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Strategies for Students with Attention Difficulties

Published  1 June 2017

Students with attention difficulties may need special instructional practices, behavior management strategies, social-skills and problem-solving instruction, behavioral interventions, or classroom accommodations to be successful in school. Many of these instructional practices and behavior management strategies can have the added benefit of enhancing the learning of students who do not have problems with attention.

Instructional Practices

General Instructional Practices

Lesson Introduction
  • Outline the order of activities
    in the lesson (e.g., “we will review yesterday’s lesson on fractions, learn about decimals, and do math problems with fractions and decimals on our dry erase boards”).
  • Review previous lessons
    on related content.
  • Specify what students are expected to learn
    (e.g., identify new vocabulary words in the text).
  • Set behavior expectations
    (e.g., “you may talk quietly to your neighbors as you do your independent work” and “raise your hands to get my attention”).
  • Identify all materials needed
    for the lesson, rather than leaving students to figure that out on their own.
  • Show students where to find additional resources
    for the lesson (e.g., “a glossary is on page 45 and dictionaries are on the bookshelf”).
  • Simplify
    instructions, rules, expectations, choices, and scheduling.
Teaching Lessons
  • Be predictable
    . Provide structure and consistency with clear expectations that allows students to easily understand exactly what is being asked of them and what will happen if they do not meet the expectations.
  • Support participation in class
    . Discreetly provide private cues to get back on task and advance warning that they will be called upon shortly, to avoid bringing attention to differences between students.
  • Avoid using sarcasm and criticism
  • Use visuals to present lessons
    . (e.g., overhead projector, document camera, slideshow presentation).
  • Check for mastery of the lesson
    (e.g., ask students doing independent work to demonstrate how they arrived at an answer or ask individual students to state in their own words, how a main character felt at the end of the story).
  • Ask probing or follow-up questions
    when a student struggles to answer a question. Allow sufficient time for them work out the answer (e.g., waiting at least 15 seconds before providing the correct answer or calling on another student). Ask follow-up questions that give them an opportunity to demonstrate what they do know.
  • Provide additional assistance as needed
    to students showing signs of daydreaming, frustration, or lack of comprehension (e.g., provide extra explanations, or ask another student to serve as a peer tutor for the lesson).
  • Help students identify and correct their own mistakes
    (e.g., reiterate how to check calculations and remind students of difficult spelling rules and easy-to-make errors).
  • Help students focus
    by reminding them to keep working, providing follow-up directions, or assigning learning partners (for individual students or the entire class).
  • Provide follow-up directions
    by repeating the directions together with the student one-on-one or providing written directions to the class (e.g., write the page number for an assignment on the board and remind students to look at the board if they forget the assignment).
  • Maintain a low noise level.
    Offer noise-blocking earmuffs, sometimes referred to as or “hearing protectors” or “headphones” (that don’t have speakers), or monitor the volume level in the classroom. Noise volume meter apps can help students to monitor their volume level with more independence. If noise exceeds the level appropriate for the type of lesson, remind the class or individual students of voice level expectations.
  • Break assignments into smaller, less complex chunks
    (e.g., allow students to complete half of the math problems before presenting them with the remaining problems).
  • Highlight keywords
    • On worksheets, underline keywords in the instructions before the lesson begins or as you and students read the directions together.
    • When reading, show students how to identify and highlight or flag (with Post-it Arrow Flags) a key sentence, before asking them to summarize the entire book.
    • In math, show students how to identify and mark the important facts and operations (e.g., “Mary has two apples, and John has three).
  • Eliminate all or most timed tests
    because students can become preoccupied with elapsed time instead of demonstrating their knowledge.
    • Allow extra time to complete quizzes and tests to eliminate pressure to complete them in time.
    • Provide other opportunities, methods, or test formats for demonstrating their knowledge.
  • Use cooperative learning strategies
    with small groups, such as Think-Pair-Share, in which students think about a topic, pair with a partner to discuss it, and share ideas with the group (Slavin, 2002)
  • Offer “assistive technology”
    (such as computers or projectors) to make your instruction more visual and allow students to participate actively.
Concluding Lessons
  • Provide advance warnings
    of the end of the time for a task, such as independent work or group projects
    • At the beginning of a task, tell students how much time they will have to complete it.
    • When about 5-10 minutes are left, announce how much time remains.
    • Display a visual timer
      (such as the Time Timer or hourglass sand timers I’ve reviewed) to help students monitor the passage of time more independently.
  • Check completed assignments
    (for at least some students) to get a sense of how ready the class was for the lesson and how to plan the next lesson.
  • Preview the next activity
    , instructing students on how to begin preparing for it (e.g., ask students to put away workbooks and come to the carpet for a circle activity).

