If you’ve ever found yourself zoning out during a long Zoom meeting, imagine what it’s like for a 12-year-old in an 8-hour school day. I’ve worked with hundreds of secondary students, and getting kids to focus can be a challenge even under ordinary circumstances.
Here’s a perfect example.
At the start of the school year, I’d sometimes conduct this classic experiment in attention and following directions. I’d give my students what appeared to be a grueling worksheet: tons of text, tiny font, the kind of document that makes you want to quit before even starting.
On it were 25 “directions”: ranging from the silly: stand up, spin around three times, and sit back down, to the totally pointless: write your full name 10 times as fast as you can.
As I’m sure you can imagine, the results were hilarious.
You see, before this litany of futile tasks, plain as day at the top of the paper was written, “Please read all of these directions carefully before doing anything,” and at the bottom, it said “Now that you’ve read the directions, you can disregard all of them. They are silly and pointless! Please sit back, relax, and await the real directions :)”.
My students and I would then talk about how it can be hard to do things patiently and methodically when it’s really tempting not to. Paying attention in school is hard, especially in addition to the one thousand or so factors that influence a child’s day.
School in 2020 includes “traditional,” hybrid, and fully remote settings, and it’s important to think about how they, plus the many challenges of COVID-19, affect kids’ ability to learn. If anything, it’s harder than ever to pay attention in school nowadays.
How to help kids pay attention in class
If you’re asking yourself how to help your child pay attention and do their best in school, these tips and tricks are a great place to start. The resources below are geared towards secondary students, so to help elementary aged kids concentrate in school, click here!
1. Start with a self-assessment
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to making a positive change. And while it can be difficult to help kids pinpoint the source of their frustration or where they’re getting lost, it’s definitely worth the effort. Factors like grades, current assignments, and progress reports are also helpful here.
To get started, give these strategies a try:
Ask your child to rank their classes from those in which paying attention is easy to the one that makes their mind wander the most. From there, ask follow up questions and help your child identify patterns. You might find:
- AM/PM classes are more challenging
- A particular subject is a struggle
- A teacher’s style or communication methods are new and different
Take a look through your child’s notebook, the one from a class you know is a challenge. As you look through it, have a low-key chat with your child. Ask them to walk you through a typical day in class; that, in addition to the notebook's visuals, will paint a useful picture.
2. Discover their learning style
Trust me on this, your child’s learning style is a useful piece of this puzzle. What’s a learning style? Essentially it’s the method in which people process and receive information best. The most common learning styles fall into four categories: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing, though there’s even more nuanced research out there.
No child fits perfectly into any “box,” and while their learning style is great information to have, it’s really just a jumping off point. For instance, if you discover your child’s profile is closest to the “visual learner” category, long periods of listening without supporting graphs/examples will be a challenge. Kinesthetic learners benefit from movement breaks—the list goes on!
It's definitely worth a little research, and you might learn something about yourself too!
3. Remove distractions
This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but removing distractions (and keeping them removed) is much easier said than done. The most common offenders are devices, other students, and the learning environment itself.
The right move here will depend on what school looks like for your child right now. So, have a candid conversation with your child. This could include coaching them on how to politely shut down distracting conversations, how to make smart decisions about cell phones, and potentially even stepping in to make sure homework time is homework time (not to be confused with video game or social media time; here is more on perfecting your after-school routine).
4. Embrace single-tasking (for school AND free time)
Single-tasking is the new multitasking.
Psychologists agree that multitasking often gives the illusion of getting things done while it actually increases stress. With each additional task taken on, studies show a 20% decrease in overall productivity.
If your student is multitasking, there’s a good chance that is the root of an inability to concentrate. So, keep it simple with one thing at a time. As an added bonus, free time will be much more enjoyable if it’s truly saved for a time without the shadow of homework hovering over it.
5. Break tasks into chunks
When something seems overwhelming, it can be easier to tune out than to tackle what’s at hand. That’s why complex, intimidating projects and topics can stop the learning process in its tracks.
It’s also why segmenting extended tasks into chunks is so important. Collaborate with your student to simplify what they’re working on. To get started with this process, check out this step-by-step guide to breaking down students’ assignments.
6. Incorporate personal interests & goals
I’ll let you in on a secret: students often need a lot of help with this.
Cognitively, it is difficult for adolescents to grasp the future benefits of good habits. Abstract concepts like “strong reading comprehension skills are generally good to have” are challenging for many students. Therefore, the more teachers, role models, and parents can support them in connecting academics with students’ interests and life goals, the better.
For more on this, I cannot recommend the book The Power of the Adolescent Brain highly enough. It packs fascinating, simply explained neuroscience into a relatively quick read and is valuable for parents and teachers who don’t have time (and in my case, patience!) for a dense college textbook.
7. Involve your child’s teacher
It’s ok to ask for help! Especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed and not sure how to help your student, a conversation with their teacher(s) is a great first step. They may have valuable observations and suggestions based on their professional experience and knowledge of your child.
Speaking with your child’s teacher can complete the puzzle; they know what’s going on at school, and you know what’s going on at home. Join forces to develop a solution that keeps your students’ progress moving forward.
If you’re consistently concerned about your child’s ability to focus, getting an expert opinion from a teacher, doctor, or school psychologist can also be critical to their success.
8. Encourage your child to volunteer and ask questions
It’s easier to tune out when you’re just sitting there, right? It may seem scary at first, especially if your child already lacks confidence in a particular subject, but there’s only one way to change that!
Talk with your student about asking questions and volunteering in class, even if it’s just 2-3 times per week. By asking questions, students have the opportunity to catch up before getting totally lost, the point of no return focus-wise. Increasing participation gives students a reason to pay attention, and with practice, it gets easier and easier.
It isn’t easy to change habits like this, so be sure to reinforce your student’s efforts with positive encouragement, and maybe even a reward or two!
9. Find an organizational tool (and stick to it)
It might be a planner, a checklist, or something else! There are hundreds of organizational tools for kids out there, and this is one instance when knowing your child’s learning style can come in handy.
The key to success here is, once you and your child have settled on one, to stick to it for at least a few weeks. Switching between organizational strategies can be confusing, not to mention counterproductive, to what you’d like to achieve. It’s absolutely ok to make a change if a strategy isn’t working; just make sure to give it a fair shot first!
10. Take brain breaks
Whether your child is following an in-person, hybrid, or fully remote school schedule will determine how you can incorporate brain breaks, as will their age. If your student is learning in person, work with your child to think of something they can do between classes or in a way that doesn’t disrupt the classroom. If following a completely online or hybrid schedule, you have a bit more flexibility with brain breaks.
After talking with your child about when they lose focus, their learning style, and building an action plan, track your progress. Remember: if first you don’t succeed, try try again!