Maximize Classroom Focus
Let’s dive into a topic that concerns anyone working in the schools and even doing homeschooling: how to best support students in maintaining focus during classroom activities. We’ve all experienced those moments when we pour our hearts into crafting amazing lesson plans, only to find our class drifting away in a sea of distractions. But don’t give up! Read on and see if any of the following strategies I tried throughout the years might help your students stay focused. These gems are not just for school counselors but also for teachers, administrators, homeschooling parents and any adult seeking to increase student engagement.
1. Teach Kids Different Ways to Stay Focused
How many times do we tell kids “Pay attention!” or “Stay Focused!”…but we never really teach them what that means, looks like, and how to do that? This is why I created a lesson that teaches students all about focusing.
This lesson teaches students the acronym FOCUZ to help students remember to:
F: FIGURE OUT YOUR MISSION:
Repeat the task and goal in their head, go over the directions again and visualize themselves completing the task. Imagining how they will feel when they accomplish it.
O: ORGANIZE AND CHUNK IT:
Break the work and time for completion down into smaller, bite size chunks to make the work easier to manage. Focus on just one thing at a time. After 15-20 minutes (or shorter for some folks) take a break, stretch, do some seat yoga and get back to it!
C: CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF:
Recognize how your body and emotions feel. If you are on track and focused, keep going. If you’re maybe willingly, anxious, tired, move onto the next step.
U: USE A FOCUS TOOL:
A few examples of the tips and tricks to help students focus are: Get a drink, utilize a standing desk in the classroom, move away from distracting people or items, make a list, give yourself a neck or arm massage, finger pulls, or hawk hugs.
Z: ZOOM YOUR ATTENTION BACK:
Be your own FOCUZ Coach! Give yourself a pep talk using an easy to remember positive affirmation and then return your attention back to your work.
This fun, interactive lesson also provides lots of different focus tools that students can use. Some examples are: sit up front, doodle, stretch, take a mindfulness break, write a to-do list, do cross the midline exercises, wear headphones, drink water, use a stress ball, do your work standing up, move away from distractions, clean your work space, and take deep breaths.
One of my favorite things about this lesson that teaches kids how to focus is that it includes a template for creating individual student privacy offices. The privacy offices not only function as a focus tool in and of itself, but it also provides reminders to students on the steps they can take to focus.
2. Set Aside Time to Release the Mental Load
Anytime there’s a transition, location change, or too long of a lesson, it’s pretty much inevitable that students are going to lose focus. They might start thinking about their new bluetooth hover board they can’t wait to jump on after school. Or gaze out the window at the falling leaves and start daydreaming about jumping in piles. Or begin talking 60mph about anything and everything at once.
There’s also a good chance that a good number of your students have a lot weighing on their minds. And this can make it tough for them to concentrate.
Which bring us to strategy number one: give your students various ways to share or let go of their mental load.
In a classroom with 25 unique personalities, it’s important to remember that not all students will feel comfortable sharing in the same way. The more we build connections, the better we will understand how best to help students focus. It’s all about finding what works for each individual.
Sit and Share:
This tip is as straightforward as it sounds. Have students gather in a comfortable spot and use a randomizer to select students to share. If they have something on their minds they can unload it, but passing is always an option too. Set a timer for 5 min and go through as many students as time allows. This is great for morning meetings when you are getting the day started or when transitioning back into the classroom from specials, lunch or recess.
This intervention to help kids focus speaks to a different personality type or type of mental load. Sometimes, we don’t want the whole class to know what’s going on, but we also don’t want to keep it bottled up inside. If you are going to have the whole class use this strategy, it takes the stress out of refocusing by providing a prompt for journaling (and also allowing students to draw or color their story instead).
Some kids may prefer a more private outlet for their thoughts. By providing journaling prompts, you create a space where they can express themselves through writing, drawing, or coloring. Remind them that this isn’t a graded activity but an opportunity to release their thoughts. Making it a consistent routine at the same time and place allows you to redirect off-topic conversations by saying, “Can’t wait to hear more about that! That would be perfect for our journaling activity right after lunch.” Predictability and structure can be the magic ingredients to enhance focus in the classroom.
Now let’s talk about something that you might relate to. You know that feeling when you walk into a professional development session, and you spot your work colleague / awesome friend across the room, and you can’t wait to tell her about that funny thing that happened a few days ago?
Our students are just like us. Sometimes, their classmates are their people—the ones they want to connect with and share their stories. Whether it’s their latest Pokemon card acquisition or their frustration over their little brother sneaking away with their beloved Legos, when we provide them with the opportunity to be seen and heard by their peers, something magical happens—they become more focused on the learning that awaits them that day.
Partner sharing is a fantastic approach that can be used instead of whole group sharing or as an additional activity. Just make sure you have a plan to partner up students that won’t naturally gravitate to a classmate. And remember, you can always step in and be that person for a student who may not have an immediate partner.
I found it super helpful to provide prompts for students to use to get the partner share talking rolling. Sometimes I’d write the conversation starters on the board and other times I’d pass out conversation cards to the students.
