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Steven Edelman MA
srdedel@earthlink.net

I wrote this as material to give parents:

Attention in School: Some Advice

If you are reading this, you probably want to find a way to increase your childís ability to pay attention and concentrate in school without having him or her take medication. There are so many reasons that a children (or adult) does not pay attention that it is impossible to list them all. Saying that there is one reason for a childís activity level or inattention in school is a lot like saying that we know a factual reason for everything that happens in the world.

The first step before taking a journey involves getting organized. Get a notebook or a journal and two pens or pencils. You are going to be taking a bunch of notes. The next step involves making yourself comfortable so that you can read this. Your childís problems probably began with a teacher saying that he (most problems with attention happen to boys) or she is moving around too much, or not paying attention. The first place to begin is to rule out physical/medical problems. Has your child had a thorough physical, including vision testing (not just, "Look over there and read that."), hearing (some physicians whisper to a child to test hearing Ė that is never enough), blood tests (thyroid problems, for example, can cause inattention, as can problems with blood sugar, and other things), neurological screening, etc? I advise that you tape record your interactions with your primary care physician concerning the attention problem, and offer to give him or her a copy of the tape.

The second place to look at is your childís school. Have you spent time in his/her classrooms? While embarrassing to middle school and high school students, this is still an important thing for a parent to do. Look around the classroom. Think about whether the physical layout is good for learning. Write your observations in your notebook. Watch the teacher as s/he teaches. Ask yourself whether you could learn from this person. Note how many students ask questions, and how they are answered by the teacher. Note (in your book) how many times s/he asks students questions. Note how many times s/he asks students who do not raise their hand questions. Look around and find those students who appear to have problems paying attention (they might be talking to another student, playing with a pencil, etc.). Note how many times the teacher asks these students a question about the material being taught.

Yes, visiting the school involves taking time off from work. In some states (North Carolina is one of them), there are laws that require employers to give employees time off to deal with school matters.

Talk to your child about school every day. Asking a question like, "What did you do in school today?" is a sure way to get discouraged because most children beyond second or third grade know that you will leave them alone if they say things like, "Nothing," "The usual," "Stuff," etc. as an answer. You must be specific and persistent. Get to know the names of you childís teacher(s). Say, "Tell me two (three, four, etc.) questions that you asked Ms. Smith today?" Be prepared to tell your child that s /he needs to write these down along with the teacherís responses every day, because you are going to ask. Talk with your child about his/her response. Write this in your journal. Ask your child to write down every time that the teacher asks him/her a question about a lesson. Make certain that he writes his/her response. Write this in your journal.

Some children are going to resist talking to you. Persist. Make daily conversations about school as important as brushing teeth. This has got to become a habit. Make it more pleasant by having the conversations while eating a healthy snack.

This is a lot of work for you. Take it to the person who works with you to discuss. Are you satisfied with the number of times that the teacher is talking to/questioning your child each day? Discuss ways to make this better.

The Job Jar is an added way to get your child to talk about school. It needs to be used in addition to the daily school conversation, so try the daily conversation first. Generally, the more you pay attention to what your child is doing in school, the more your child will pay attention in school. Continue to work on this.

Working with School

Children with significant attention problems are often referred to special committees for assistance or support. Sometimes a committee recommends an evaluation that results in a special education placement. Sometimes a child may have a "diagnosis" that makes him or her eligible for accommodations under the Civil Rights Act. In any case, there is a chance that goals will be established for your child. You have the right to participate in the creation of those goals.

When a child has difficulty paying attention, the most important goals are those which enhance it. One goal must be, for each class, "_________(name of student) will demonstrate that they have been paying attention to the class by successfully responding to one or more questions about the topic. S/he will be asked at least one question per class regardless of whether a hand is raised to volunteer a response. Every effort will be made to ask a question at those times when the student is most distracted (for example, when talking to another student, or when fidgeting)."

The student must be chosen to be a leader in group project situations in order to enhance concentration and benefit from peer support. These leadership positions must be assigned periodically and randomly when possible.

Teachers can enhance attention in class by providing breaks. Breaks can consist of: 1) A Daydream Break, in which students will be given 1 to 2 minutes to close their eyes and think of a preferred activity or place to be. The teacher can provide guided imagery, or ask a student to do it; 2) The teacher can ask the class to stand-up and stretch.

Students need activity breaks during the school day. Recess should be divided so as to provide at least one break in the morning in elementary school and one break in the afternoon. Silent lunch is a poor form of punishment because it deprives students of an activity outlet. Deprivation of recess is a poor form of punishment because it also deprives students of activity that they need in order to pay attention successfully. Some forms of motor activity that violate minor rules can reduce fidgeting in some circumstances. For example, allowing a student to chew gum can sometimes reduce fidgeting.

