Shannon Gilfeather is a special education teacher at Salk Middle School in Spokane, Washington.
In many classrooms and computer labs, students are expected to “sit still” and “pay attention” for an entire class period or for several hours in a row. For some students with disabilities or learning differences, this can be an impossible task.
While students may not appear different, the reality is that each and every child’s brain works differently. This means that some may need a little extra support or a different learning approach to fully benefit from our curriculum and instruction.
Here are five strategies I have implemented in my classroom to help students improve their focus so they’re ready, willing and able to learn.
1. Begin class with a mindful minute
The excitement and disruption caused by transitions between classes can be challenging for students and teachers alike. At the beginning of every class, I take 60 seconds to help students focus attention on their breathing and calm their nervous system, helping their brain become ready to learn.
We begin by dimming the lights. In a calm, soothing voice, I ask students to:
- Sit upright or stand up straight.
- Place their feet flat on the floor.
- Rest their hands on their legs.
- Close their eyes, if they are comfortable.
- Sit up straight by pretending there is a string connecting the top of their head to the ceiling so their chin is parallel to the floor.
- Focus their attention on their breath so they can feel their belly move.
I then guide students through breathing exercises, asking them to inhale and exhale. When getting started, I initially used a Hoberman Sphere or moved my hands together and apart to give students a visual for each breath taken. Once students get the hang of the pace, this visual becomes optional. There are also apps that can be used to guide breathing exercises.
This simple act of focusing on their breathing, and taking time to slow the pace of inhaling and exhaling helps students relax and let go of what happened earlier or what could potentially happen later so they can be present in the moment. When the minute is up, they are quiet, centered and ready to work. Research shows that when we calm the nervous system, we move oxygen into the brain, which reduces anxiety and stress. I have found that the mindful minute is the best 60 seconds I spend to help students maximize the amount of learning possible each day.
2. Incorporate movement
For some students, it can be difficult to pay attention to what the teacher is saying and sit still. In his book, “Teaching with the Brain in Mind,” Eric Jensen recommends movement as an effective cognitive strategy to strengthen learning, improve memory and retrieval, and enhance learner motivation and morale. Movement helps stimulate neural networks in the brain and increases blood flow, which puts students in a better mindset to think and recall.
Not all forms of movement, however, are helpful. Instead of toys like fidget spinners, which can be noisy and distracting, seek out learning tools that have been researched and endorsed by reputable organizations. The Tangle Jr. is one such tool that allows students to fidget and move without distracting their peers. It is recommended by several organizations for a wide range of special needs populations, including students with ADHD, autism and learning disabilities. In my classroom, we also use yoga balls, wiggle seat cushions and bouncy bands, which allow students to silently move, bounce or wiggle without disrupting their classmates while still completing all of their work.
3. Take sensory breaks
Sometimes, a little bit of movement in one’s chair isn’t enough. When a student is internalizing feelings such as anxiety, fear or depression, they may externalize these by reacting in an inappropriate manner such as exhibiting aggressiveness, over-activity or noncompliance. The way a teacher reacts when a student displays these external behaviors can shape how the student responds in the future.
Research from the Council for Exceptional Children recommends taking sensory breaks to help children relieve stress and improve their focus. These breaks can be built into the regular class schedule or utilized as needed for individual students. There are a wide variety of sensory tools that can be used during these short breaks, including kinetic sand, calming coloring books, a pocket Etch A Sketch, water beads, a white noise sound machine and sequined mermaid pillows, among others.
Giving students the opportunity to take sensory breaks can have a huge impact on their ability to persevere. Instead of becoming frustrated and giving up on an activity or lesson, students learn that by taking a quick break, they can refresh, reset and return to their seat ready to learn.
4. Build foundational cognitive skills
Attention is a foundational cognitive skill that students need to become successful learners. Many children who have trouble with focus and attention do not process information efficiently, which can impede their listening, reading and learning. We use a neuroscience-based intervention called Fast ForWord to target core areas of weakness, starting in the brain.
The online program helps us prepare each student’s brain for reading and learning by improving the cognitive skills — such as attention, memory and processing speed — that are weak in struggling learners. We also use the program to provide individualized, intensive practice on a variety of language and reading skills, and then reinforce those skills by using speech verification technology to provide guided oral reading support. By working from the bottom up using the principles of neuroplasticity, we can address the underlying difficulties that keep students from paying attention and making progress.
5. Create a growth mindset classroom
According to Stanford University psychology Professor Carol S. Dweck, people with a “fixed mindset” — those who believe basic qualities like intelligence or talent are fixed — are less likely to flourish than those with a “growth mindset” — those who believe that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. In her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Dweck reveals how parents, teachers and others can put this idea to use to help students foster outstanding accomplishment.
By creating a growth mindset classroom, we can help students take more ownership of their learning and achieve their independence. The key is to emphasize the effort that students are putting in, rather than their intellectual ability, therefore helping them learn how to persevere and grow.
Toward that end, I work directly with each student to set weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals. Together, we track their progress and growth using classroom data walls and individual student binders to make their learning feel tangible. When we celebrate their successes, we talk about how the effort they’ve invested has helped them change their brain, or reach a new reading level, or achieve a goal we established. If students aren’t reaching their goals, we hold an intervention conference so we can review the progress they have made and make adjustments so they can start seeing more growth.
Helping students succeed
All students want to learn, but the way they learn best is influenced by differences in their brains. My students say the strategies we’ve implemented have helped them increase their focus, improve their grades, regulate their emotions and feel more grown up. By giving them the time, support and tools they need to focus, we can help them become better learners and develop the confidence and perseverance they need to succeed in school and in life.