3. Integrate Lots of Movement to Get Kids Focused!
Protect Recess Time
Let’s talk about how using movement can actually help our students focus. Now, don’t shy away from this section—I know what you’re thinking. How on earth does recess help kids focus? I mean, have you seen them when they come back inside? They’re like wild werewolves at midnight! And hey, that’s a valid observation. Most kids do get super excited after some unstructured playtime. But fear not, with a few tweaks to the recess structure, we can turn it into a powerful tool to help our little ones refocus.
You see, gross motor activities can work wonders in increasing focus by reducing stress. Our bodies aren’t designed to stay glued to one spot for long periods of time. When we do, we start feeling agitated, tired, and restless. That’s why the whole traditional recess routine—the moment those doors fling open and the kids race out, screaming and scrambling for the monkey bars—is built into the day (sometimes even multiple times!) for a darn good reason.
Now, here’s the thing: taking away this time as a consequence actually has the opposite effect on behavior change. Surprising, right? But it’s true. Movement is a key strategy in helping kids refocus, so we need to find ways to embrace it, not take it away.
Let me share a couple of ideas to avoid that pogo-stick behavior when it’s time to line up.
Timed Count Down
One trick is to give them a time countdown. Grab your whistle and let your students know there are 5 minutes left, then 2 minutes left, and finally, it’s time to line up. You could even have different whistles for each stage and make it a fun call-and-response activity. So, when you blow the whistle, they all enthusiastically yell, “TWO MINUTES REMAINING!” It’s a small but effective way to create structure.
Structured Recess Activities
Another option is to provide structured recess activities. Some students feel more comfortable when the teacher or an adult participates and joins in the fun. You could organize a game of four square, kickball, or even duck, duck, goose—whatever catches your students’ interest. And here’s a bonus for you: when you join in and play, your own mental and physical health will reap the benefits too!
Use Brain Breaks!
You can also add structured movement activity to your classroom procedures. When asking students to line up or return to their seats from carpet time, have them do lunge steps, walk like a bear, or safely do arm circles. Do movements that cross the midline like hand clapping games, part yourself on the back, firework claps, or dance breaks. Use movement anyway you can to release endorphins and activate positive emotions.
There are tons of different types of Brain Break activities out there. From super slow breathing brain breaks. To mindful movements. All the way to energizing ones that use your whole body.
I love brain breaks so much that I incorporated all different kinds when I was in the school building.
4. Assign Jobs that are Lesson Specific
You’ve seen the cute themed “classroom helpers” bulletin boards and I’m 100% on board with giving students jobs for building your classroom community. Why not go even further and assign jobs for the specific lesson. This is especially useful for extended core teachers or school counselors that have 15+ classes they work with. When you are making your plans for the day, you could create a section that lists out potential jobs you may need to accomplish the lesson.
Examples of lesson specific jobs are:
Note Catcher – Have one student keep notes on the board of vocabulary words used during the lesson that will be needed for retention of the material or later for the activity.
Time Keeper – Using a timer, assign one of your students to set the timer and give one minute warnings when you are ready to move on. Because School Counselors are often only given 30 minutes, this is a great tool for making sure you get through each section of the lesson. It’s easy to get caught up in the direct teaching part and not leave enough time for the student activities.
Fact Enhancer – This is great for students that need a bit of differentiation with extension. Regardless of the lesson topic – there is always information shared where the students (and sometimes the adults) would like to research further. This job could be writing down the ideas to research later or if appropriate, looking it up while you continue teaching to add more to the discussion.
Hand Equalizer – You will always, always, have students that love to share out loud. Ones that raise their hand to add to the conversation or just to talk, really. But how do we make sure all students get a chance to share throughout the lesson?
You can pull sticks, use a digital randomizer, etc – but why not assign this to a student? Give the student a class list and a highlighter and when someone contributes, the student highlights their name. Set a goal with the students so they are aware that by the end of the lesson, you’d like to ensure all voices were heard and everyone’s name gets highlighted.
Agenda Manager – Using your lesson plan as the guide, assign one student to be the manager. When the time keeper announces it’s time to move on, this person will let the class know what to do next and wait for your instructions. This will take modeling and practicing, but what a better way to engage students with peer leadership!
5. Turn Lessons into Games to Help Kids Focus
Here are a few ways to gamify your lessons to increase engagement and help kids focus in your classroom.
Class or Individual Challenges
I’ve never met a kid that doesn’t like a challenge (even if it’s within themselves). You can pretty much turn anything into a race or competition as a tool to keep kids focused. Use the other classes, table groups or rows within the class, as competition. You can do this with counting collections, complement cards, sight words, logic questions, whatever your topic is.
You can also have students challenge themselves, day to day, week to week. For example: if students are working on behavior goals – staying in their space, raising their hand, asking for help, work completion, etc. Competing with & monitoring themselves drives internal motivation and longevity of change.
Turn your lesson into a matching game or memory game. An example for lower elementary on teaching emotions: Have one card with the name of an emotion and one card with a visual. First work with the partner to pair them up and check-in for accuracy. Then have them flip all the cards over and play memory with the same deck. For upper elementary, you could do the same activity but replace either the visual or the word with a scenario. This works for tons of subjects, including career pathways, conflict resolution, coping skills, and social skills.