An emerging trend in research into how we learn is that the ability to focus for an extended period is one of the most important skills we have. As it turns out, tests of attention are the best predictors for success in career, finances, or health, but researchers and educators are observing the toll that “multitasking” and inattention is taking on student’s work. It’s a significant problem in education, but certainly can be addressed with some time and practice. All schools, and especially schools that seek to develop the whole child, can cultivate the skill of attention in their students by teaching it directly.
There are all sorts of ways that teachers can teach their students to pay attention. Like a muscle, attention must be developed, then exercised and used. In this day and age, teachers can use many simple, but effective techniques to develop sustained focus, rather than relying on multitasking.
Planning – when tasks seem insurmountable, it can be difficult to pay attention to them, but sometimes all that is required is careful planning. Students are easily distracted if they don’t know where to start or where to go next. Teaching students how to plan projects can also show them how to focus on specific sections, without trying to do all of it at once.
Chunking – Breaking time and tasks down into manageable and accomplishable sections is a great way to teach students to hold their focus for a sustained period of time. To start with, these “chunks” must be bite-sized, with healthy breaks at the end. However, as students improve, the chunks can be longer with the tasks more complex.
Time Management – especially when tasks are broken-down, it is important for students to learn to manage their time. Timers, reminders, and schedules can all be used to help students focus on the single element of their chunked project for a specific period of time, rather than getting overwhelmed or lost in the details. Setting parameters around time helps students pace themselves, and learn to focus for specific periods, instead of trying to pay attention all at once.
Routines – many students, especially younger students, struggle with shifting gears into a time that requires sustained attention. Following set routines with clear cues, allowing students to know when they are expected to focus, and when it’s alright to let their attention wander. Students may “default” to multitasking or distractibility, simply because they are not aware that it is time to pay attention. It is very important to prevent this miscommunication in order for students to get the most out of their in-classroom attention skills practice.
As part of teaching the whole child, holistic educators are finding that it is very important to instruct students in the skills of maintaining sustained attention. There are many reasons that today’s students are not learning this skill as well as their parents, even though it is just as important to their future success. Thankfully, with developments in neuroscience, the studies on learning all showing successful ways to teach the skill of attention to our students.
Have you found that students have an especially difficult time focussing? How do you teach your students to pay attention?