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Does it seem like your students’ attention spans have shrunk? Do you wish that your students would ignore the distractions within and around them and just focus? You are not alone. The cost of dwindling focus in instructional minutes, student study time, and unaccomplished learning can be staggering. Obviously, we want to maximize the strength and length of our students’ attention spans to take full advantage of our investment in teaching and our students’ investment in learning.

Several recent studies have suggested that attention spans have grown shorter over the past few years because of technology, the pandemic, and other factors. We need to reverse that trend for our students; they need our guidance and support to meet that challenge.

A place to begin our discussion is to consider how long we might expect students to be able to pay attention. Of course, attention spans vary, but they tend to correlate with developmental stages. A basic, very simple guideline to calculate expected attention spans is to follow this equation: age multiplied by 2-5 minutes equals average concentration span. As examples, an average seven-year-old might be expected to focus for anywhere from 14-35 minutes, and a twelve-year-old might be expected to focus for 24-60 minutes.

Obviously, we want our students to be able to focus for the duration nearer the top of the formula range than the bottom. The question is, “How can we help students to increase their capacity to concentrate deeply and for an extended period of time?” Here are fifteen strategies which we can share and practice with our students.

Tend to physical factors:

  • Advise students to find a location in which they feel comfortable. For example, in the classroom, we may offer options beyond sitting in a standard desk. At home or elsewhere, a location free of interruptions and noise competition can make a significant difference.
  • Counsel students to consider the temperature and adjust to be comfortable. Adding a sweater or shedding a jacket can add to comfort and the ability to concentrate.
  • Urge students to collect and organize in advance any resources and materials that will be necessary to complete the task or project on which they want to focus.
  • Encourage students to stretch or engage in moderate exercise before attempting to concentrate to increase blood flow and their ability to focus.
  • Remind students to drink plenty of water or other hydrating beverage prior to and during periods when they want to focus.

Leverage environmental factors:

  • Encourage students to take brief breaks after completing a task or reaching a convenient “break point” in their work. A short walk, visit to the bathroom, trip to fill a water bottle, moment to briefly check in with friends, or other mental refocusing can refresh their energy and restore their ability to focus. Meanwhile, their brain will continue to work in the background.
  • Coach students to remove immediate distractions such as technology applications and notifications that may tempt them to lose focus. Social media, especially, can be a persistent distraction. Some people find music an assist to concentration while others find it distracting, so the role and value of music often is dependent on the student.
  • Suggest that when extended focus is needed, students change locations periodically. Not only can a change of environment refresh the ability to focus, but the brain also takes notice of the environment during times of focus and makes subtle connections to what is learned. As a result, learning recall can be extended.

Manage operational factors:

  • Encourage students to counter mental distractions such as worries, ideas, questions, and other elements occupying their minds by spending time before starting a task to make a list of anything might be distracting them. Once the list is made, coach students to set aside those items for now and attend to them once they have finished the task before them.
  • Similarly, suggest that students keep a pen and notepad or device screen open to note unrelated and distracting items that surface as they are focusing. A quick note can allow students to be confident that they will not forget while continuing to concentrate.
  • Advise students to avoid multitasking. While engaging in multiple activities simultaneously may feel like efficiency, multitasking is really just task switching, and it undermines the ability to think deeply and focus clearly.
  • If extended sitting creates a concentration challenge, we can suggest that students stand or even walk around while they focus.

Other strategies:

  • Encourage students to set a time goal to maintain their focus. Students can gradually increase the time and extend their ability to focus as they gain experience in achieving their goals. For many students, this activity can become a personal competition to extend and track their ability to concentrate.
  • When students need to focus on multiple tasks over extended time, such as studying related to a variety of subjects, suggest that they set intermediate time goals for each subject followed by brief breaks and reengagement with a different subject. The cumulative impact can be growth in the length of time students can maintain focus while also sustaining focus from one task to another.
  • Coach students to overcome learning blocks and barriers as they work by asking themselves, “Is there a better strategy I can try, a better way to allocate my effort, or resource I can tap to move forward?” Rather than allow frustration to take over, students can shift their focus without sacrificing connection to the work at hand.

Focusing is a skill, and like many other skills, goal setting, practice, and gradual expansion can make a significant difference over time. With our encouragement, coaching, and reinforcement, students can regain any loss in concentration ability they may have experienced and even expand their ability to focus in ways that make success in learning and life a likely outcome.

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