Short Attention Span: ✅ How to Deal With it in an ESL Classroom
Sometimes, it can be challenging for most of us to focus on specific tasks. It's normal to find your mind wandering when you should be focused on a particular thing. According to a 2010 study 1 by Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, we spend nearly 47 percent of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are doing.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate MANEL R. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
It's even more challenging for kids to stay focused on one task even if they are interested in it, especially nowadays with all the stimulation available around us. It can be nearly impossible to keep a child's attention when they're completely uninterested in what you want them to focus on or when they find the task too challenging. Young students will fidget, play with their pencils and look at everything except the task at hand.
So, what's an attention span?The Cambridge dictionary defines attention span as the length of time people can keep their thoughts and interest fixed on something.
For children, it's so much shorter. Some child development experts suggest that the average child should concentrate on one task for 2-5 minutes multiplied by their age. So, a moderate 6-year old should focus on a given task for up to 30 minutes 2. Of course, this will vary by a child – and of course by task. Attention span is also elastic and will tend to wane as the school day progresses.
It does not always cause concern, but a short attention span may sometimes be a sign of an underlying condition, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a disorder that affects 5% to 7% of children.3 Children with ADHD have problems with attention span, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. ADHD is the term now used for ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). ADHD is more common in boys than in girls.
- A child with ADHD has trouble listening when someone talks, waiting his turn, completing a task, or returning to a task if interrupted. (These can be typical characteristics of children less than 3 or 4 years old.)
- 80% of boys and 50% of girls with attention problems are also hyperactive. A child who has symptoms of hyperactivity is restless, impulsive, and in a hurry.
- 50% of children also have a learning disability. The most common learning disability is an auditory processing deficit. This means they have difficulty remembering verbal directions. However, the intelligence of most children with ADHD is usually average.
It seems like kids today are not as good at a concentration as we might remember being at their age. In the current generation of fast-paced modern technology and social media, it's no wonder that adults—let alone children—can not focus their attention quickly. Think about how much stimulation we're exposed to daily and how much it impacts your world. Between smartphones, iPods, email, TV, DVRs, the internet, social media, and more, our brain's neurons are firing on all cylinders all day long.
The brain is trained at a young age to multitask to such a high degree that it is often incapable of focusing on one task or thought at a time. In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that of students ages 8 to 18, half of them watch TV, surf the internet, or use some other form of media while doing their homework.
Dr. Richard Restak's book The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind covers this topic in depth. He discusses how we are all capable of reaching a breaking point where we lose our ability to focus due to overstimulation. This is what could be happening with many of our children. A child who is seen as "having difficulty focusing" or "bright, but not working to his full potential" may be unable to keep up with the demands of a stimulus-filled environment.
Children living with ADHD need mental stimulation and arousal, so they are given stimulants to help them focus in the classroom. They can concentrate easily on certain things such as video games and television because they provide them with instant gratification, are thrilling and dynamic, and give them a "hit" of dopamine that keeps them enthralled.ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder for kids in the U.S., with at least 4.5 million diagnoses among children under age 18. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the prevalence of ADHD in children ages 4 to 17 was 11%. These findings represent a dramatic increase from more than 30 years ago when the rate of ADHD was estimated between 3% and 5%. What is more concerning is that the prevalence of ADHD increased by about 35% from 2003 to 2011 alone.
So the chances of encountering ADHD students in your classroom are very high. A teacher should be able to manage this type of student.
Ways to work with ADHD students:
- Maintain firm disciplineThese children are usually challenging to manage. They need more carefully planned discipline than the average child. Rules should be made mainly to prevent harm to him and others. Hyperactive children tolerate fewer rules than the middle child. Enforce a few clear, consistent, important rules and add other laws at their own pace. Avoid constant negative comments like "Don't do this" and "Stop that." Develop a set of hand signals and use them rather than telling your child to calm down or slow down.
- Enforce rulesTry to use a friendly, matter-of-fact tone of voice when you discipline your students. If you yell, your students will be quick to imitate you.
- Breaking tasks into smaller segmentsChildren who have ADHD often jump from task to task without finishing any of them. They feel trapped by any job that takes longer than the time they're able to maintain focus. Improving this skill usually requires breaking tasks into smaller segments while increasing the child's low attention span.
- Take 10 minutes every day to practice paying attentionSet a kitchen timer for random intervals (one to three minutes), and ask students to place a checkmark on their paper if they were paying attention when the alarm went off. This will help students become aware of how long it takes before they drift off.
- Provide preferential seatingIn front of the classroom, within cueing distance of you, and away from as many environmental distractions as possible, including doors, windows, and visual displays. If possible, make sure the child is seated among attentive, well-focused students.
- Have a student clear his desk of distractionsHe should have only the essential items needed to do the task at hand.
- Create opportunities for children to respond to the material as it is being presented. Lecture for no more than 10 minutes, then ask kids to comment on the fabric.
- Cover or remove visual distractions. Erase unnecessary information from the board and remove visual clutter.
- Reward your student when he finishes a task. Giving your kids something to look forward to will energize them. The reward can be a sticker, a game to play or a candy…etc
- Expand on your student's partial answers by saying, "Tell me more. I would like to know how you arrived at that answer? It is interesting." This will keep his attention on the task at hand.
- Give kids a reason to pay attention – be creative. Try to create something or develop the new game, technique, warm-up every once and a while.
- Make it physical. Kids love moving around, jumping, running … so creating more opportunities to move around will help them stay focused longer.
- Turn it into a game. The internet is full of exciting and fun games you can try in the classroom. Make your class enjoyable, and kids will appreciate you, and you will feel rewarded.
Are you ready to teach English abroad or online?
Children, especially those with shorter attention spans, are adept at finding enjoyment and entertainment with the littlest, most unassuming, objects. A paperclip can quickly be turned into a bouncy toy. A piece of paper can be rolled into a spying glass. So, it's the teacher's role and the parents ' to create the right environment for kids to stay focused and motivated.
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