5 Ways To Help Kids Pay Attention


“1-2-3- all eyes on me…”
“I’m only going to say this ONE TIME…”
“I like how Joe and Cindy are paying attention…”
“Everyone who is seated and ready is getting a sticker…”

Sound familiar?

Whether we are teaching or parenting, we all want kids to pay attention! However, sometimes, their ability to focus is elusive. It’s important to recognize that improving kids’ attention to task often has more to do with our behavior than with theirs. As we interact with children and teens, we can improve the likelihood that they’ll absorb what we’re saying by offering a preview so they know what to expect.

Consider the title of this blog, for example. “Five Ways to Get Kids to Pay Attention.” Articles with numbered lists are ALL over the blogosphere these days…just scroll through twitter or Facebook and you’ll easily find several at first glance…from “10 Things Your Doctor Wishes You Knew” to “Four Steps to a Happy Family.” We like information to be organized for us, and when we see titles like these, we know that the information will likely be listed in an easy-to-read format.

When you read the title of this blog, for example, you likely anticipated a rather succinct article with five key strategies. You might have asked yourself, “I wonder if I use any of those strategies?” or thought, “I could use a few new tricks for helping kids…” You also had the number 5 in your mind…this gave you an idea of how long this article would be so you could gauge how much time you might need. Finally, you drew on your past experience, knowing that you would likely be able to remember a list of 5 things, and you could also relate new information to what you already know.

So…this article ISN’T really going to give you “5 Ways To Get Kids To Pay Attention.” It’s going to give you just one…when you are giving directions or teaching, considering using a number to get kids’ attention and help them anticipate instruction:

“Today we are going to learn about the THREE branches of government”
“You need TWO things for group work: your pencil and your workbook.”
“This morning, we’re going to learn FOUR ways to obey God.”
” TWO things: brush your teeth and put your laundry in the hamper.”

Wishing you infinite success in your teaching and parenting today!

(Image courtesy freeimageslive.co.uk)


Pick a Partner: What are the rules?

Last week, we talked about what teachers can do–before the students even set foot in classroom–to make group work manageable for all students. Today, we’ll talk about the importance of including students in the planning as well, and why this should be part of the “big picture.”

Have you ever watched the reality show  “The Apprentice?” On this program, groups of entrepreneurs or celebrities work together on tasks in the hopes of eventually being named Donald Trump’s “apprentice.” As with most reality shows, it’s chock-full of drama, stemming mainly from the friction between team members…the group dynamics frequently ignite a firestorm of arguments.

The problem, it seems, is that the groups have very little time to talk about how they are going to work together. They’re immediately thrust into managing tasks; getting to know one another and establishing “norms” for the group are considered irrelevant. The result? Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, errors, and incomplete work.

My advice, then, to teachers who are planning group activities: “Be ye not so rushed.” The time you invest in helping ALL kids learn how to work together will pay huge dividends, not only in students academic achievement, but in their social-emotional development as well. And, if you’re teaching in the church setting, you’re helping kids to understand more fully how to be the Body of Christ.

Here are some steps for helping students work together…

Create rules Before we allow children in the cafeteria or on the playground, we give them a set of expectations  to keep them safe and to help them manage their interactions. The same logic applies to group work. I’ve quoted my colleague, Sheri Halagan many times on this blog, but her words are worth repeating: “Kids don’t know as much as we THINK they know about how to behave.” We need to remember, too, that some students with hidden disabilities struggle with social skills…and thrive on structure and rules. Before starting group work, gather the class together and facilitate a discussion about rules that should govern the tasks and interactions.

Make “Sense” of the Rules Many times, students can create appropriate rules, like “Be kind” and “Do your best job,” because they have heard the phrases before. However, we need to be certain they truly understand what the rules mean and why they are important. Jolene Philo, an author and veteran teacher, developed a method of helping students understand rules in a multi-sensory way. Instead of stopping at “Be Kind,” Jolene would ask her students, “What does being kind LOOK like? What does it SOUND like? What does it FEEL like.” She then recorded their responses in a chart to visually reinforce their discussion. This allowed for a deeper reflection about the need for these boundaries. (Download a copy of Jolene’s chart here: Look/Sound/Feel Chart)

Reinforce the Rules As teachers and volunteers who work with children and teens, we’re constantly reviewing and re-teaching. Anything we teach…from subtraction to science to Scripture must be reinforced so that it can be remembered. That’s just how students learn. In the same way, we need to review the social curriculum for students so they can internalize how to interact with each other in a positive and productive way. Responsive Classroom Consultant Margaret Berry Wilson writes,

It is important to keep discussing and practicing the rules all year long. Students cannot possibly learn all they need to about how to live and behave as a community during the first weeks of school. Time spent together deepens their understanding of how to truly care for each other. Also, keeping the rules alive and ever-present in children’s minds gives you the ability to ask “What do our rules say about . . . ?” when challenging situations arise. (full article here)

These comments readily apply not only to the classroom in school, but to church as well. In both settings, students need consistent, kind reminders about the rules that govern positive teamwork.

Your rule-based friend…


Next: Assigning roles that make groups positive and productive.

Proactive Partnering: Including the “Most Valuable Player”

Last week, we talked a little bit about proactive strategies to enhance communication between parents and church staff.  When adults put their heads together, great things usually happen. However, we need to be sure we include the “most valuable player” in all of this: the student!

But wait!” you might be saying, “We need to leave the decision-making up to the adults. After all, they know best!”

There’s truth to that statement; adults do have wisdom and perspective when it comes to educational or church planning. However, when we include the student, we accomplish some important things:

  • We encourage the student to understand him/herself better
  • The student (hopefully!) learns that pastors and teachers are approachable and available.
  • The student may have more “buy-in” to the programs and classes because he/she feels a measure of participation and control in the planning.

When we include students, we also help to lay a foundation for life-long spiritual growth. Each of the students in our programs and families has unique and special talents and strengths. Part of our jobs as parents, pastors and teachers involves helping kids understand and appreciate their own strengths so they can use them for the Kingdom. In addition, we can help students know their areas of weakness or need; we can then demonstrate support and encouragement in those areas. In short, we need to teach kids that EVERY member of the Body is useful and necessary!

So, how can we accomplish this? Children and youth–with or without disabilities– have varying levels of ability to understand and communicate their strengths and needs. However, the adults in the child’s life can ease the process by creating meaningful opportunities for the child to interact with the pastors or teachers. Some ideas:

  • Help the child to create a picture of him/herself (or, depending on the child’s skill level, create a piece of art rather than a self-portrait)
  • Take a picture of the student and help the student to send it via email to the church staff or teacher, with a list of the child’s strengths/needs or with a note of introduction.
  • Consider using some or all of the questions on this template for students who can dictate answers or write them independently: Let Me Introduce Myself

Bear in mind: This is not appropriate for all students and all situations…and that’s okay. As parents, we don’t want to overwhelm church staff and volunteers with information, nor do we want to withhold information. In addition, we don’t want to press children or youth into disclosing needs in a way that would embarrass them or deter their participation. This is, however, an excellent opportunity to model communication about our own strengths and needs, with honesty and humility; kids will often follow our lead if we can do this in healthy and productive ways.

What ideas do YOU have for including students in proactive communication? Tell me here or leave a comment below.

Power to the (little) people!

Stay tuned: JAM Review, training opportunities, and a bit of fun