Gaining and sustaining students’ attention in today’s classroom is hard. Really hard.
Teachers are increasingly reporting that students (both at a primary and secondary level) are finding it more challenging to manage their attention spans. Technology is one of the chief reasons why today’s students are finding it hard to pay attention in class and at home when undertaking homework. Alerts and notifications can certainly hijack students’ attention and multitasking has huge costs in terms of student learning and wellbeing.
However, the increased prevalence of screens is not the only reason why students’ attention spans are waning- a decline in physical movement levels, underdeveloped vestibular and proprioception systems, poor sleep quality and quantity and an absence of boredom are some of the other contributing factors. [Each of these factors, plus more, will be explored in an upcoming webinar for teachers on Teaching in the Age of Digital Distractions.]
Regardless of the causes for the decline in students’ attention, learning to manage their attention is the most vital skill students need to develop to thrive in the 21st Century. Without the capacity to pay and direct their attention, students will get seduced by the sensory seducations the online world offers- alerts, notifications, videos, sound effects, pop ups will divert students’ attention from learning. This problem is likely to be exacerbated over time, as more and more digital distractions vy for their attention.
Therefore, it’s imperative that teachers help students learn to tame their attention and there are simple strategies teachers can implement:
//Green time- the nature restoration theory suggests that time in nature calms down students’ nervous and sensory systems and helps them with self-regulation. Time in nature is slow-paced and calming. When students are in nature they can engage in activities that are more compatible with their intrinsic motivations and have an opportunity to enter ‘mind wandering state’ which allows their attention and focus to be restored. Basically, it’s believed that students’ voluntary attention can become fatigued in a classroom setting and this makes it challenging for them to pay attention. This problem is amplified when we consider the multitude of digital distractions that compete for their attention.
// Mono-task– teach students why it’s important to do one task, as opposed to multitasking. Despite what students believe, the brain is incapable of multitasking- even when students think they’re multitasking they’re actually engaging in ‘task switching’ or ‘continuous partial attention’. This constant switching between tasks has cognitive costs- one cost is that their brains release cortisol, the stress hormone, which prohibits neural pathways from forming which in turn, hampers their learning. There is a raft of simple (fun) experiments that teaches can use to highlight the point that multitasking isn’t helpful for learners, results in increased errors and stresses the brain. For example, ask students to face a partner and with their respective left hands, play ‘Scissor Paper Rocks’ and with their right hands they have a thumb war.
BONUS TIP– On iOS devices teach use Guided Access to prevent students from jumping in an out of apps- this forces them to mono-task.
// Productivity techniques- Students’ brains aren’t designed to pay attention for long periods of time (a general rule of thumb for sustained, focused attention is the students’ chronological age plus 1, so a 14 year old should be expected pay attention for 15 minutes). Allow students to work for short bursts and then have a rest, reorient their attention and then resume the task at hand. Also using techniques such as the Pomodoro technique, where students work for 25 minutes on a task and then take a five-minute break, can boost productivity and reduce levels of distraction (as students have the peace of mind that they’re only ever 25 minutes away from a break). Periodic resting restores students’ attention and increases the chances of them being able to sustain their attention for longer periods of time.
// Mindfulness- there’s increasing research evidence to support the use of mindfulness techniques to assist learners manage their attention (and also promote general well-being too). It’s through mindfulness that students can learn how to orient and direct their attention. Ironically, using online tools such as Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, Smiling Mind can help students to develop their mindfulness skills, if you’re unable to access mindfulness instructors.
// Breathing techniques- deep breathing, particularly, diaphragmatic (deep stomach) breathing can be a valuable tool to help students control their attention. Time with digital technologies, especially if the screen content is rapid-fire, distracting or hyper-arousing, can alter students’ physical states. We know that their physiology changes- their heart rate can increase and this can cause their sympathetic nervous system to be activated, which is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’. If students learn some simple deep breathing techniques, this can help to activate their parasympathetic nervous system which helps them to calm down and supports their capacity to pay attention.
I’ll be presenting a 2-hour webinar for primary & secondary teachers on how to help students manage their attention spans on Monday 5th November 7-9pm AEST. Find out more here.
 Gazzaley A, Rosen LD. The distracted mind: Ancient brains in a high-tech world, MIT Press3, Cambridge.
 Davis, D, Daphne M, Hayes, D & Jeffrey A., (2012) ‘What are the benefits of mindfulness: A wealth of new research has explored this age old practice. Here’s a look at its benefits for both clients and psychologists‘, American Psychological Association, 43 (7), pp. 64-68.
Chiesa, A, Serretti, A, Jakobsen, JC, 2013, ‘Mindfulness: Top–down or bottom–up emotion regulation strategy?’, Clinical Psychology Review, 33, pp. 82–96.
Hölzel, C J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T & Lazar SW, 2011, ‘Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density’ Psychiatry Research, 191(1), pp.36–43.