Attention and Concentration

The calm-alert state

In order to learn, a child must be able to pay attention to a variety of different stimuli whilst filtering out irrelevant stimuli. In order to maintain attention they must be in a Calm-Alert state. This can prove difficult for many children due to underlying sensory sensitivities, anxieties and/or frustrations.

Effects of sensory stimuli on attention

In a classroom, a child may easily be distracted by all the sounds and lights, and be confused by people doing different things. This can lead to over stimulation and can result in the need for excessive movement to help a child cope. A hyperactive child jumps all over the classroom, not because that is what they want to do but instead because their brain is running out of control. Their need for movement is a reaction to their sensory overload that cannot be turned off or ignored. This confusion in the brain makes it almost impossible to focus and concentrate, or understand what the teacher is teaching. It is pointless telling a child to control themselves or concentrate harder as their behaviours are often not under their conscious control. Rewards and punishment do not make it easier for the brain to organise sensations, and things are often made more difficult by making demands that a child simply cannot cope with.

Ideas to help support Attention and Concentration in the classroom

In order to learn, a child must be able to pay attention to a variety of different stimuli whilst filtering out irrelevant stimuli together with maintaining a Calm-Alert state. This can prove difficult for many children whose systems are not quite ready for it.

  • Start learning sessions with a movement task or brain gym activity.
  • Sit a distractible child away from busy parts of the classroom i.e. away from doors, windows or other distracting sounds.
  • Ensuring a child is sitting with feet flat on the floor or with feet supported with a footstool.
  • Allow for changes of position e.g. sitting or lying on the floor, a standing station or easel and going for a walk.
  • Consider the use of alternate seating e.g. move-n-sit or disc-o-sit cushion, ball chair, Hokki Chair, or Zuma chair.
  • Using a stretchy exercise band around the chair legs to allow movement whilst doing table top activities.
  • Consider the use of a weighted lap bag or shoulder pet.
  • Using ear defenders for focused times. Some children will benefit from the use of a personal music player with instrumental music to filter out other auditory distractions. Ensure they have understood the instructions before using these items.
  • Reduce visual distractions in the classroom.
  • Hand fidgets may help some children by keeping their hands busy while they are listening e.g. stress ball, koosh ball, rubber band, blu tack – Consider using a fidget contract.
  • Using chewing gum or a chewable item e.g. necklace, bracelet or pencil end.
  • Allowing movement breaks as needed:
    • Chair push ups
    • Wall push ups
    • Table push ups
    • Throwing and catching a heavy ball
    • Animal walks
    • Hand pushes and pulls
  • Identify non-verbal signals to use when overwhelmed or needing a break. Some children find it difficult to articulate their needs or ask for help. By providing a ‘time out card’, ‘toilet pass’ or other means to indicate that they may be feeling anxious and/or need a break.
  • Giving advanced warning and verbal reminders of loud noises e.g. bells, announcements or planned fire alarms.
  • Call the child to get their attention before giving them an instruction. Get the child to repeat the instruction back so you know they have understood.
  • Research has shown that the more senses used during a learning experience the more likely the child will retain the information therefore provide learning in a multi-sensory manner – use of smells, sounds, visuals etc.
  • Some children find the transitions and moving through busy environments difficult to manage and this can impact on their class learning. They may benefit from coming in first, to minimise distractions. Try moving the child’s peg to one end and/or allow them to organise themselves within the classroom.
  • Use calming tools if a child is showing signs of becoming overwhelmed:
    • Go for a walk
    • Go to a quiet sensory space
    • Deep breathing
    • Drinking water through a straw
    • Blowing up a balloon or blowing through a straw
    • Yoga