Teaching Strategies That Help Children Improve Focus – Child1st Publications

Teaching Strategies That Help Children Improve Focus


The Right-Brained Learner and Focus

Many right-brained learners are faced with challenges with focus in the classroom, and inability to focus has many faces. Distractability or seeming inability to focus isn't tied to a disability, rather, it is indicative of learning needs that we can help children address. Children who are right-brained in general prefer hands-on, tactile, kinesthetic and visual approaches to learning, and if they find themselves in a predominantly auditory/sequential setting, focusing will be more difficult for them.

A study of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder 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, sometimes better than, a dose of medication to improve concentration.

I was very happy to read about this study, because I believe the topic cannot be emphasized enough. At some point, however, you have to bring the child back into a formal classroom, and there will still be difficulties around focus. The good news is that there are strategies which are super effective in helping children who are easily distracted.

Stories of Three Students Who Had Trouble Focusing

Ralph - Flickering Attention While Reading

I remember one 5th grader I was working with who I will call Ralph. His classroom teacher had requested that I meet with him to design some strategies to help him with reading. Ralph was sitting across the table from me reading, while I made notes of what I observed.

Right away I 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 observed 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 so that the lights flicker on and then off again.

When I drew Ralph’s attention to words he’d missed by pointing at them, he could read them just fine. 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 it was not an inability to accurately read words that Ralph was struggling with. It 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 indeed.

Mallory - Wandering Attention While Working

Mallory was the sweetest kindergartner! During lessons, she sat quietly absorbing everything she heard. The moment came, however, when the group started working on a task. Mallory would begin willingly, but then spent 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.

Frank - Attentional Body Gymnastics While Trying to Work

I was working with Frank in order to help him make progress in reading. He 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 a few moments, then he was on the floor, then he was sitting backwards or sideways in his chair. At one point, he perched like a frog on the wide window sill. It was nearly impossible for me to maintain a train of thought much less tutor Frank.

Help Children Identify Their Specific Challenge to Focusing

A strategy I found to be helpful was to teach each child how to recognize their challenge, brainstorm some ways to help themselves, and the result is that they became their own best helpers! It was empowering for each child to know they were competent to help themselves.

For Ralph, Mallory, and Frank, the over-arching problem was lack of attention, but their specific problems were different. I discovered that once the child and I discussed what was going on and strategized ways they could help themselves, their confidence rose and so did performance.

How to Teach a Tactile Learner

Learning Strategies for Mallory

Mallory and I brainstormed some ideas 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. 

Here are some tactile strategies 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 very 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. She was not distracted by other movements as much because her focus followed her fingers.
  • We also covered all but the first row of problems with a blank paper so that the presence of many other problems did not distract her.
  • Mallory decided that she would not look up from her paper until she had reached the end of each row. When she did the last problem on the row, she would move the paper down to expose the next row, she would allow herself to glance around the room, but then she would return to the next problem.
  • After we spoke about how distracting her fellow kindergartners were to her, Mallory decided that when she had work to focus on, she would move her desk around so that she could work without being able to see what others were doing.

Helping Ralph Focus on Reading

Ralph, the fifth grader, learned that if he would track with his finger, and keep his finger by each word until he had read it, it helped his focus.

Activities to Help Frank Focus on Learning

Frank couldn’t stay in one place long enough to collaborate on focus strategies, but here’s what I did:

Play Hand Magnets While Learning Sight Words

When learning sight words (in order to prevent the need for me to crawl under the desk with him), I grabbed two sets of sight word cards. One set was my SnapWords® while the other set were the same words handwritten with a magic marker on 3x5” cards.

I spread the words out on the floor randomly (which Frank loved!) and said we were going to play a game. Frank could pick up any SnapWords® card he wanted, read the word out loud, and then find the match that appeared on a plain card. He would pick up the second card in his other hand so that both hands were engaged in the task. (The simple brilliance of this activity is that both hands were busy which made it very hard for Frank to hang upside down).

When he’d made a pair, he owned those cards. The goal was to see if he could eventually own all the cards. It was magical to watch Frank. 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 and grinned at me.

Keep in Mind that Children's Focus Follows Their Fingers

I think 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!

Resources Designed for Kinesthetic, Tactile, & Visual Learners:

Would You Like to Learn More About Teaching Right-Brained Learners?

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