One rarely accessed form of building movement into class structure is the response format. Students can be required to stand each time they ask the teacher a question, or when they respond to a question. This form of movement is beneficial for three primary reasons: 1) It wakes up students who may be drowsy; 2) It reduces discomfort from remaining seated for long periods; and 3) It reduces acoustical problems that may come from sitting. The acoustical consideration is rarely mentioned. Think of what happens when sound strikes absorbent material. It stops or is deadened. Speaking while seated at the back of a class, for example, requires that the sound project through the seated bodies and clothing of students forward of the position.

Students in middle school and high school often get into trouble during the change of classes because those change periods are really breaks in the tedium of sitting for long periods. Careful supervision of these transitions can allow for the "break" to be natural, without being a source of difficulty.

Students who attend "Blocked Classes" (classes lasting for one hour and fifteen minutes or longer), need breaks. These are the worst kind of classes for children who have trouble paying attention. Parents are advised to send their children to schools with shorter classes or work with teachers to provide breaks.

Some students find that a brief meditation break can help them to establish self-control. Some students benefit from being given tasks to perform that interfere with transition problems (such as carrying a "note" from their teacher to the teacher of their next class).

The Job Jar

The Job Jar is an idea that is deceptively simple. Its purpose is to ask students questions at home that increase attention at school.

Materials needed:

  1. Two large jars (preferably unbreakable)
  2. A single standard game die
  3. Small sheets of paper with tasks or questions

The child rolls the die. The number on the die determines how many pieces of paper/questions s/he takes out of the jar to answer.

Some pieces of paper contain the word, "PASS." This means that s/he can skip that question. Do not put the drawn pass back into the jar until all turns are taken. The child must respond or discuss what is on each sheet. You can create more questions as needed. The ones provided are just samples. Orient the questions to your childís school and classes.

Potential Problems

Changing a childís behavior is NEVER an easy task. Often a childís behavior will get worse before it gets better. Here is where persistence pays off. Do not give up or say that something is unsuccessful until you have given it a very long try. Discuss problems with a neutral party, such as a counselor or a teacher.

Memory Questions

Teach me something that you learned in your math class today.
Teach me something that you learned in your History/Social Studies class today.
Teach me something that you learned in your Communications class today.
Teach me something that you learned in your Science class today.
Tell me what question your Math teacher asked you today in class. What was your answer?
Tell me what question your Science teacher ask you today in class. What was your answer?
Tell me what question your Communications teacher asked you today. What was your answer?
Tell me what question your History/Social Studies teacher asked you today. What was your answer?
Tell me one question that a student asked in Math today. What was your teacherís answer?
Tell me one question that a student asked in Science class today. What was your teacherís answer?
Tell me one question that a student asked in Communications class today. The answer?
Tell me a question asked by a student in History/Social Studies today. The answer?
Teach me one thing you learned in Math and one thing you learned in Science today.
Teach me one thing you learned in Math and one thing you learned in English today.
What did your Math teacher wear today?
What did your Science teacher wear today?
What did your Communications teacher wear today?
What did your History/Social Studies teacher wear today?
Tell one thing that your Math teacher wrote on the board or overhead projector today.
Tell one thing that your Science teacher wrote on the board or overhead projector today.
Tell one thing that your History teacher wrote on the board or overhead projector today.
Tell one thing that your History/Social Studies teacher wrote on the board or overhead today.

Softies

PASS
Talk about what you did in Physical Education today.
Talk about your lunch today.
What part of school was the most fun today?
PASS
What did you do/talk about with your friends during the change of classes today?
Talk about ways to make studying easier for yourself.
Talk about your easiest subject. Why is it easy for you?
If you had a magic power to change something about your school what would it be?
PASS
If you had a magic power to change your teachers into animals talk about it.
What class would you like to teach and why?
Name a student that you think would make a good teacher. Why?

Thinkers

Read the newspaper. How does what you have learned in school today relate to an article?
Talk about how something that you have learned in math can help with shopping.
Talk about how something that you have learned in history/social studies is related to current news.
Talk about how something that you learned in science is related to your life.
Is it easier for you to learn in the morning or the afternoon? Talk about it.
Talk about how school has helped you with something that you have found useful.
Look in the job advertising in the newspaper and find the jobs that donít require a high school diploma.
Multiply the current minimum wage by 40 hours. Subtract taxes that you pay (get parents help). Use the newspaper to figure out a monthly budget.
If everyone received assistance from the government because they did not graduate from school, who would pay for it?
How did farmers learn to grow vegetables and raise animals? What kind of classes helped them?
How did people learn to forecast the weather? What kind of classes helped them?
How did cooks learn to cook? What kind of classes helped them?
What kind of things do you need to know in order to become an actor? How did school help them?
What kind of classes might help you to fill out an application for a job?
What kind of things that you learned in school might help you to take the written part of the test to get a driverís license?

--- Steven Edelman

-- srdedel@earthlink.net