Subject-Specific Individualized Instructional Practices

The following strategies can be tried to help students who require extra assistance to master an academic lesson previously presented to the entire class.

Language Arts and Reading Comprehension
  • Silent reading time
    . Establish a fixed time each day for silent reading, such as D.E.A.R.: Drop Everything and Read (Manzo & Zehr, 1998) and Sustained Silent Reading (Holt & O’Tuel, 1989).
  • Follow-along reading
    . Ask the student to read a story silently while listening to other students or the teacher read the story aloud to the entire class.
  • Partner reading activities
    . Pair the student with a strong reader, and ask them to take turns reading orally and listening to each other.
  • Storyboards
    . Ask the student to make storyboards that illustrate the sequence of main events in a story.
  • Storytelling
    . Schedule storytelling sessions where the child can retell a story that they have read recently.
  • Playacting
    . Schedule playacting sessions where the child can role-play different characters in a favorite story.
  • Word bank
    . Keep a word bank or dictionary of new or “hard-to-read” sight-vocabulary words.
  • Board games for reading comprehension
    . Play board games that provide practice with target reading-comprehension skills or sight-vocabulary words.
  • Computer games for reading comprehension
    . Schedule computer time for the child to have drill-and-practice with sight vocabulary words.
  • Audiobooks
    , available from many libraries, can stimulate interest in traditional reading and can be used to reinforce and complement reading lessons.
  • Summary materials
    . Allow and encourage students to use published book summaries, synopses, and digests of major reading assignments to review (not replace) reading assignments.
  • Phonics mnemonics
    can help students remember hard-to-learn phonics rules (e.g., “when two vowels go walking, the first does the talking”; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2000).
  • Teach word families
    that illustrate particular phonetic concepts (e.g., “ph” sounds, “at-bat-cat”).
  • Phonics board games
    , such as bingo, can help students practice phonetically irregular words.
  • Phonics apps
    or computer games can provide opportunities for students to drill and practice phonics or grammar lessons.
  • Picture-letter charts
    can be useful to students who know sounds but do not know the letters that go with them.
  • Standards for writing assignments
    . Identify and teach the child classroom standards for acceptable written work, such as format and style.
  • Recognizing parts of a story
    . Teach the student how to describe the major parts of a story (e.g., plot, main characters, setting, conflict, and resolution). Use a storyboard with parts listed for this purpose.
  • Post office
    . Establish a post office in the classroom, and provide students with opportunities to write, mail, and receive letters to and from their classmates and teacher.
  • Visualize compositions
    . Ask the child to close his or her eyes and visualize a paragraph that the teacher reads aloud. Another variation of this technique is to ask a student to describe a recent event while the other students close their eyes and visualize what is being said as a written paragraph.
  • Proofread compositions
    . Require that the child proofread his or her work before turning in written assignments. Provide the child with a list of items to check when proofreading his or her own work.
  • Allow the student to dictate writing assignments
    to the teacher, another student, an audio recorder, or a computer with a speech-to-text app (or dictation capabilities).
  • Everyday examples of hard-to-spell words
    . Take advantage of everyday events to teach difficult spelling words in context. For example, ask a child eating a cheese sandwich to spell “sandwich.”
  • Frequently used words
    . Assign spelling words that the child routinely uses in his or her speech each day.
  • Word bank or dictionary of frequently-misspelled words
    . Ask the child to keep a personal dictionary of frequently-misspelled words (on 3” x 5” index cards sorted alphabetically).
  • Partner spelling activities
    . Pair the student with another student. Ask the partners to quiz each other on the spelling of new words. Encourage both students to guess the correct spelling.
  • Manipulatives
    . Use cutout letters or other manipulatives to spell out hard-to-learn words.
  • Color-coded letters
    . Color code different letters in hard-to-spell words (e.g., “receipt”).
  • Movement activities
    . Combine movement activities with spelling lessons (e.g., jump rope while spelling words out loud).
