Although many students are engaged and focussed during the minds-on portion of a math lesson, and pay attention while others are sharing their solutions (as evidenced by the questions they ask and the challenges they make to their peers during this time), some students continue to struggle with attention and focus issues. They roll on the carpet, become distracted with the bin of pattern blocks nearby, chat with a neighbour, or play with the hair of the student sitting in front of them.
Especially challenging is when these easily-distractible students call out and disrupt the lesson for others who were paying attention, until the one student laughed out loud and drew attention to a farting peer, for example, that no one else had even noticed until now.
If this were a problem with one student, I could easily solve the problem by arranging preferential seating, or through intentional teacher interaction.
But what do you do when there are 5 or 6 students like this in your class?
I know it’s not a problem with my teaching so much, because when I engage these students one:one with the same concept I was teaching the whole class earlier, they are genuinely interested, and often come to me later with follow-up questions. No, the issue really seems to be how to get them to pay attention in the large group, when there are just so many tempting distractions around.
My colleagues and I have remarked that this problem seems increasingly difficult to solve, and we suspect much of it has to do with sleep deprivation (many of our students don’t go to bed until well after 10 p.m., despite our encouragement to parents to enforce a more appropriate bedtime for their 8-year-olds), diet (my students and I have had several conversations about how a piece of white bread, two foil-wrapped treats and a high-in-sugar juice does not constitute “lunch”!) and other factors beyond our immediate control.
So, what can be done?
Kendra Fark and Victoria Groves Scott, in a blog post about teaching students with ADHD to focus, write that
listeners display several behaviors to let their communication partners know that they are prepared to focus their attention on the message; they will be quiet, watch the speaker, look at the materials presented by the speaker, and avoid fidgeting (Owca, Pawlak, & Pronobis, 2003).
Right, but how do we get them to "avoid fidgeting"?!
In order to learn effectively, Fark and Scott note, students must be active listeners.
Being an active listener rather than a passive listener means an individual actively thinks about the information being shared rather than just passively hearing it. Some ways in which individuals can actively think about the information include identifying the important parts, reminding themselves to focus on the message, summarizing the message, making connections to what they already know, and visualizing the message.
Yea, no kidding!
Scott offers a “cue card” of strategies to remind students how to behave. For each letter in “FOCUS”, she lists “intended associations”, associated behaviours, like “Say the important parts to yourself in your own words” for the “S” (select) in "FOCUS".
At first, I was overwhelmed when I looked at this card. No way, thought I, that 8-year-olds are going to be able to do this!!!
But then I remembered my success with teaching Rich Talk...
Thanks to our teaching efforts, with focussed instruction of one element of rich talk at a time over a period of 8 weeks, the vast majority of my students can now hold a “grand conversation” in a small group of four.
It’s true not every student needs to learn the “FOCUS” strategies alluded to above. But there is a handful of students in my class for whom intensive teaching of these strategies would be not only beneficial, but crucial, I would argue, to their ability to learn.
My in-class support person, who came 2-3 times a week to help out with ELLs and Spec Ed students, recently went on parental leave. Because she was so well-trained with how my literacy and math blocks work, things had been running like a well-oiled machine whenever she was in my classroom. I have been pondering how best to make use of her replacement, a younger, less experienced but clearly enthusiastic teacher who appears to have a nice rapport with the students. Now I am thinking I just may have a job for him… This week I will share with him Fark and Scott’s article, and my desire for certain students in my class to learn the behaviours outlined therein, and I will invite him to develop a series of mini-lessons to use with these students, to teach them the behaviours necessary for academic success.
I am cautiously optimistic of dramatic improvements in the coming months.