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Tips for Teaching Children with Short Attention Spans
by Sarah Major, M.Ed

Lately I’ve been reading books written by professionals who work with children with short attention spans, and children who have already been diagnosed with ADD. It seems to me that there has been a significant upsurge in the numbers of children who have difficulty maintaining focus on their school tasks, so many who have been diagnosed with ADD and put on medication, and I have become very curious not only about what has caused this upsurge, but of course, what we can do to make school lessons easier for these children short of medicating them.

Jeffrey Freed, M.A.T., author of Right-Brained Kids in a Left-Brained World, writes that one reason for the increased number of children with attention difficulties is that our generation of children has been saturated with various types of technologies that foster a short attention span. He speaks at length about the damage to focus from watching TV or playing computer games. The constant shifting of images, the sound bytes, the flashing colors all contribute to changing the wiring of the brain, even going so far as to push a left-brained learner toward becoming a strongly right-brained learner. Because our educational system is designed beautifully for the left-brained learner, what is happening as a result of the prevalence of technology as entertainment is critical to observe and evaluate. Do we really want our children to be less able to handle what we consider normal school tasks? Of course not!

Another theory I have read is that some children who are hyper-active in school settings are able to focus for very long periods of time when working on something that really interests them. The suggestion is to make learning times engaging to the child so that school time won’t become all about urging the child to pay attention.

One expert suggests that children need more outdoor time where they can use their energy in positive, helpful ways. Here is a quote taken from a NY Times article by Tara Parker-Pope:

"A small study of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder last year found that walks outdoors appeared to improve scores on tests of attention and concentration. Notably, children who took walks in natural settings did better than those who walked in urban areas, according to the report, published online in August in The Journal of Attention Disorders. The researchers found that a dose of nature worked as well as a dose of medication to improve concentration, or even better."

I was very happy to read about this study.  I think the topic of getting kids to engage in the outdoors cannot be emphasized enough. At some point, however, you have to bring children back into a school setting where they will need to sit down and pay attention to learning, and those who struggle to focus will once again run into the same difficulties.
Throughout the past several years, I interacted with a number of children who struggled to maintain focus on the tasks at hand. What follows are some of their stories as well as what I learned in the process of teaching them. 

Flickering Attention
I remember Ralph, a fifth-grader I tutored. His classroom teacher had suggested I meet with him to try and design some strategies to help him in his reading. As Ralph sat across the table from me and read, I made notes of what was going on. I immediately noted that he read about half of the words incorrectly. If I’d been looking down at my sheet where I was recording words missed, I would have missed a powerful clue as to what was going on. What I noticed was that each time Ralph misread a word, his eyes flickered as though there was a short in his “attentional circuit.” It reminded me of a light bulb that is loose in its socket and causes the lights to flicker on and then off again.

When I drew Ralph’s attention to words he’d missed, he could read them. It did take a couple of verbal cues to get him to focus on the word I was pointing to, but the important thing we learned was that Ralph was not struggling with an inability to accurately read words; his real difficulty was an inability to maintain a steady focus long enough to read a handful of words in sequence. Of course Ralph’s inability to read accurately also prevented him from comprehending the passage, and for a fifth grader who needed to use his reading in other subjects, this was a serious problem.
Wandering Attention

Mallory, a very well-behaved kindergartner, was another child that I tutored. During lessons, she sat quietly absorbing what she heard. The moment came, however, when the others started working on a task. Mallory would begin, but then spend the rest of the time watching what the other children were doing. Any movement, however small, drew her eye and captured her entire focus, making it impossible for Mallory to complete her own tasks.

Attentional Gymnastics
I tutored a second grader, Frank. Frank took my breath away and left me dizzy because his body simply could not remain seated on a chair. I knew better than to try and make him stay seated, but it meant that I had to squat down to talk to him as he was hanging upside-down from the table. He would stay there for only a few moments, before moving to the floor, or sitting backwards or sideways in his chair. It was nearly impossible for me to maintain a train of thought, much less tutor Frank. Telling him firmly to sit in his chair did not work; it would divert the session into a battle over whether or not he would sit. I decided to try and capture his attention somehow.

The Strongest Ally
One thing I found through my interactions with each of these children was that if I could teach the child how to help himself or herself, they became their own best helpers. It was empowering for each child to discover exactly where their difficulties lay. For Ralph, Mallory and Frank, the overarching problem was attention, but their specific problems were different. My experience has been that once the child and I discussed what was going on and strategized ways he or she could help themselves, the children's confidence rose and so did their performance.