  • Individual dry-erase boards
    . Ask the student to practice copying and erasing the target words on a small, personal dry-erase board. Two students can be paired to practice their target words together. I prefer the widely-available 9” x 12” Double-Sided Dry Erase Lap Boards with Ruled and Plain Sides.
  • “Quiet places” for handwriting
    . Provide the student with a special “quiet place” (e.g., a table outside the classroom) to complete their handwriting assignments.
  • Spacing words on a page
    . Teach the student to use their finger to measure how much space to leave between each word in a written assignment.
  • Mechanical pencils
    can help students avoid being distracted by pencil sharpening. I prefer the Paper Mate Mechanical Pencils that have a thick 1.3mm lead and are usually available at Office Depot or on Amazon.
  • Allowing cursive writing
    (instead of printing) can help students keep up the flow of writing becasue each letter naturally leads into the next one.
  • Special writing paper
    . Ask the student to use special paper with vertical lines to learn to space letters and words on a page.
  • Structured programs for handwriting
    . Teach handwriting skills through a structured program, such as Jan Olsen’s Handwriting Without Tears program (Olsen, 2003).
Math Computation
  • Patterns in math
    . Teach the student to recognize patterns when adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing whole numbers. (e.g., the digits of numbers which are multiples of 9 [18, 27, 36 . . . ] add up to 9).
  • Partnering for math activities
    . Pair the student with another student and provide opportunities for them to quiz each other about basic computation skills.
  • Mastery of math symbols
    . If students do not understand the symbols used in math, they will not be able to do the work. For instance, do they understand that the “plus” in 1 + 3 means to add and that the “minus” in 5 – 3 means to take away?
  • Mnemonics for basic computation
    . Teach the child mnemonics that describe basic steps in computing whole numbers. For example, “Don’t Miss Susie’s Boat” can be used to help the student recall the basic steps in long division (i.e., divide, multiply, subtract, and bring down).
  • Real-life examples of money skills
    . Provide the student with real-life opportunities to practice target money skills. For example, ask them to calculate their change when paying for lunch in the school cafeteria, or set up a class store where students can practice calculating change.
  • Color code arithmetic symbols
    , such as +, , and =, to provide visual cues for students when they are computing whole numbers.
  • Use calculators to check basic computation
    (e.g., addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division).
  • Board games
    can help students practice basic computation (e.g., adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing whole numbers).
  • Basic math computation apps
    (or computer games) can provide opportunities for students to drill and practice basic computations.
  • “Magic minute” drills
    . Have students perform a quick (60-second) drill every day to practice basic computation of math facts, and have students track their own performance.
Solving Math Story (or Word) Problems
  • Reread the problem
    . Teach the student to read a story problem two times before beginning to compute the answer.
  • Clue words
    . Teach the student clue words that identify which operation to use when solving story problems. For example, words such as “sum,” “total,” or “all together” may indicate an addition operation.
  • Guiding questions for story problems
    . Teach students to ask guiding questions in solving story problems. For example:
    • What is the question asked in the problem?
    • What information do you need to figure out the answer?
    • What operation should you use to compute the answer?
  • Real-life examples of story problems
    . Ask the student to create and solve story problems that provide practice with specific target operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. These problems can be based on recent, real-life events in the student’s life.
  • Calculators to check story problems
    . Ask the student to use a calculator to check computations made in answering assigned story problems.
Use of Special Materials in Math
  • Provide number lines
    for the student to use when computing whole numbers.
  • Use manipulatives
    to help students gain basic computation skills, such as using counting cubes when adding single-digit numbers.
  • Use graph paper
    to help organize columns when adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing whole numbers.

