You are rifling through your child’s book bag on Thursday afternoon. They should have remembered that they have a book report due on Friday. As you dig deeper into the pile of crumbled papers, bent folders, and food wrappers, you find a note from their teacher. ” Urgent Request: Parent Conference: We need to discuss your child’s behavior in class.”
A few days later, you meet with the teacher. The teacher says your child is not paying attention and spends too much time distracting others.
Can’t sit still, constantly fidgeting, unable to follow multi-step instructions, and impulsive. The teacher suggests possibly counseling, medication, or both. What should you do next?
Low attention spans in children during class can often be attributed to a combination of developmental factors and environmental influences. Is your child interested in what is being taught? When you have an interest in something or when it holds significance for you, your ability to concentrate improves. This is in contrast with engaging in mundane tasks such as emptying the dishwasher.
Concentration, or better, focus, is not necessarily attention. Most adults can multi-task, meaning they pay attention to one thing while focusing more intently on others. Listening to music while driving a car in traffic, for example.
I’ve worked with students who seem distracted but can still finish tasks, like adults who can do multiple things at once. Next, let’s consider the classroom and expectations.
The typical classroom is like a busy airport. Airplanes don’t take off and land safely by themselves. The teacher is the air traffic controller in the classroom. Twenty-five students in a confined space is a lot of moving parts.
The teacher’s job is to maintain order and direct everyone to the task at hand. The teacher, much like the air traffic controller, has to clearly communicate simultaneously to several different people a day.
Teachers with clear expectations, rules, and clean classrooms have fewer attention problems than those who don’t. How can a parent assess the classroom management skills of a teacher?
Assess the Classroom
First, ask the teacher about the class procedures and rules. Ask what the incentives and penalties are. Confirm them with your child. If your child doesn’t know, that may indicate a problem.
Another clear indicator is when you go to the parent conference, what is the condition of the room. Is it clean with everything in its place? A well-managed classroom looks the same after school ends as when it began.
The next step is to gather information. You want to know some details of your child’s behavior. For example, what is the behavior that resulted in the parent meeting? How frequent is it?
What times does the behavior occur, and what was the class doing? How did the teacher respond? Is it consistent with the classroom expectations and rules? Ask your child’s teacher to make a behavior log, if they don’t have one.
Next, rule out common causes for short attention spans and lack of focus. Rule out the physical.
For example, is your child getting enough sleep? Sleep deprivation is one cause of low focus. Remember, there is a difference between bedtime and the time children sleep.
Along with adequate sleep, there is also diet. Eating too much sugary, processed, caffeinated food makes it hard to pay attention and stay focused.
How about water? Is your child allowed to carry a water bottle with them to school?
Again, the research indicates dehydration is a problem.
Underlying Medical Issues
Finally, does your child have allergies you are unaware of? Are they taking medication that might also impact their ability to focus? Rule out the physical. When ruling out the physical, diet goes with exercise.
Children need at least sixty minutes of exercise daily (preferably outside). Think about the school day. More than likely, your child gets less than 40 minutes if they have recess every day.
They sit in a hard chair, listening to a teacher for most of the day, five to six hours. We can’t expect children to sit that long without losing some focus.
You have the data. You have ruled out the physical. The next step is to meet again with the teacher. Ask them if they have noticed your child’s attention and focus improvement in the time they have been keeping a log.
Review with them the behavior log. It might be that your child loses focus at the same time every day. Some students don’t like certain subjects. They are easily distracted and tune teachers out during that time.
Adults do the same thing. Human attention span is a fickle thing. We learn to look like we are paying attention, though our mind is probably elsewhere.
Make Learning Interesting
We can’t change the subjects students take, but as adults, we can change our child’s mind about a topic. For example, if it’s history, take your child to a museum so they can experience history.
Math, show them some fun ways to use math. For example, look for the use of angles in football, soccer, and basketball. Making subjects more meaningful and fun is important.
Research shows that today’s kids have shorter attention spans and focus than ten years ago. A lot more distractions exist than ten years ago.
However, kids can learn the skills of attention and focus.
The main idea is to find the real reason behind attention problems. First, rule out physical causes. Next, use positive strategies like exercise, a good diet, enough rest, and clear expectations to tackle the issue.
Written by: Doug Carroll, Ed.D.