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Follow the Fingers: Tips for Teaching Children with Short Attention Spans

by Sarah K Major February 04, 2016

Follow the Fingers: Tips for Teaching Children with Short Attention Spans

A small study of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder last year 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 a dose of medication to improve concentration, or even better.

(Taken from a NY Times article by Tara Parker-Pope)

I was very happy to read about this study. I think 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.

Flickering Attention

I remember one 5th-grader I was working with in my office who I will call Ralph. His classroom teacher had requested that we meet so we could try and design some strategies that would help him in his reading. Ralph was sitting across the table from me and was reading while I made notes of what was going on. I immediately 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 noted was that each time the 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, he could read them. 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 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.

Wandering Attention

Mallory was the sweetest kindergartner. During a lesson, she sat quietly absorbing what she heard. The moment came, however, when the group was to start working on a task. Mallory would begin, but then she 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.

Attentional Gymnastics

I tutored a second grader we will call Frank. Frank 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 keep 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 only a few moments, then he was on the floor, then he was sitting backwards or sideways in his chair. It was nearly impossible for ME to maintain a train of thought much less tutor Frank.

Gain an Ally

One thing I found was that if I could teach the child how to help himself or herself, they became their own best helpers. It was empowering for each child to learn exactly where the difficulty lay. For Ralph, Mallory and Frank, the over arching problem was attention, but the specific problems were different. My experience has been that once the child and I discussed what was going on and we strategized ways he or she could help themselves, confidence rose and so did performance.

Strategies

Mallory and I brainstormed some ideas (remember, she’s in kindergarten) 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 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.
  • We covered all but the first row with a blank paper so that the presence of many other problems did not distract.
  • Mallory decided that she would not look up from her paper until she had reached the end of the row. When she did the last problem on the row, she would move the paper down to expose the second row, she would glance around the room to see what was going on, then she would once again point to the problem at hand.
  • 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 a little desk around so that she could work without being able to see what others were doing.

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.

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

Play Hand Magnets

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 was to pick up any stylized card he wanted, read the word out loud, and then find the match. He would pick up the second card in his other hand so that both hands were engaged in the task. 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 Ralph. 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.

Focus Follows 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!





Sarah K Major
Sarah K Major

Author

Sarah's absolute belief in every child’s ability to learn, and her passion to empower the child by supporting his/her own unique giftedness have fueled her life’s work and provided a new pathway for children to succeed academically.


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