Related Skills

Organizational Skills
  • Designate one teacher as the student’s advisor or coordinator
    . This teacher will regularly review the student’s progress through progress reports submitted by other teachers and will act as the liaison between home and school. Permit the student to meet with this advisor on a regular basis (e.g., Monday morning) to plan and organize for the week and to review progress and problems from the past week.
  • Assignment notebooks
    . Provide the student with an assignment notebook to help organize homework and other independent work.
  • Color-coded folders
    . Provide the student with color-coded folders to help organize assignments for different academic subjects (e.g., reading, mathematics, social science, and science).
  • Work with a homework partner
    . Assign the student a partner to help record homework and other independent work in the assignment notebook and file worksheets and other papers in the proper folders.
  • Clean out desks and book bags
    . Ask the student to periodically sort through and clean out their desk, book bag, and other special places where written assignments are stored.
  • Visual aids as reminders of subject material
    . Use banners, charts, lists, pie graphs, and diagrams situated throughout the classroom to remind students of the subject material being learned.
  • “Backup” materials for home use
    . Make available to students a second set of books and materials that they can use at home.
Time Management
  • Use a clock or wristwatch
    . Teach the student how to read and use a clock or wristwatch to manage time when completing assigned work.
  • Use a calendar
    . Teach the student how to read and use a calendar to schedule assignments.
  • Practice sequencing activities
    . Provide the student with supervised opportunities to break down a long assignment into a sequence of short, interrelated activities.
  • Create a daily activity schedule
    . Tape a schedule of planned daily activities to the student’s desk.
Study Skills
  • Adapt worksheets
    . Teach the student how to adapt instructional worksheets (e.g., help the student fold their reading worksheet to reveal only one question at a time, or use a blank piece of paper to cover the other questions on the page).
  • Venn diagrams
    . Teach the student how to use Venn diagrams to help illustrate and organize key concepts in reading, mathematics, or other academic subjects.
  • Note-taking skills
    . Teach the student how to take notes when organizing key academic concepts that they has learned, perhaps with the use of a program such as Anita Archer’s Skills for School Success (Archer & Gleason, 2002).
  • Checklist of frequent mistakes
    . Provide the student with a checklist of mistakes that they frequently make in written assignments (e.g., punctuation or capitalization errors), mathematics (e.g., addition or subtraction errors), or other academic subjects. Teach the student how to use this list when proofreading their work at home and school.
  • Checklist of homework supplies
    . Provide the student with a checklist that identifies categories of items needed for homework assignments (e.g., books, pencils, and homework assignment sheets).
  • Uncluttered workspace
    . Teach the student how to prepare an uncluttered workspace to complete assignments (e.g., instruct the student to clear away unnecessary books or other materials before beginning their independent work).
  • Monitor homework assignments
    . Keep track of how well the student completes their assigned homework. Discuss and resolve with them and their parents any problems in completing these assignments (e.g., evaluate the difficulty of the assignments and how long the students spend on their homework each night). Keep in mind that the quality, rather than the quantity, of homework assigned is the most important issue. While doing homework is an important part of developing study skills, it should be used to reinforce skills and to review material learned in class, rather than to present, in advance, large amounts of material that are new to the student.

Behavior Management Strategies

Frequent Praise

Perhaps the most important and effective of behavior management techniques is looking for behavior to praise before, and not after, a student gets off task.

