Five Tips For Helping Children Concentrate In The Classroom
This is the first in a series of posts I’m writing aimed at helping teaching staff, but parents might find much of the information useful too.
A teacher told me recently that she has a very hard working, motivated child in her class but this child will suddenly start acting the class clown in lessons. An assessment showed that the child wasn’t being wilfully disruptive but had difficulties sustaining concentration for extended periods of time. This is a very common scenario in the classroom and one that most teachers will recognise.
Auditory and Visual Distractions
Some children are more easily distracted by things they can hear, e.g. conversations or movement inside or outside the classroom, and by things they can see, e.g. pictures on the wall, sunlight patterns and shiny surfaces, and/or by things they are thinking about. This can break into their concentration and make it hard for them to listen to the teacher.
A child that I assessed recently said that she tries really hard to listen to the teacher in lessons but if the windows are open and she can hear people outside, she can’t focus on what the teacher is saying. She can’t filter out the sounds in the background, and they compete with what she is trying to listen to.
Short Concentration Span
Some children can only concentrate for a short time. They have to work hard to focus and they can’t sustain concentration. When it comes to an end, they can’t listen or take in any information.
Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)
This can be hard to identify and it can’t be formally diagnosed until a child is seven years of age. Children who have APD can hear perfectly well, but their brains have difficulty translating the signal the ears receive into speech sounds and sequencing them in the correct order to understand the word. In typically developing children, the brain receives the signal from the ear, it translates the signals into speech sounds and puts them in the correct order to understand the word. When a child has APD, the brain can have difficulty with both of these processes, which can have a significant impact on the child’s understanding of language.
Children with APD often:
- Say things like, “I know you are talking because I can see your mouth moving, but I can’t understand what you are saying.” The underlying cause is not a language difficulty, it is a processing difficulty.
- Have difficulty following instructions. They can become very good at watching others and copying them in order to mask their difficulties.
- Become very stressed in the classroom as they can’t understand what is happening, which makes the world an unpredictable place. They may have meltdowns at home from the stress of feeling so out of control and unable to understand.
- Ask questions like, “Did you say bear or pair?” because they are not sure what the speech sound is. I worked with a child who got a diagnosis of APD and she said, “I thought the teacher said get into a bear, but I knew he couldn’t have said that because that doesn’t make sense. So I thought and thought what could he have said? By the time I worked out he must have said, “Get into a pair” the class had finished the task.” This child said that she got very tired from the effort involved in trying to use the context and her knowledge and experience of the world to help her work out what others might have said.
It is not known exactly how many children have APD but it is thought that 1 in 20 children have it to some degree.
Delayed understanding and/or use of language
This can affect children’s ability to follow instructions, understand and learn curriculum information and topic words, plan what to say for oral and written tasks, express themselves, take turns, making friends and being successful at school.
All of the difficulties described above mean that a child can find it hard to:
- Listen to the teacher
- Focus on classroom tasks
- Work on their own
- Develop independent learning skills
- Feel success
And Now For The Five Tips – What You Can Do To Help!
Here are some general strategies that teachers can try in the classroom, although children with severe difficulties are likely to need referral to outside agencies, e.g. a Paediatrician, a Speech and Language Therapist, or an Occupational Therapist.
This is a small strategy that can make a BIG difference. When a child is sitting at the front of the class, near the teacher, they can:
- Hear what she is saying more easily than if they are at the back of the class
- See her face – many children lip read to help them understand spoken language
- Get help easily from the class teacher / Teaching Assistant.
I worked with a child who told me that when he was moved to the front of the class, it made a HUGE difference to him.
2. Visual Support
This has been proven to help children focus and listen. Pictures, symbols, signs, objects – it all helps these children follow instructions and spoken information. I use symbols for concepts, e.g. before, after and I find it really helps children recognise and understand these words.
3. Checklists and Task Planners
These can be used to reduce pressure on children and help them develop independent learning skills. They are
the first steps in teaching children to take notes. (See below a task planner designed by Elklan).
How to use task planners or checklists in the classroom
- To introduce this resource: give the first part of an instruction, check it and either write it, or draw a picture to illustrate it, on the board or on a task board on the interactive white board so that the whole class can see it.
- When the class are used to using a task planner/checklist as a whole class tool, the child writes or draws the instruction on their personal checklist / task planner. They can copy your task planner on the board if this is hard.
- Gradually, increase the number of steps you put on the task planner. When you think the child is ready, give instructions, check them but don’t put a task planner on the board. You’re aim is to gradually hand over more responsibility for the task planner / checklist to the children to give them a way to remember what they have to do and help them to complete work in the classroom with less adult support.
Try making a book of task planners or checklists for children to use.
4. Checking Instructions
Using simple language and keeping instructions short helps children access them.
- Pause between parts of instructions so that you give more time for processing language before you give more information. This is a small strategy that takes no preparation, but it can make a BIG difference to a child. In my first job as a speech and language therapist, I gave this advice to a teaching assistant and she told me that she was amazed at the difference it made for the boy she was working with.
- Ask a child to repeat back what they have to do so you can check and so the class can hear the instruction again.
- Ask the class to repeat back what they have to do with their partners – make sure that children who will find this hard are with children who will help them and that an adult can hear what they are saying to make sure that they have understood.
- Use choices to check instructions, this can make it easier for children as it can help them remember what you said, e.g. If your instruction was that they were going to draw a Roman soldier, you might check by saying something like: “Are we going to draw a Roman soldier or watch a programme about a Roman soldier?”
5. Learning Breaks
Some children need to have a short break to re-focus when their concentration comes to an end. This does not have to be a fun or a long break. Research has found that movement helps refocus, so ask a child to get something, or put something in the bin, or in a drawer, etc. when you notice that their concentration is coming to an end.
All of these strategies are easy to implement, take no planning and don’t require you to make lots of resources. They can all make a difference to a child if they are used consistently.
If you have concerns about concentration problems in your classroom, or if you are a parent who experiences problems in this area, do get in touch to see if I can help.