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
problems interfere with school performance and other activities
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.
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.
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
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.
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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