DEAR SUSAN: In our full-inclusion classroom, my co-teacher and I get the full attention of the students for about 20 minutes at the start of the class. After that, it’s a struggle to keep them engaged. How can we increase the students’ attention spans? – Dorothy J., grade school teacher in Vermont

DEAR DOROTHY: Today’s students tend to arrive at school with lots of pent-up energy and little outlet for that energy as they come straight to class when they arrive. Many don’t walk to school – instead crowding onto a school bus for a long ride to school – and some school systems have even nixed recess.

That often means a classroom full of students who, regardless of learning ability or skill level, have trouble staying focused for extended periods of time.

dear susan keep students engagedThere are a couple of solutions that other teachers have tried with a fair amount of success. Two that I like are allowing teacher-approved focus tools and incorporating meaningful movement into lessons.

If you’re open to the idea of using focus tools, take a look at these articles for more information and a few ideas. Of course, focus tools don’t work for every student, or in every classroom situation, but an increasing body of research is finding that many students feel calmer and are more focused when they have something to do with their hands.

As I say in my workshops and seminars, “Children who fidget grow up to be adults who fidget.” My experience has been that it’s best to manage the behavior rather than trying to keep it from happening.

Movement in general can help almost every student, so incorporating short breaks or activities that provide opportunities to stretch and move can be a big help.

Some studies say that 10 minutes or so is about all most kids can do the “sit and listen” thing. So work some opportunities to move into your lesson plans. These “brain breaks” can be whatever activity you decide – stand up and stretch, move to a new activity or part of the lesson, pair shares to let allow for focused talking time, etc.

I like to use movement activities throughout the lesson so that students rarely have to just “sit and listen” for long periods of time. This includes high school students!

If you’re a teacher who likes to “chunk” lessons – teaching specific topics or implementing activities for specific chunks of time – brain breaks can be a great way to help students shift to the next part of the lesson. It also helps them burn off a little energy so that they can focus their minds on the lesson.

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