Helping Children with Attention Difficulties in the Classroom

Dr. Carla LeHouillier
Wishing Star Associate

Children and adolescents who have difficulties regulating their attention and focusing at school can be seen by teachers and other educators as unmotivated, defiant, hyperactive or disorganized. This can be upsetting for both parents and educators, as they are struggling with how to best support these students’ needs within the classroom setting. Children with attention or learning exceptionalities as a rule need frequent breaks in order to reactivate and re-engage appropriately with classroom material. Students that experience these challenges can be provided with regular “body breaks” throughout the day, in order to decrease their level of attentional fatigue and allow for regular movement during more structured periods of the day. These breaks can be as simple as getting a drink of water, taking a short walk outside the classroom, stretching, or engaging in a gross motor activity. At home, these same types of movement breaks can be used when children or adolescents are sitting for longer periods completing homework.

Often, students with attention regulation challenges can also benefit from sensory-based supports, including tactile and kinesthetic inputs, which help to address their ability to focus and/or process information during classroom lectures, deskwork or homework time outside of the classroom. Some examples of these types of supports that may be helpful include chewing gum or “chewelry” while doing school work/learning, sitting on a wobble cushion or with a “weighted” bean bag on the student’s lap or shoulders, or having a stress-ball or textured squeeze ball in his/her hands while learning.

The way teachers approach their classrooms can also make a difference for students who struggle with focus or attention in school. Students who have difficulties maintaining or regulating their attention often benefit from teachers who are calm and well-organized, and who have classrooms that are structured, consistent and use predictable daily routines (for example, classrooms with a consistent place for handing in homework, location of materials, etc). It can also be very beneficial for teachers or other educators to review each day’s schedule with the class as a whole, and to provide students with attention difficulties with a visual support of the schedule as well. Simultaneous visual and verbal presentation of materials can help facilitate understanding and memory for routines. It is also common for students with attention challenges or high activity levels to need additional explanation and time spent teaching classroom expectations for behavior, especially during transitions between activities. These can even be written down on a special card that is kept somewhere easy for the child or adolescent to access (ask for the student’s help to decorate it or find pictures to accompany the listed expectations).

While it can be challenging as a teacher to find time to implement something new in your classroom, it can make a huge difference to the day-to-day experience of students with attention regulation challenges in the classroom. It’s effort that will certainly pay off in the long run!

Some recommendations adapted from: Mather, N., & Jaffe, Lynne.  (2002). Woodcock Johnson III: Reports, Recommendations and Strategies. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York.

This blog posting is not a form of psychological counselling, advice, therapy, or assessment and should not be used as such by any individual. This blog posting is provided only as an article intended to encourage thought and discourse. For specific psychology related services, please contact an appropriate healthcare provider.