granted. Not every student learns this automatically and has to be taught the steps. As the student learns the steps, the visual can be slowly taken away.
Help the student identify the important information. Have them learn to ask who, what, when, why and how questions. Have them look for the main idea. The more practice they have doing this, the easier this will be.
Once the student can identify the main idea, ask them to look for supporting details for that main idea. If the page can be written on, have them underline or mark the main idea in one color. Then have them underline or mark the supporting details in another color.
Have students use technology such as books on tape/CD or whatever reading device they have. This enables them to control how much information they get at one time. These devices allow children to control how much information is presented at one time. If they need something repeated, it allows them control of this also.
Have the student practice telling you what they have read. The student can put this down in writing, or record it. The student can also draw pictures to go along with the summary.
A student also might have trouble finding relevance in the information they are learning. If there is a disconnect to this new information to why they are learning it, it will be hard for the student to focus on the material. Help students come up with connections for the new information as it relates to their life.
Have students repeat the directions. Depending on the age of the student, don’t expect them to repeat or remember too many directions at one time (I’m an old lady and I can’t remember too many directions at one time!). Write these directions down so they can refer to these when needed.
Let students know about a change in scheduling that may be coming up so they have time to adjust from one situation to another. Don’t spring changes on them suddenly. Keep a daily schedule available for the students to refer to. Sometimes students are worried about what is going to happen next and can’t focus on what they are doing right now.
These are just some suggestions. Do you have any others? Please share.