Originally Published: February 1999
When lessons don’t seem to stick, a short attention span could be the culprit. Here are a few suggestions to help students focus and, hopefully, retain the lesson.
- Within any given lesson, frequently alternate between requiring the student to listen and asking him to respond. Only the first few words spoken—whether the teacher is giving information or an explanation, or is reading a story—may be sinking in, so it’s important that the student either repeat what he’s heard and then carry out the instructions, or answer a specific question about the information just given. For example, in a math lesson about borrowing, the teacher could show the first step, then ask, “So, what do you do when you don’t have enough in the ones pile?” He would explain and then the lesson would resume—continuing this pattern.
- Whenever possible, combine writing (or “doing”) with speaking. Have him practice writing spelling words, for example, by first saying the word, spelling it out loud as he writes each letter, and then saying the entire word again. When learning proper form for drawing a shape he could recite the instructions as he draws—”Start at the top, draw a line down, then go to the top again…” Math facts could be recited while writing in answers. Each step in a recipe could be read, then recited while carrying it out. And so on.
- Any academic area of difficulty, such as reading or math, is likely to require “over learning” before things stick. That is, once he shows you he can read certain words, or solve a certain type of problem, have him read those same words a few more times—or do a few more of the same type of problem—during that same lesson. Then, review those same words or types of math problems at the beginning of the next few lessons. Regular drills can be part of this “over learning” process as well. We tend to think only of drilling math facts, but procedures can also be the target of a drill. For instance, while calling out addition facts, addition problems with answers larger than the student may remember can be included. The teacher would notice how he responds: Does he count on to get the answer, begin counting from the first number, or call out an answer at random? If she discovers that he does not know how to effectively count on to get the answer, he would be instructed to say the first number, hold up fingers for the number being added, and count on out loud. Once he counted to the answer, he would be told to recite the entire problem, e.g., “eight plus five is thirteen,” since at that point he may no longer even remember the original problem.
- Involve the student in discussions by asking questions that direct him to relate information—whether from a fictional story or a nonfiction source such as books, video or television programs—to his own life. It is easier to retain information we find meaningful or interesting. This is also a necessary step in learning to think critically. Frequently, children with attention difficulties can quickly answer literal questions, but have difficulty with those that require interpretation or evaluation. Analysis requires greater concentration in order to link ideas from what is heard or read to actual life experiences. This can be as simple as pointing out a sentence spoken by a character and asking the student to describe the kind of person that might say such things. He might already know that the character is kind, or, perhaps, a bully, but can he think about people in his own life and make a connection?
- Direct the child in a routine of physical exercise with the focus on proper posture and form for a variety of movements—forward roll, hopping, skipping, walking on a line, kicking a ball around obstacles, various stretches, and so on. Most kids enjoy physical activities—but not the “pressure” to do them correctly. Praise whatever part of the movement is carried out correctly in each trial before pointing out corrections to be made. This regular and positive feedback is important—discouragement comes easily to most kids, and then attention wanders.
Kids want to do well—some just have more obstacles and discourage more easily. Be demanding—but with kindness. The key is to remind yourself that as the teacher you are not only helping the student learn, but teaching him how to learn.