by Stacy M. Turke
on the On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog
If you’ve met more than a child or two in your day, you know that they come in various models, some of which are more distractible than others. There are some easy generalizations, such as the younger the child, the shorter the attention span. But overall, some just are more fidgety and distractible than their classmates. As a School OT, I am often asked by my teacher colleagues to help support those students who struggle to pay attention and focus through the long school day. And while there may be differing reasons why, there are some strategies that can help pretty universally.
So let’s talk about:
How can I help distractible kids in my classroom?
This may seem overly obvious…but you’d be surprised.
- Our classrooms and hallways are full of posters reminding the students of behavioral expectations and supports.
- We hang student work from the ceiling.
- We label lockers with names and decorate them for celebrations.
- We have bulletin boards with coordinated borders that help set the stage for the work happening in the classrooms.
While all of these examples have a true purpose within the school and help create a feeling of belonging and ownership, some kids can become overly distracted by all of the “stuff.” I’m not advocating for a sterile, unwelcoming environment. Warmth and comfort have their place for sure. But consider removing the extra stuff that just hangs out as the year progresses, and especially think about taking down the work and decorations that hang down and move in the breeze created by an open window or the furnace fan. The constant movement of things hanging overhead may provide a constant distraction for your students, making it very hard for them to attend to your activities. Giving your students a clean, focused environment helps prepare them for the work you will be asking of them.
Try adding a Calm Corner
Many teachers I work with have a designated “Calm Corner” in their classrooms where students can go to work when their brains and bodies are struggling to slow down and pay attention. This doesn’t have to be a big space nor is there any specific equipment needed. It’s usually a spot that is a little out of the flow of traffic and may have slightly lower lighting. Bonus, in fact, if there is natural lighting in the area so an overhead fluorescent isn’t even needed. But if you don’t have this kind of space in your classroom, you can create a mini-oasis by turning a table or desk away from the flow of the room or use a study carrel made from file folders laminated together. Add a set of sound-dampening headphones that can be found year round in the hunting section of discount stores. Fair warning: you may find yourself wanting to work in that corner at times during the day too!
Fill ’em up with inefficient movement
Kids need to move…so instead of trying to keep them in their seats, give them times and reasons to move! In OT school we are taught to think about “energy conservation” and “work simplification” to improve efficiency and reduce extra energy expenditure. But in schools, I advocate becoming models of inefficiency when you’ve got students who need to move! Instead of keeping work tools at every table or station, consider keeping them in a location at the edge of the classroom so that kids have to move to one spot to get their writing tool and then to another spot to get their notebooks, before returning to their own work spaces. This gives kids permission to be moving with purpose.
Have kids try new learning tools
Fidget tools have their place…in kids’ hands or at their feet! I’ve talked about these before, mostly because when they are well-used, they can make the difference between a wiggly, inattentive child and a focused, productive student. Check out my post in March 2016 for some of my all-time favorite fidgets of both the hand and foot variety. Also consider adding seat cushions…or yoga ball seats…standing desks…or even a new style or color writing tool. New and novel can create new interest and focus.
Feed the Fidgets
Growing bodies need good, steadily-provided nutrition and fluid intake to run optimally. Many of the elementary classrooms I work in have either a scheduled snack time or a “snack when you need to” policy. Many teachers have their students bring a water bottle into the classroom to increase water intake and oral input (plus extra water means extra bathroom breaks, which creates natural movement opportunities). Try chewy or crunchy foods with healthy dips for snacks. For example, provide apple slices with flavored yogurt to dip or celery with hummus. Strong flavors, such as medium salsa with tortilla chips, strong-flavored meat jerky, or Chex mix, can also boost oral input and increase focused attention. Feeding a hungry child or offering water to a child whose brain needs a quick boost may go a long way toward decreasing fidgetiness.
Have any great tips for helping kids focus in the classroom? Please share in the comments below and share the wealth!
Stacy M. Turke, OTR/L: “On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog.” Stacy has been a school OT for 30 years with the same school district in Michigan in what she describes as “my dream job.” Her career has ranged from working in a “center-based” school to working in public and private schools throughout the county, including those in the rural, suburban, and urban areas. She has experience working with students with a wide range of educational needs, to include cognitive impairments, Autism Spectrum Disorder, physical challenges, sensory processing needs, and many other learning challenges. She expresses her enthusiasm when she says “This career has been fulfilling, always presenting new and interesting challenges, and is NEVER boring!” You can connect with Stacy on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/stacyturke/ and on Twitter at @stacyturke.
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