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Attention Problems at School

Many students will occasionally have difficulty paying attention, managing their impulses or completing tasks. Class-wide strategies and supports can help all students to maintain attention and optimize learning.

Additional supports may be needed, if

  • the student is frequently off-task, disorganized, impulsive, and/or can’t sit still
  • attention problems interfere with school performance and other activities
  • these problems persist over time
  • the level of problems observed is more than would be expected at their age or stage of development

As a leader, you guide and support staff who work directly with students. You’ll also help coordinate additional supports as necessary.

Watch our tutorial: How to recognize and respond to attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity problems in the classroom

Our 30-minute tutorial introduces the concept of attention, explores signs and symptoms, when to be concerned, and reviews strategies to support students with attention problems in the classroom.

Download our info sheet for a printable copy of this information.

How to help students

At school, we can help students to learn skills for focusing their attention, staying on task, waiting their turn, etc.  And we can maintain classroom environments that help students to engage and self-regulate so they’re more available for learning.  For most students, general strategies and supports will be enough to help them to maintain attention.

Here are some everyday strategies for educators to try in mentally healthy classroom:

  • Maintain a safe and positive environment, with clear expectations.
  • Have predictable classroom routines and tell students about changes in advance.
  • Use visual reminders and prompts.
  • Teach/reinforce/model organizational skills, helping students to have needed materials ready for learning (e.g., spare pens/pencils available for loan).
  • Teach/reinforce/model time management skills, helping students to chunk assignments and use class time well (e.g., using a calendar / agenda).
  • Teach/reinforce study skills, helping students to prepare for tests in advance and to be methodical during test-taking (e.g., strategies for checking work).
  • Offer a range of engaging ways for students to access information, and to demonstrate their strengths.
  • Create a culture of caring within your classroom, through which students know they can ask for help when needed.
  • Design environments that minimize crowding and distractions.
  • Consider creating spaces that may assist with concentration when students are trying to focus.
  • When students struggle with attention and hyperactivity/impulsivity occasionally, remind yourself that they are learning the skills of executive functioning and that this takes time.

Educators aren’t mental health professionals, but they are well-positioned to observe early signs of attention problems because the classroom environment demands a high level of focus and organization. In some students, signs of difficulty in this area are easy to see, and are noticeable from a young age. For others, the difficulties can be quite hard to notice, but may be just as impactful, particularly when they are not identified until later grades.

Signs you may observe: elementary-age students

  • difficulty paying attention and following instructions
  • fidgety, excessive activity
  • acts without thinking
  • may blurt out answers
  • has trouble taking turns
  • difficulty with / avoids written work
  • easily distracted, daydreams
  • processes information slowly
  • forgetful
  • acts younger than age
  • may have difficulty with friendships

Signs you may observe: secondary-age students

  • difficulty organizing self and activities
  • trouble starting / completing work
  • difficulty with setting goals
  • trouble maintaining attention to tasks and ignoring irrelevant information
  • restless, distracted, may appear to daydream
  • difficulty with multistep problem-solving and managing deadlines
  • problems performing under pressure
  • difficulty making decisions quickly
  • difficulty retaining information
  • may have more frequent negative moods (anger, anxiety, stress, sadness)
  • may have difficulty with friendships

If an educator notices a student showing concerns that are causing distress or getting in the way of their learning, it’s important to keep an eye on them and consider some targeted classroom strategies.

The following strategies can help to prevent attention problems or minimize their impact.

Problems with attention

  • Maintain predictable classroom environment.
  • Limit noise and distractions when students are completing tasks requiring sustained attention.
  • Teach in manageable chunks.
  • Reinforce on-task behaviour.
  • Provide a quiet workspace.
  • Provide preferential seating.
  • Keep tasks short & achievable.
  • Provide visual schedules and visible timelines.

Problems with impulsivity

  • Remind students about mindfulness, listening, and pausing before speaking.
  • Teach and model a planned approach to tasks and conversations.
  • Provide reminders to check work.
  • Support the development of pausing skills.
  • Reinforce on-task behaviour.
  • Intervene at the point of performance – give reminders as required.

Problems with overactivity

  • Provide movement breaks (for all).
  • Schedule short brain breaks in the day to maximize learning.
  • Stand to work if necessary.
  • Prompt for “stop and think” before acting.
  • Offer opportunities for movement at points throughout the day (e.g., office errand).

Problems with processing speed

  • Provide copies of notes.
  • Repeat complicated instructions or concepts.
  • Extend time limits.
  • Provide cues that a question/request is coming, and allow for longer response time.
  • Shorten assignments.

Problems with working memory

  • Post key information and reminders visually for all students to reference.
  • Teach in manageable chunks.
  • Offer step by step instructions, particularly for complex tasks.
  • Provide prompts as needed.
  • Provide memory aids (e.g., mneumonics).

Problems with executive functioning

  • Prepare students for transitions.
  • Set achievable timelines for tests and assignments.
  • Chunk work expectations with intermediary deadlines.
  • Provide checklists and graphic organizers to support sequencing and organization.
  • Provide extra support for organizing desk, notes, materials, etc.
  • Use daily home-school communication to support work completion.

What to do if you’re concerned

Remember, it’s not the role of educators to diagnose mental health issues. But they can observe, document and work collaboratively as part of a team to provide caring support at school.  As the school or system leader, ensure staff have a clear understanding of the process to use when they are concerned.

When to take action

  • The student’s attention seems to be affecting their day-to-day functioning.
  • The signs of difficulty seem severe or prolonged.
  • The student or their family has expressed concern.

What to do

  • Remind school staff of your school board or school’s protocol for accessing mental health support. This may include
    • discussions with you, the vice-principal or member of your school’s mental health leadership team
    • discussing your observations with the student and/or their parent/guardian
    • a referral for professional mental health support from school board personnel (e.g., school social worker or school psychologist)
    • a referral for professional mental health support within the community

Educators are a critical part of the support process because they help with early identification. They will remain part of the student’s circle of support as they move to, through, and from professional mental health services, but they will need your support. Depending on the student’s needs, some or all of the practices listed above may be helpful. Working closely with staff, the student, their family, and mental health professionals within the circle of support is the best way to ensure that classroom support meets the student’s mental health needs.

Take care of yourself

It’s essential that you take care of yourself too—for your well-being, and so you’re better able to support the staff and students you serve. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings and try basic self-care strategies . Learn to recognize when you need additional support. Help is available for you through your employee assistance program.

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