Although paying attention is a foundational skill for students' learning and social development, teachers often find that students of all ages have a limited capacity to pay attention for an appropriate length of time.
Many factors contribute to this. For starters, sometimes, the demands teachers have for children are not age-appropriate. There's also the fact that children today are often consumed by highly stimulating and usually passive technology.
In any case, kids need to develop the ability to pay attention to be successful in school.
But what does paying attention even mean? It's actually pretty broad since there are (at least) four different types of attention, including selective attention, sustained attention, alternating attention and divided attention.
If a teacher's goal is to help students improve their attention, the first step is to figure out what kind of attention they are having difficulty with. Although all activities require paying at least one type of attention, some activities are better than others at helping kids develop attention skills. Here are a few basics on each kind of attention, coupled with tips and virtual activities that can help little learners develop them.
This is the ability to select or focus on specific stimuli while ignoring distracting or irrelevant stimuli. At school, students are expected to use selective attention often. This skill is seen when:
- A student can focus on what their teacher is saying while ignoring surrounding sounds, such as that of friends whispering, a pencil tapping or the humming noise from the air conditioner.
- A student can read the directions on the top of the page while ignoring the text underneath.
Playing a "name that sound" game can help kids develop this skill. For this game, students sit quietly, anticipating a sound. Once they hear it, they must try and guess what object is making that sound. Once students guess, the object is revealed. Students should not use their other senses (at least at first), making this a perfect activity to do virtually. To make this activity more challenging, teachers can have students keep their eyes open while guessing. This is difficult to do because now they have to actively ignore any stimuli they can see, like their peers, and focus on what they are hearing.
Children love anticipation, and this game has a lot of it! When students anticipate something important, like an unknown sound, they put all their energy into selectively attending to the present moment. Another benefit is that students then need to process what they just heard to guess the correct answer. This is similar to how students need to selectively attend to what a teacher is saying and process that information quickly to understand or respond appropriately. Processing information can be complex. Luckily, with this game, children tend to enjoy powering through the difficulty because it is a lot of fun.
This activity can be done virtually in a few different ways. If done during class time, teachers can turn off your video camera while making the noise or play an audio clip instead. They can also upload an audio clip file to a presentation or document and have students write out the object's name when live classes are not in session.
Teachers should encourage students to reflect on their performance. This teaches students to take the time to acknowledge what they did well and what they can improve on. The following discussion questions can be used to encourage students to reflect on how they did:
- "Did you find this game difficult or easy? Why?"
- "What helped you listen closely? Did keeping quiet and still help?"
- "Did you like guessing the object when you had your eyes closed? What about when they were open? How come?"
After students play this game a few times, teachers can have them bring the skills they learned to other activities. For example, if a teacher sees a student struggling to focus during a read-aloud exercise, they can remind them to stay calm or close their eyes, just like they did during the "name that sound" game.
Our ability to sustain attention — to focus on something for a period of time without being distracted — depends on many factors, including motivation levels, the number and type of distractions around us, how we feel (tired, anxious, hungry, etc.) and more. Teachers can help improve students' sustained attention by empowering them to choose activities or strategies that help them focus.
This "attention helpers" activity can help. To start, teachers can show little ones examples of activities that help us stay focused on tasks. Then, students can share examples of their own. After that, the class votes on whether each strategy is helpful or not. The approved strategies, called "attention helpers," can then go on a chart with pictures of what each of them entails. For example, if "movement break" is on the chart, there should be a picture of a child jumping or dancing. Once the chart is complete, the teacher can show it before an activity and ask students what strategy they will use to help them focus.
By creating a space where students learn that attention can be improved on, they are better equipped to problem-solve on their own when they find their attention fluctuating.
The illustrated chart is also a great way to manage inappropriate virtual classroom behavior because it reminds students who are not focusing that they can use an "attention helper" to make better choices on how to focus their attention. For example, a teacher might tell a student, "You are moving around/talking to your friends a lot during math time. Do you think you need an attention helper to help you focus?"
Alternating and Divided Attention
Alternating attention is when we attend to one task and then switch our attention to a different one. Even though the tasks are different, we're easily able to switch back and forth. It's surprising to realize how often children are expected to use alternating attention during school. Here are a few examples:
- During reading time, a student hears their teacher talk, so they switch their attention from reading to listening. When the teacher stops talking, the student returns to reading.
- During science class, a student watches the teacher take out all the materials needed for an experiment. The student then switches their attention to finding their materials, too. Once found, they refocus their attention on the teacher to see what the next step is.
Divided attention also occurs when we attempt to do two or more tasks simultaneously. Essentially, it is being able to multitask, which is a very advanced skill. Just because a student can engage in multiple things at once, it doesn't mean that they are working efficiently or that their engagement is appropriate. Here are some examples of how students are expected to use divided attention at school:
- When singing and dancing to a song.
- When listening to what the teacher is saying while reading information on the board or screen.
- During lunch, as they focus on chewing their meal while listening to their friend.
Dividing our attention essentially means that we are switching between two or more tasks very quickly. This is possible because at least one of those tasks is familiar, which allows the shift to happen with speed and ease. For example, a person can walk and talk at the same time because those tasks are familiar. However, if the person was faced with an unfamiliar task, such as being asked a surprising and difficult question, their ability to walk and talk will diminish because their brain is now working harder to overcome the challenge. Therefore, when working with students, it can be helpful to focus on improving their alternating attention first, then working on their divided attention once they become familiar with an activity.
Playing the "I spy a feeling" game is a fun way to practice alternating and divided attention. This activity requires students to pay attention to a story and then practice identifying what feeling a character is experiencing by holding up a smiley face. For example, a teacher might read, "Johnny woke up and saw presents on the table." The students would then hold up a happy or excited smiley face. Alternatively, the teacher might read "Jessie and Rebecca started to argue" so students can hold up an angry or sad face.
This activity works on alternating attention because it requires paying attention to what is being said and then switching that attention to choosing the right smiley face. It is particularly helpful for school-age students because it also boosts social-emotional learning.
The "I spy a feeling" game works best during live remote classes. However, it could be modified for non-live remote learning. For example, an educator could use a Word document to create a story and include sections for students to insert the appropriate smiley faces as they follow along with the story.
Sometimes students may not catch on to when a character is experiencing a feeling. Teachers can encourage them to think about what is happening with a character by saying, "I spy a feeling! Can someone show me what you think they are feeling?"
Although this activity is focused on feelings, the concept can be used in other ways. For example, instead of students showing a smiley face in response to what they are hearing, they could show a thumbs up or thumbs down. It is also helpful for discussing the do's and don'ts of classroom behavior or making friends.
Teachers should keep in mind that sometimes children may need external support outside of the classroom. If a teacher finds that a student is struggling, occupational and speech therapists are just some of several school-based professionals that can help. But let's not forget, learning isn't instantaneous! A little help and understanding can go a long way.