Teaching Students with Attentional Problems
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Virtually every classroom has at least one student with an attention deficit. This is the student who has problems focusing for long periods, is easily distracted, has difficulties understanding directions, and is often confused about what to do. Even when he knows what to do, he may have trouble settling down and doing the work. Seemingly simple tasks such as remembering to take papers home or bringing a pencil to class may be problematic. A child with an attention deficit may pose management problems for the classroom teacher and, if not managed successfully, can take considerable time away from your classroom lessons.
What You Can Do
- Identify the source of the student’s attention problem. Children can have difficulty paying attention without having an attention deficit disorder. They may have trouble focusing because they are anxious, upset, not feeling well or simply bored. Attention difficulties can also result from hearing or vision problems. Understanding the reason for the student’s attention problem can guide you in helping him in the classroom.
- Catch the student being good. This is the most basic application of behavior modification, namely praising the student when he is displaying appropriate behavior. Students with an attention deficit, who have frequent experience with frustration and failure in school, have a particular need for a pat on the back. Your challenge with this kind of student, especially if you have a large class, is to catch him when he is on task and then praise him immediately and genuinely. You might remind yourself to check on the student and praise him if warranted by placing a visual cue at a place you look at often such as a smiley face near the clock or on your lesson plan book.
- Minimize distractions to the student. Try to seat him in class where you can monitor him closely but where there are few distractions. While you might want to place him near your desk so you can keep a close eye on him, this is not a good location if other students are frequently coming up to you to get help. If possible, avoid seating him near the pencil sharpener or window or with views of the hallway, locations that are likely to divert his attention. A better place may be to seat him next to a quiet, hard-working student. Make sure there is sufficient distance between desks. Also try to eliminate visual distractions by keeping the student’s desk free of clutter.
- Use a kitchen timer to motivate the student to complete seatwork. In this classroom version of “Beat the Clock,” let the student know how much time he has to complete the task. Five or ten minutes before the timer goes off, let him know how much time is left. Make certain, however, that the student does not race through the task, resulting in a careless or sloppy performance.
- Limit the information on your handouts. Students can be distracted by the clutter on their paper. You might lessen this problem by limiting the amount of information on a page. You might also show the student how to fold the paper or use a piece of blank paper to cover the rest of the page to allow him to concentrate on one question or problem at a time. Similarly, you might make a window for the child out of cardboard that exposes only two lines of print or one math problem at a time. When giving a test of more than one page, consider giving the student one page at a time.
- Present tasks that tap the student’s interests and areas of competence. Students who have trouble focusing on schoolwork will be more engaged if the academic tasks reflect their interests and tap their areas of strength. Identify their strengths and interests (you might have the student fill out an interest inventory) and then use this information to design academic tasks that exploit their interests and skills.
- If the student is on medication for an attention deficit, monitor his behavior. The effects of the medication are likely to be more evident in school than at home so your observations will be crucial in helping the parents and physician assess whether it is working. A note of caution about medication: While you may believe that one of your students will be helped by medication, bear in mind that it is not your role to recommend it. This is a strictly medical issue that you should encourage parents to discuss with their child’s physician.
- Help keep the student on task with a signaling system. You might signal him that he needs to pay attention or get back to work by walking by his desk, making eye contact with him, or pausing while you are speaking. Or you might work out a private signal with him such as scratching your head, raising your eyebrows, or tugging on your ear. In a similar vein, develop a signal that he (and other students) can use to ask for your help. This might be a “help” flag attached to a pencil that they can stick in a piece of clay on the corner of their desk.
- Make sure the student is paying attention when you give directions. Use his name and make certain he has eye contact with you when instructing him. Keep the directions clear, short and specific. If you give him a long string of instructions, he may only remember part of what you say. Even if the student is looking right at you and seems to be attending, he may be thinking of something else so you might have him repeat the directions in his own words to ensure his understanding. If necessary, write the directions down in addition to stating them orally.
- Seat the student in a study carrel. You can also use a cardboard divider or partition to lessen the distractions while the child is working independently. Make this inviting by telling him that this is his “office,” but only place him there for short periods and not at all if he feels singled out or isolated from his peers.
- Shorten the student’s work periods. Your student may have difficulty working for long stretches. He may be more productive if he works for two or three short periods rather than one long period. Instead of having him do a task for forty minutes straight, you might have him work for 20 minutes, give him a break, and then have him work for 20 minutes more
- Break a task into smaller, more manageable parts. Students with attention problems may be overwhelmed by large tasks and as a result may give up quickly or not even attempt it. Breaking the task into more doable parts may give the student more confidence that he can complete it successfully. Instead of giving him a whole page of math problems, for example, you might give him two or three problems, check his performance, and then give him a few more.
- Vary your presentation of information. Direct a student’s attention to important information by making it stand out. When writing on the blackboard, you might underline key words or write them in all capitals or in a different color. On handouts, you might highlight essential information or change the color, font or size of the type. For students prone to careless math errors, try circling the math signs or highlighting them in color.
- Help the student adjust to change. Students with attention problems often have difficulty with transitions. To deal with this problem, you might let the student know in advance of any upcoming changes. You might also keep him informed about daily activities by putting his work for the day on the board. Also consider posting his personal schedule and responsibilities on his desk on a 4″ by 6″ card, perhaps numbering the tasks in the order you want him to work on them.