Back when I was in high school, I remember teachers often calling on me while in the middle of one of their lectures.  They thought I wasn’t paying attention, but I (almost) always was.  I guess I had a habit of staring vacantly while listening instead of making eye contact.  Anyway, it always annoyed them that I actually had been listening and could provide the correct answer to their question.  Rotten kid that I was, this occurrence always gave me great pleasure.

Why do I tell you this story?  Just to make a simple point–that attention is a complicated subject, especially in education, and that teachers have been trying to keep students focused–with better or worse results–ever since formal schooling began.  To date, no magic wand has been created that we can simply wave to keep students on task, but that doesn’t keep us from continuing to look for solutions.  Today, I want to take a look at a couple of the most recent efforts in this quest to keep students’ attention focused.

Attention Problems?  There’s an App for That–Or Soon Will Be

The other day, I read an article about a couple of new apps being developed for and marketed to special education teachers that are supposed to train students with behavior and attention problems to stay on task.  One of the apps, called I-Connect, was developed by Howard Wills, a research professor in education at the University of Kansas’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project.  The other app, called Score It, is being developed by two special education professors, Ted Hasselbring of Vanderbilt and Allison Bruhn of the University of Iowa.  Both apps are currently being field tested in a few limited locations with very small groups of students, and both could be available for schools to purchase within the next year (Berdik, 2016).

Both of these devices, called “self-monitoring devices,” are designed to make the student aware of what he or she is doing at periodic intervals.  For example, the I-Connect app can be set to pop up on students’ mobile devices every few minutes to ask, “Am I on task?”  The student has to tap either “yes” or “no,” and this data is recorded by the app for teachers to view later.  Score It works in a similar fashion, but prompts both student and teacher to rate the student’s recent behavior.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there seems to me to be a fundamental problem with an app that interrupts students to ask them if they’re on task.  That is, a student is either on task or not at any given moment.  If the student is off task when the app prompts him or her, the app can perhaps be helpful by making the student aware of this fact, so he or she can re-focus.  But if the student is on task when the app prompts him or her, the app itself becomes the interruption, pulling the student off task.  And there’s a great deal of research showing that, if we lose focus, it takes us a number of minutes to get ourselves re-focused and back into the flow of the task, so the app in this case would be causing the very problem it’s designed to solve.  Maybe instead of just having “yes” and “no” responses available to answer the “Am I on task?” prompt, I-Connect should have a third option: “Well, I was on task, but I’m not now.”

Maybe that’s being too harsh, and maybe these new apps will provide some benefit for students with serious attentional problems.  After all, the early data from the limited field tests done by the developers has supposedly been very good.  I always have reservations about data supplied by the people in charge of the development (and sale) of new educational materials, though–whether it’s a new reading program, a new textbook series, or a new app.  They obviously have a vested interest in coming up with data that supports their material, and (surprise, surprise) they always seem to find such data to present in their sales pitch.  Then, when the materials are used by teachers not in the “pilot study,” the results almost never live up to the hype.

So, for now, I’ll just withhold judgement on these new “self-monitoring” apps and keep an eye on what happens once they are made available to teachers not in the pilot studies.  In the meantime, let’s talk about a different approach–one that has been proven to be effective for improving attentional focus in thousands of schools across the country–and not just with special ed. students, but with all students: mindfulness.

Approaching Attention Mindfully

The mindfulness movement has grown out of recent neuroscientific and psychological studies on the powerful positive effects of mindfulness practice on a range of human behaviors–including better managing one’s attentional states and behavior.

In a recent article, I read about how college professor and educational consultant Lori Desautels is working with schools in Indianapolis to help infuse mindfulness into the everyday workings of the school–with impressive results (Cavazos, 2016).  One school, Crooked Creek Elementary, has instituted such practices as a one-minute all-school mindfulness period at the beginning of the day (the person doing the school announcements over the intercom directs students to close their eyes and focus on their surroundings), regular discussions with students about how their brains work, and relaxation strategies for students to use when feeling stressed.  The approach certainly seems to be working.  In the first year of the pilot study using educational neuroscience principles such as mindfulness, office referrals decreased drastically and not a single student was suspended.

Mindfulness works by teaching students first of all to be in the moment, to focus their attention on what they hear around them and to the states of their own bodies.  The key to mindfulness training, however, comes from teaching students what to do when their minds wander from this present focus (which they inevitably do).

By training themselves to constantly notice when their minds wander, then bring their attention back to the present moment, students are actually training the executive function of maintaining focus without exterior help.  This is true “self-monitoring,” unlike with the app projects described previously that rely on an exterior technology to tell students when to regain focus.  And this kind of training works for all students of all ages, not just students with severe attentional problems.

Another Major Benefit: Self-Control

And training one’s attention is not the only benefit of learning how one’s brain works. It can help with behavioral issues, as well.

At Crooked Creek, teachers teach students about how their brains process emotions.  For example, one concept they teach is the “90 second rule” championed by brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor.  This “rule” states that the chemicals released in the brain when one is upset actually dissipate in roughly 90 seconds.  Why, then, do we continue to be upset by something much longer than 90 seconds?  Because we play and replay that event over and over again in our minds instead of letting it go.  So the key is to teach students, when they’re feeling stressed, upset, or angry to recognize the emotion, and to understand that if they give themselves a chance to “cool off” and flush the stress chemicals from their brains, they will feel better shortly.

Giving students a “cool off corner” (an area designated specifically for this purpose) allows students to move away from the upsetting situation, breathe, and regain composure.  A variety of “helps” can also be stocked in this cool down corner, such as stress balls, countdown timers, headphones connected to an iPod with a calming music playlist pre-loaded on it, etc.  When students learn how to take control of their own emotions mindfully, they learn a set of skills that will help them throughout their lives.

Conclusion

I hope you see that you don’t need some new technology or fancy app to help your students become better focused and better behaved.  It’s all about teaching them how their own minds work and providing them with the opportunity to develop the skills they need to monitor and adjust their own focus on behavior.  Building mindfulness practice into the school day is a proven, research-based approach that works–and it doesn’t take a lot of fancy equipment and doesn’t have to cost a penny.

If you’re interested in this topic and would like more information, or if you have questions or classroom experiences you would like to share, please e-mail me at info@teachingthatsticks.com.  I’d love to hear from you!

Resources

Berdik, C.  (April 20, 2016).  “Paying attention?” an app asks–Helping kids monitor their own classroom behavior.  The Hechinger Report.  http://hechingerreport.org/paying-attention-app-asks-helping-kids-monitor-classroom-behavior/

Cavazos, S.  (April 6, 2016).  Schools combine meditation and brain science to help combat discipline problems.  Chalkbeat.  www.chalkbeat.org/posts/in/2016/04/06/schools-combine-meditation-and-brain-science-to-help-combat-discipline-problems/