  • Define the appropriate behavior while giving praise
    . Praise should be specific to the behavior displayed by the student. The comments should focus on what the student did right and should include exactly what part(s) of the student’s behavior was desirable. Rather than praising a student for not disturbing the class, for example, a teacher should praise him or her for quietly completing a math lesson on time.
  • Give praise immediately
    . The sooner that approval is given regarding desired behavior, the more likely the student will repeat it.
  • Vary the statements given as praise
    . The comments used by teachers to praise desired behavior should vary; when students hear the same praise statement repeated over and over, it may lose its value.
  • Be consistent and sincere with praise
    . Expected behavior should receive consistent praise. Consistency among teachers with respect to desired behavior is important in order to avoid confusion on the part of the student. Similarly, students usually notice when teachers give insincere praise, and this insincerity can make praise less effective.

Focus on Reinforcement Rather than Punishment

Punishment may temporarily change behavior, but it rarely changes attitudes and may actually increase the frequency and intensity of unwanted behavior by rewarding misbehaving students with attention. Moreover, punishment may only teach children what not to do; it does not provide children with the skills that they need to do what is expected. Positive reinforcement can produce the changes in attitudes that shape a student’s behavior over the long term. In addition to verbal reinforcement, the following set of generalized behavioral intervention techniques has proven helpful with students with ADHD as well:

  • Selectively ignoring unwanted behavior
    is sometimes helpful for teachers, especially when the behavior is:
    • unintentional,
    • unlikely to recur, or
    • intended solely to gain the attention of teachers or classmates without disrupting the classroom or interfering with the learning of others
  • Remove nuisance items
    (e.g., rubber bands and toys) that distract the student. The removal of nuisance items is generally most effective after the student has been given the choice of putting it away immediately and then fails to do so.
  • Provide calming fidgets
    . While some toys and other objects can be distracting for both the student and peers in the classroom, some students can benefit from having objects that can be manipulated quietly. Calming fidgets may help students gain some needed sensory input while still allowing them to attend to the lesson.
  • Allow for a “change of scene”
    . Permitting a student to leave class for a moment, perhaps on an errand (e.g., returning a book to the library), can be an effective way for them to settle down and return to the classroom ready to concentrate.
  • Activity reinforcement
    . Students receive activity reinforcement when they are encouraged to do a less preferred activity before a preferred one.
  • Hurdle helping
    . Teachers can offer encouragement, support, and assistance to prevent students from becoming frustrated with an assignment. This help can take many forms, from enlisting a peer for support to supplying additional materials or information.
  • Parent conferences
    . Parents have a critical role in the education of students, and this axiom may be particularly true for those who have difficulty with attention. As such, parents must be included as partners in planning for the student’s success. Partnering with parents entails including parental input in behavioral intervention strategies, maintaining frequent communication between parents and teachers, and collaborating in monitoring the student’s progress.
  • Peer mediation
    . Members of a student’s peer group can positively impact the behavior of other students. Many schools now have formalized peer mediation programs, in which students receive training in order to manage disputes involving their classmates.

Using Prompts

  • Visual cues
    . Talk with the student to establish a mutually-agreeable, simple, nonintrusive, visual or tactile cues to remind the student to remain on task (e.g., holding out your hand, palm down, near the student; a gentle tap on the shoulder; lightly tapping two fingers on the edge of their desk).
  • Proximity control
    . When talking to a student, move to where the student is standing or sitting. Your physical proximity may help them focus and pay attention to what you are saying.
  • Hand gestures
    . Use hand signals to communicate privately with the student. For example, ask the student to raise their hand every time you ask a question. A closed fist can signal that the student knows the answer; an open palm can signal that the student does not know the answer. You would call on the student to answer only when they make a fist.

Social Skills & Problem Solving Instruction

  • Social skills classes
    . At some schools, counselors teach students social skills using a structured class, and the students are given structured opportunities to use the social skills that they learn.
  • Problem solving support
    . Teachers can discuss how to resolve social conflicts, and support problem solving when conflict arises among students.

