Attention isn’t just important for your child’s learning – it is critical.
Attention has been described as the brain’s leader – where attention goes, the brain will follow in focussing, selecting and directing our learning focus. As such, attention begins all of our learning processes in school; from learning to read and calculate, to learning about our friends or the rules of the playground games, to translating our teacher’s words into action.
Here’s the tricky part: the capacity for attention, as an executive function or part of the prefrontal cortex, is still developing well into adolescence, meaning that all our primary schoolers have underdeveloped or immature attentional ability during a critical learning period. This is why opportunity for maturity in attention predicting higher school success has become one of the main arguments for later school commencement.
How difficulties in attention are affecting our children today
Diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorders have reportedly increased in the past decade in Australia, with a concurrent increase in stimulant prescriptions by 31% from 1984 to 2000. Is this accurate? To a degree these statistics will reflect improved awareness and diagnostic measures. However, a proportion of these statistics are likely to represent false positive diagnoses inflated by misunderstanding of what is ‘normal’ attention in children and two significant trends:
- the downward curriculum creep putting increased learning pressure on developing brains, and
- tagging funding and in-class support to ADHD diagnosis.
However, many parents will agree that diagnosis and medical treatment of inattention for the purpose of learning is a last resort. Fortunately, there are many environmental strategies that can help enhance or improve the attention of our primary schoolers.
How parents can optimise their child’s attention at school
For parents, there are numerous tricks for supporting your child’s attention in the classroom and setting them up for a more successful learning day:
- Firstly, check hearing and vision (at somewhere like a QUT back to school health check or via recommendations from your GP) before starting Prep and at 2-year intervals thereafter
- Providing a good breakfast
- Pack nutritional, low GI snacks for ‘brain fuel’ (“munch & crunch” is often permitted in class to restore glucose and recharge tired brains)
- Sleep! One of the greatest causes of reduced attention in students is fatigue due to insufficient sleep. The National Sleep Foundation suggests 9-13 hours per night for 5- to 12-year olds
- Playing family puzzles or games that exercise attention and memory
- Providing short, regular periods of free play and family-based fun each week
- For example, 20-minutes of unstructured play per day (e.g., free play, park play, running, jumping, neighbourhood play, social swimming, bike riding, scooting, skate boarding, etc.) is thought to significantly improve executive function (i.e., attention, concentration, planning, impulse control, frustration tolerance, etc.). So parents: grab a coffee & a friend, and let the kids run wild!
- Martial Arts can help slow busy minds and impulsive behaviours through the practice of focussed attention, breathing, slowing down, turn taking, and mindful movements
- Both piano and violin lessons have been shown to improve anterior cingulate function involved in attention (recommended start age 7-years)
- Continuing to read to older children for 45-minutes per night can reduce impulsive aggression related to low attention
- ABC / You Tube children’s yoga and meditation can also help focus
- Addressing environmental overstimulation or excessive stress in the home
- Assess extracurricular activities: too many extra sports, hobbies, social activities may deplete natural attention stores / too little activities (sedentary lifestyle) may result in excess energy
- Slow roasting, slow cooking or baking delicious, aromatic foods also increased endorphins linked to improved attention
- Likewise, cooking with kids exercises executive functions, such as; attention, concentration, planning and organisation
- Negotiating homework breaks with your teacher if needed
- Alternatively; restricting homework to morning periods or weekends can increase your child’s sense of learning success by setting them up for attention-success
- Occasional rest days from school
- Also, consider time spent in after school hours care: time spent anywhere in a structured environment will deplete your child’s attention to some degree. After hours care is becoming increasingly necessary for many families. It is important to view this an extension of attention needed for the 6-hour school curriculum day
- Low vitamin B12 can cause decreased ability to think and concentrate; speak to your GP about a vitamin supplement
How teachers can promote student’s attention in the classroom
Get them moving!
The role of movement in producing important neurochemicals makes an oxymoron out of the old adage ‘sit still and listen’ which needs to be replaced with ‘move more to listen!’ Wiggly children are often moving to produce both norepinephrine and dopamine that helps their brain to sustain attention. This is why movement breaks and learning through movement (e.g., manual instruction, excursions, environmental interaction, out of the classroom learning, play-based learning) is essential for our younger students.