Mallory and I brainstormed some ideas for helping her stay focused (remember, she’s in kindergarten), and she immediately began to put them into practice. Once she understood that the movements or activities of others sapped her own focus, she became a master at helping herself. Following are some things we came up with.

When Mallory had a sheet of math problems to solve, she learned to use her left pointer finger to direct her attention to the problem she was to focus on. Her left pointer finger remained in place until the problem was solved. Then it moved immediately to the next problem in the row. If you need to begin by drawing your child's attention to her pointer finger, consider using a colored sticker on her fingernail that would draw her eye to the finger and remind her, “Oh yes, I’m supposed to point to the next problem!”

We covered all but the first row with a blank paper so Mallory wouldn't be distracted by seeing all of the other problems she still had to solve.

We agreed that Mallory would not look up from her paper until she had reached the end of the row. When she did the last problem on the row, she would move the paper down to expose the second row, glance around the room to see what was going on, and then once again point to the problem at hand.

After we spoke about how distracting her fellow kindergartners were to her, Mallory decided that when she had work to focus on, she could move her little desk around so that she could work without being able to see what others were doing.
Ralph, the fifth grader, learned that if he tracked with his finger, keeping it by each word as he had read it, he was able to remain better focused on reading every word in the line.

Frank couldn’t stay in one place long enough to collaborate on focus strategies, and frankly it was not his priority to help himself, or to read, or to progress: he’d given up long ago and seemed to relish the chaos he was creating. In spite of this suspicion on my part, I believed that were he to achieve success, he would most certainly like it! Following is one of the things I did with him.

When Frank and I worked on learning sight words (in order to prevent the need for me to crawl under the desk with him), I decided to play a sight word game that would allow him to be active but also to be learning. I grabbed two sets of sight word cards: one set was my stylized version, while the other set were the same words handwritten with a magic marker on 3" x 5" cards. I spread the words out on the floor randomly (Frank loved not having to sit at the desk) and said we were going to play a game. I asked Frank to pick up any stylized card he wanted, read the word out loud, and then find the match. He picked up the second card in his other hand so that both hands were engaged in the task. When he’d made a pair, he owned those cards and could set them aside. The goal was to see if he could eventually own all the cards. It was magical to watch Ralph hopping like a frog all around the “pond” of words on the floor. He stayed at the task until he’d proudly read and matched all his words. Then like a flash, Frank perched on the window sill, grinning in satisfaction.

Focus Follows Fingers

Though each of these children's struggle was to maintain focus, they each had specific ways this played out. One thing remained true for them all, however. The biggest lesson I learned when working with children who lacked focus and attention was that if I could engage the child’s fingers or hands in their learning, their focus would go wherever their fingers went. Follow the Fingers became my motto!

Learn Your Child

I would also add, however, keep TV or video watching to a bare minimum, get outside and play, build something, explore, collect pinecones or leaves, plant a garden, and above all, pay close attention to what exactly your child is doing when she’s able to focus intently. Write down everything you observe about what she’s doing and when you have done this a few times, study your notes to learn what those scenarios had in common. Doing this will reveal your child’s learning strengths. The more we as parents learn about our child’s learning strengths, the more successfully we can teach them, and the more we can draw focus away from learning weaknesses and thus build our child’s confidence. A confident, successful child will want to accomplish more!

Sarah Major, CEO of Child1st Publications, grew up on the mission field with her four siblings, all of whom her mother homeschooled.

As an adult, Sarah homeschooled a small group of children in collaboration with their parents, and has taught from preschool age to adult. Sarah has been the Title 1 director & program developer for grades K-7, an ESOL teacher, and a classroom teacher. As an undergraduate student, Sarah attended Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. where she received a B.A. in art. Sarah then received her M.Ed. from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. In 2006 Sarah resigned from full-time teaching in order to devote more of her time to Child1st. In her spare time Sarah enjoys gardening, cooking, pottery, quilting, and spending time with her family.

Child1st Publications, LLC
1379 S Aspen St
Lincolnton, NC 28092


Low Attention

Thank you SO much for sharing your suggestions. My son and his family (3 young boys)recently moved in with my husband and I and my middle grandson (4 yrs old) has been driving his parents and us crazy with his low attention span and tendency to be mean to his siblings, whom I feel get all the attention. I think the meanness is his way to get attention so I tried taking just him along with me but it was a constant battle to keep his attention. Your suggestion and insight are promising and I will work with him immediately. Thank you again.