Some students have a difficult time focusing in a classroom environment. It can be frustrating for the student who is always in trouble for not paying attention. It can be frustrating for the teacher who is constantly having to redirect the student. It can be frustrating for the parent to field phone calls from concerned teachers or who feel like they need to discipline the child to help them focus.
Lack of focus is a classic concern for students with an attention deficit disorder but is also a concern for many students without any diagnosis. Defining what ‘focus’ means can be difficult and may be dependent on classroom expectations, age level and function of behavior.
In order to develop effective strategies, there are lots of questions to ask. If the student isn’t focusing, what else is the student doing? What behavior is ‘working’ for the student? What is the expectation for the student? How is an average student in the same classroom performing? What is motivating for the student?
The first thing that should be considered is conducting a functional behavior assessment to determine why the student isn’t focusing. Parents can request the school complete the FBA. The purpose of the Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) is to ascertain the purpose or reason the student isn’t focusing, or engaging in whatever behavior that is preventing them from focusing. By determining the purpose of the behavior, educational personnel can then devise interventions to help the student display more acceptable behaviors that will meet his/her needs or desires (the “why” of the behavior). The FBA process may help define what lack of focus means for the particular student, and what behaviors the student is engaging in rather than focusing on the work and/or classroom instruction.
The results of an FBA should lead to an operational definition of a target behavior, baseline data, and function (the ‘why’). Understanding the function of behavior will lead to effective interventions. Without understanding the ‘why,’ an intervention may not be effective. The intervention should be tailored to the unique needs of the student.
Some basic strategies which may be effective are as follows:
- Break it Down: If you know that a student is successful with a particular subject at an average duration, start there! For example, Billy who is a 1st grader is typically successful with math and will attend to the task for approximately 10 minutes and complete a worksheet accurately in that time period. Slowly, add time to that 10 minutes. Maybe, the next time Billy will be required to complete a math assignment and participate in instruction for 12 minutes. If reading is more difficult for Billy and he typically won’t sit for more than a few minutes, start there and build it up.
- Provide Specific Praise when the Student is “Focusing:” When the student is demonstrating appropriate behavior, tell them! Be specific! When the student is completing work accurately (or whatever is an appropriate target behavior), provide them with a copious amount of praise. For example, “Wow, I really like how you are working on your math worksheet and focusing so hard on getting each problem correct.”
- Clear Expectations: Whenever in an environment which may present challenges for focusing, provide clear expectations. Utilizing a timer and/or visual schedule may helpful for some students. The timer can help visually and/or audibly tell a student how long they have to engage in an un-preferred task. Using a visual schedule may help some students know what is next or when they get to do something preferred.