Strategies to get your whole class moving
- Plan for frequent movement breaks; such as: wriggle breaks, thigh squats or pressing palms together as tightly as possible at their desks
- Provide wobble chairs and standing desks
- Embed lessons in active movement context (e.g., encouraging students to move around the room or outside)
- Let students write /read or work lying down or sitting on the floor
- Guided meditation to help transitioning into the classroom from play breaks and short dance videos (both can be found on YouTube)
- Send students for toilet and water breaks in pairs
- Office runners to complete admin tasks
- Encourage 3 x calm / belly breaths (try pairing with a ‘mindfulness bell’ app so that children start to access calm breaths throughout the day)
- Provide additional 15-minute play breaks for lower grades (as Guidance Officer I sometimes support teachers with more wiggly classes to play more – this can pay dividends in attention for classroom learning)
Whole of class cognitive and environmental strategies that may improve learning and attention
- Understand ‘normal’ attention spans of your class (e.g., 5- to 6-year-old should be able to sustain 10-15-minutes of attention and show the beginning of divided attention, or ignoring distractions)
- Provide regular class breaks based loosely on this
- Schedule tricker teachings in the morning session when attention is naturally at its best
- Or, where possible, work on more challenging aspects of the curriculum after the breaks
- Use large, visual timetables at the front of the class (valuable attention can be wasted in students that worry about what is happening next)
- Use multimodal learning formats (e.g., verbal, pictorial, diagrams, videos, action-based, experiments, growing plants, construction, music, small group) throughout the day
- Repeat and highlight key concepts and key words
- Colour code resources
- Teacher initiated non-verbal signs (clicking fingers, clapping hands) to a rhythm that children mimic to bring whole of class back together in attention
- Nothing wrong with a catnap! Allowing students to rest during the afternoon can provide an awesome opportunity to recharge that attention and improve learning in the afternoon
- Sound Field Systems (teachers using microphones)
- All children (and adults!) learn optimally in a quiet, 1:1 environment. While it is not always possible, minimising classroom noise will help students to focus on what is important
- Similarly, minimising visual stimulation and visual clutter (e.g., too many charts, posters, art, signs, etc., in the room?) can channel attention on key, visual learning information
- Adjust the room temperature (boys’ attention is best at 18 degrees, girls learn best at 21 degrees)
- Turn off the classroom lights, reduce fluorescent lighting, or use blue lights if available. This can bring a stillness to the room and calmness to the students
Individual learning strategies can foster greater opportunity for attention
As stated, there is natural variation in students’ attention. In general, boys will have greater difficulty with attention than girls. However, within gender, the capacity to pay attention and learn will also be different from student to student.
Some students will benefit from individual strategies, such as:
- Using the student’s name to gain attention
- Using appropriate touch (to the shoulder, arm, back) to gain attention
- Gently tapping the corner of the student’s desk
- Using shorter instruction or repeating instruction close to the student
- Checking comprehension (e.g., ask for the information back: “Milly, I need you to collect your books, what do I need you to do?” or “Jack, can you tell me what you understand of this task?”) before moving on
- Non verbal cues that the student understands task (thumbs up, thumbs down)
- Breaking bigger activities into smaller tasks
- Providing verbal instructions in written format (e.g., write the process on the board, steps on wall, etc.)
- Embed learning in the child’s natural interest (“how many Batmans are on the page?’), where possible
- Divide activity into ‘non preferred’ learning followed by ‘preferred’ learning style to end on success
- Pass Out cards to signal when the student needs an attention break
- Visual timetables on the student’s desk
- Although attention is not a choice, using positive reinforcement for on track behaviours can help inattentive students to experience reward and success in a day that can be more tricky for them than other students. It can help to recognise that they’re doing their best too.
Specific therapeutic tools can also help with divided and sustained attention:
- Noise cancelling headphones
- Sensory necklaces, silent fidget toys, fiddle boxes, sensory toys, blue tack
- Quiet spaces and time out tents
- Occupational Therapists offer excellent resources and tips for helping individual attention
Can tutoring help?
Tutoring is an optional method of providing targeted learning in a 1:1 environment that is comparatively quieter and less distracting than a classroom environment. Tutoring can help.
However, be mindful that if learning is thought to be the result of attention issues, these children are often completely taxed by the attentional demands of a standard school day. This means that asking your child to pay attention to anything beyond school hours can be exhausting, frustrating and stressful. If possible, it is recommended to access individual tutoring during school times.
Understanding the main causes of interrupted attention
- Events that are stressful or even traumatic are an unavoidable part of life. However, understanding that acutely stressful events often result in the production of adrenaline and cortisol (neurochemicals that compromises attention and concentration) can be helpful to parents and teachers in temporarily reducing expectations for learning at high stress times (e.g., death in the family, parental separation, exposure to trauma, moving house, change in circumstance, illness and injury, etc.). It is important for parents and teachers to communicate during stressful life events to help the child remain integrated but supported in the classroom.
- Too many decisions or ‘decision overload’ can be corrosive to children’s natural attention store. Both parents and teachers can help by ensuring decisions are age-appropriate and not numerous. This may be important to monitor in separated families where young children are burdened with inappropriate decisions around who they want to live with, etc.
- The research identifying excess screen use as a cause of significant attention impairment continues to strengthen in a compelling case encouraging both parents and teachers to limit computer use in children. Some attribute insufficient movement of kids spending too long on screens to poorer attention. Other research has provided clear links that excessive and inappropriate screen use has been implicated in attention problems, learning deficits, social skill reductions, and aggression.
The ability to pay attention at school, for both curriculum and social engagement, is key. Attention is a developing, prefrontal cortex mechanism that is far from developed in our youngest learners through essential learning years. However, there are many simple, strategies that can help nurture children’s attention. Readers are encouraged to share their own success stories in supporting attention in children and students.
“40 Ways to Help Your Kids Pay Attention at Home & School!!” is a guest post from Dr Rachell Kingsbury – Guidance Counsellor (Clin. Psych & Clin. Neuropsych MAPS) and mum of two boys.