Behavioral Interventions

Because students’ individual needs are different, it is important for teachers, the family, and a qualified behavioral professional to evaluate whether these practices are suitable for their classrooms, to the family, and for the student’s individual needs vis-à-vis the research evidence, respectively.

  • Tangible rewards
    (e.g., “happy face” stickers, sports team emblems, or privileges, such as extra time on the computer or lunch with the teacher) can be used to reinforce desired behavior. The student should be involved in the selection of the reward because they are more likely to work for the reward, if they are invested in it.
  • Daily school-home notes
    . A behavioral professional works with a teacher to identify 2-3 specific expectations and discuss how to implement the daily notes in a manner consistent with the research evidence (Barkley, 1990). It is important to explain to the student how the daily notes will be used and to teach examples and non-examples of the expectations. The teacher will rate each expectation in a matter-of-fact way at the end of each block of the day, and the ratings result in points that can be exchanged for rewards from a reward menu that parents maintain at home. Alternatively, rewards can be provided at school; however, rewards at home may be more effective because parents tend to have more rewards to offer. In self-management systems, the student and the teacher rate the student's behavior and compare ratings. The student earns points if the ratings match or are within one point; no points are received if ratings are more than one point apart. With time, the teacher involvement is removed, and the student becomes responsible for self-monitoring (DuPaul & Stoner as cited in Shinn, Walker, & Stoner, 2002).
  • Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)
    is a process for describing the problem behavior and identifying the environmental factors and surrounding events associated with the problem behavior. The team that works closely with the child exhibiting problem behavior 1) observes the behavior and identifies and defines its problematic characteristics, 2) identifies which actions or events precede and follow the behavior, and 3)measures how often the behavior occurs. The results of the FBA should be used to develop an effective and efficient intervention or behavior support plan that includes strategies for responding to unwanted behavior. (Gable, et al., 1997)

Classroom Accommodations

Special Classroom Seating Arrangements

  • Seat the child near the teacher
    . Assign the child a seat near your desk or the front of the room. This seating assignment provides opportunities for you to monitor and reinforce the child’s on-task behavior.
  • Seat the child near a student role model
    . Assign the child a seat near a student role model. This seat arrangement provides opportunity for children to work cooperatively and to learn from their peers in the class.
  • Provide low-distraction work areas
    . As space permits, teachers should make available a quiet, distraction-free room or area for quiet study time and test taking. Students should be directed to this room or area privately and discreetly in order to avoid the appearance of punishment.

Instructional Tools and the Physical Learning Environment

  • Pointers, Bookmarks, or Reading Guides
    . Teach the student to use a pointer, bookmark, or reading guide to help visually track written words on a page (e.g., when reading aloud, reading silently, or following along as someone else reads aloud).
  • Visual timers
    . Time Timer and hourglass sand timers, which I’ve reviewed, can help students monitor the passage of time more independently.
  • Mechanical pencils
    can help students avoid being distracted by pencil sharpening. I prefer the Paper Mate Mechanical Pencils that have a thick 1.3mm lead and are usually available at Office Depot or on Amazon.
  • Calming fidgets
    that can be manipulated quietly (unlike some toys and other objects that can be distracting for both the student and peers in the classroom) can provide some needed sensory input while still allowing the student to attend to the lesson.
  • Classroom lights
    . Turning the classroom lights on and off can prompt students that the noise level in the room is too high or they should be quiet. This practice can also be used to signal that it is time to begin preparing for the next lesson.
  • Music
    . Play music, a chime, or chords on a piano to prompt students that they are too noisy. In addition, playing different types of music can communicate to the students what level of activity is appropriate for a particular lesson (e.g., play quiet classical music for quiet activities done independently and jazz for active group activities).
  • Properly-adjusted furniture
    . The desk and chair used by students need to be the right size; if they are not, the student will be more inclined to squirm and fidget. A general rule of thumb is that a student should be able to put their elbows on the surface of the desk and have their chin fit comfortably in the palm of their hand.

Adapted from Teaching Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Instructional Strategies and Practices (U.S. Department of Education, 2008).