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Pay attention! 5 ways to improve your students’ attention spans

45 percent of a student’s day is spent listening; shouldn't we do everything we can to improve their skills?

By Cory Armes
national education consultant, Scientific Learning Corp. April 12th, 2018

Paying attention sounds easy. But is it really? How many times have we reprimanded students for not paying attention?

Attention is the ability to focus on information and tasks while ignoring distractions. We know that fluent reading requires sustained and focused attention, yet attention spans are declining. A 2015 study by Microsoft reported that, since the year 2000, the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds. Researchers theorize that a weaker attention span may be a side effect of the mobile revolution and an increasingly digitized lifestyle. Many of these distractions begin long before adulthood. Consider these statistics about smartphones:

  • The average age for a child to get a smartphone is 12.
  • More than half of children under the age of 12 have a smartphone.
  • 21 percent of children under the age of eight use smartphones.

How does this impact students as they come to school? How do they feel when they have to turn off their phones and other electronic devices and pay attention for 40, 50, or 60 minutes at a time?

It’s virtually impossible to imagine a classroom where paying attention to the teacher for sustained periods of time is not critical to academic success. According to the International Listening Association, 45 percent of a student’s day is spent listening, and students are expected to acquire 85 percent of their knowledge through listening.

Fortunately, attentional skills are amenable to training. Here are a few different ways to increase your students’ attention spans in the classroom.

1. Practice mindfulness.
Ask students to be aware of their breathing. Sounds simple, right? But how many of us actually take the time to notice our breathing and how we feel in each moment? Helping students get grounded in their bodies can help with paying attention. Using an expanding sphere ring to help students pace their breathing is a great way to calm everyone after a strenuous activity or at the beginning of a class period.

2. Power-up the brain.
Make sure students are alert and ready to take in information. If students don’t seem ready to pay attention, try a series of quick physical activities to help the body “wake up” so the brain better is able to focus. Even a quick game of Simon Says can help build focus and attention without creating chaos.

3. Break tasks into smaller chunks.
Some children can’t pay attention to multi-step directions and may need tasks broken down into individual steps. For example, instead of providing a set of several instructions at once. Instead of “Pull out your workbook, turn to page 8, and read the passage. Then answer the questions on this worksheet and turn it in to me for grading,” pause after each individual step and give students time to complete that step. This helps build students’ confidence while lowering their frustration.

4. Build underlying cognitive skills.
Attention is a major cognitive skill necessary to become a successful learner. Many children who have trouble with focus and attention don’t process information efficiently, which is an impediment to accurate listening and reading. Neuroscience-based interventions such as the Fast ForWord program target cognitive skills such as memory, attention, and processing speed, as well as language and reading skills. By working from the bottom up, using the principles of neuroplasticity, this type of intervention can remediate the underlying difficulties that keep children from paying attention and making progress.

5. Make time for recess.
Give more recess time to students, especially younger ones. Several schools have found that increasing the amount of time for recess and unstructured play results in an increase in students’ focus, decreases in distractions and behavioral interruptions, and improvements in test scores. While it might seem counterproductive to add more play time to the school day given everything that students are expected to learn, students who get more recess time have been shown to have an easier time focusing in the classroom.

Learning of any kind requires good attention skills. When students can attend carefully to a task and stick with it, they understand more. They ignore distractions. They don’t become frustrated or lose interest. They don’t disrupt others’ learning. When students pay attention, teachers can focus on teaching and students can focus on learning. That’s a win-win in anyone’s book!

About the Author:

Cory Armes is a national education consultant with Scientific Learning Corp. She has 18 years of experience in K-12 education as a general and special education teacher and educational diagnostician, specializing in working with students with learning disabilities and behavioral issues.

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