Hocus Focus- Tips for Keeping Your Students Focused and Engaged

Dec 1, 2016

by Beth Peterson

I have a magical solution to help you keep your students focused 100% of the time!

Said no one ever.

When I was a classroom teacher, it seemed like my dog and pony shows had become so intense compared to when I started teaching 17 years ago. My colleagues and I would keep buying more gadgets to help us perform our mini stage shows. We had boxes of glitter, microphones, mini “word” fly swatters, pencils that would draw in rainbow colors and even dancing stuffed hamsters. You name it, and we probably had it.

It wasn’t cheap and, as a result, I’m pretty sure we were operating in the red.

However, the one thing we did know was that if you didn’t have a student’s attention, they weren’t going to survive your learning journey. They’d be left in the dirt and we’d need to spend a lot of extra time trying to catch them up.

That’s why understanding your student’s brain is imperative. They are all at different stages of development so we can’t box them in or teach in the middle. We need to find out their strengths and weaknesses and help each student learn how they learn too. It’s not easy, but you will have a bigger impact if you buy into this whole metacognition thing.

So, here’s some tips to think about when you want to get that prefrontal cortex working for your students. Whether you’re a teacher, tutor, music instructor, or coach, understanding executive function (EF) skills will help your practice.

Your EF skills are the cognitive skills needed to regulate your thinking, behavior and feelings to reach a given goal. There’s about eleven of them, but let’s talk about focus and attention for now.

This relates to tuning out distractions and maintaining and sustaining focus on a particular task. If you’ve ever had students that just float off and hop on the nearest cloud, then you might find some of these tips helpful for pulling them back to reality. Here’s just a few of my favorites.

1. Have clear expectations

Be explicit about what you want the student to accomplish and what you will teach. Do not be abstract or vague. It is often helpful to write some bullet points down detailing what you hope to achieve for that particular lesson. This helps that inattentive student know the bigger picture and not wonder or worry about when you “might” be finished or if he/she is doing it “right”. Plus, many students with weaker EF skills need visual prompts. It helps them stay on target. Yep — use that white board and stinky dry erase markers! But maybe dump the dancing hamsters.

2. Vary your teaching strategies

Stop talking… seriously. Droning on and on will only aid and assist the distraction monsters. Teach what you need to teach in little bits and check for understanding along the way. Give the student time for reflection. Allow for some discussion and make it a two way game, not a one person show. Did you ever like the teacher who just talked all the time? Put yourself in your student’s shoes and shake it up.

3. Use movement and visuals

We all have preferred learning styles. I’m a visual learner and I like moving too. I may need to move my largest muscles to help stimulate my brain or I just may need to see a drawing to understand something complicated. Stand up, sit cross-legged, do some gross motor movement that crosses your medians. (Remember that old windmill stretch we did in calisthenics for 4th grade PE class? Well, little did you know that it was helping to create new pathways in your brain.)

4. Shorten the tasks into smaller “chunks”

Many multiple steps are just too hard for students, so what’s the harm in giving two or three steps at a time? It won’t kill you, and it will definitely help the majority of your students.

5. Create an incentive or consequence system

Sometimes we need a carrot, especially if the task is super hard. You’re a grown up and you get that, right? Do I need to tell you why it works for students? Didn’t think so. If you’re wondering about consequences, well, tip #10 might help with that.

6. Reduce distractions — don’t multi-task

People are still convinced that they can multi-task, but the science just isn’t there.

A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men meant they lowered their scores to that of the average range of an 8-year-old child. Fun fact, but not optimal for learning.

Mindfulness is where it’s at folks — let’s stay on one task and be all IN. If you need a makeshift study carrel to focus better, then by all means, offer one. If necessary, modify a cardboard box and use it to block out visual distractions. Have your student sit in a spot so he/she isn’t looking out the window at the crows dive bombing the pigeons. This has to be purposeful since our minds tend to like a lot of stimulus, so be intentional about blocking out distractions.

It’s not mean to ask a student to turn off their phone for the hour, or leave it in a basket or backpack. It’s healthy adult guidance. Our prefrontal cortexes are developed, theirs aren’t. Enough said.

7. Make it mysterious and suspenseful

I love it when something seems magical or mysterious. Don’t you? When a class starts with a suspenseful experiment or a curious question, I’m hooked. Attention grabbers are useful and I bet you will have increased student focus if you try it. This takes creativity, but trust yourself and give it a go.

8. For younger students, play some games that help strengthen their focus.

Try games with cards like concentration or memory match, Zap, Distractor Duo, Simon says, etc.

It’s okay to start a lesson with a discussion about how focus is tough. Embrace it and try out a fun game to improve focus. If there’s a distractor, then students can pretend to lazer zap it out of the universe as soon as they notice it.

Distractor Duo is fun if you have more than one student. One tries to distract the other student while he/she concentrates on a task for a minute, then switch roles. It’s helpful to have students share what worked to keep them on task. Well, you can even play the game too if you are teaching a solo student. Good luck not getting distracted!

9. Ask your student what helps him/her focus

So many students know that they get distracted and why.Talk about it and brainstorm some solutions together.This is the essence of metacognition.The more self-awareness our students have, the more they can grow and learn.

10.Create a safe strong relationship with mutual respect

I’m saving the best for last.

If you don’t take time to build a relationship, then all of this is for nothing. Take time to show your students that you like them. If you don’t, well, fake it until you like them!

I talk to so many students that have had the best years of their lives because they were pretty sure their teacher liked them and they really liked them too. They know. Kids aren’t naïve about how you feel. Love them a lot or a little, or just like them. But don’t ever let a student think you don’t like them.

Their life can change if they are treated with compassion and kindness. Plus, look back at #5, and if your student really knows you care about them and they you, then they don’t want to let you down. The consequence for not practicing, or not doing homework just might make their teacher sad, and that would be horrible. No student wants you to be upset with them, so they just might try harder because you have a mutual respect for one another.

Doesn’t our world need a little more kindness anyway?

It’s all pretty magical when we care for each other.

Beth is a former classroom teacher and mom of three distractible boys who is busy now as an academic coach and consultant. Peterson Academic Coaching serves students from grade 4 to college helping them plan, organize and prioritize to achieve school success, maximize their strengths and boost self-confidence. Check out some resources at: www.petersonacademiccoaching.com

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