Pay Attention: Improving Student Focus and Attention in the K-12 Classroom

We’ve all seen the typical elementary classroom, whether in real life or on television– with the aloof student squirming and struggling to pay attention while most of the class attentively answers questions and discusses the topic at hand. This is a common occurrence, a staple of today’s classroom.

But we must ask ourselves, how will these struggles impact the student’s future? Researchers in Toronto did just that. They set out to explore the role of attention in K-12 schools and evaluated 2,000 3rd grade students and then followed them for 16 years to see if they graduated from college (Pingault et al, 2011). What they found was alarming; if a child had attention problems in 3rd grade they were nearly 8 times more likely to not finish high school.

After learning about these findings, I was determined to figure out how deep this problem goes, and more importantly what we can do to fix it.

How deep does this problem go?

What proportion of children in the general school population had attention problems putting them at such a high risk for becoming high school dropouts? The answer in this particular study was a startling 17 percent.

That percentage may be even higher in some schools. One principal I know at an inner city school told me that at least half of his students show signs of ADHD, even without being formally diagnosed. For example, teachers might notice a students’ excessive fidgeting or daydreaming distracting them from lessons and inhibiting their ability to learn.

Without sufficient ability to focus and sustain attention, children cannot effectively engage in the educational opportunities offered to them. In addition to having lower performance in school, often decreasing their self-esteem, these students also fall further behind because they miss the stimulation for growth and development provided by the school curriculum. We have to find solutions to prevent these students from falling behind.

What can we do to improve attention problems in education?

We know about 6 percent of children nationwide have a neurodevelopmental disorder, ADHD. Others have been raised in poverty where the types of stimulation necessary to promote development of attention abilities are too often lacking, and the presence of traumatic experiences which can compromise attention abilities are too often present. We quickly recognized that to effectively address this problem, we first needed to be able to measure attention. This need motivated us to create an online form of a “gold standard” research test for attention called the Flanker Test.

Rather than a $4,000 evaluation of the child in a quiet office sitting next to an adult, our test is in the classroom environment where children actually learn. The Flanker Test runs at a lower cost, so it can easily be provided to all students and repeated to evaluate improvement or confirm unusually poor or good scores. With over 8,000 Flanker tests administered thus far, the information and data gleaned from those tests supplemented our ongoing research to develop our integrated program to improve attention, ACTIVATE, combining computer games and physical exercise.

This platform is helping thousands of children worldwide simply learn better with game-based training exercises that improve focused attention, self-control, and memory.

By targeting attention skills in younger students, we can improve learning and diminish high school dropout rates. With our innovative measurement and brain training tools, we want to support teachers with the most challenging classes to teach.

There is still work to be done.

Too often the schools with the most children with the most needs have the least resources. And the teachers with the most challenging classes to teach have the least support. In order to fully tackle this issue, we must band together as a community for these students. We must be open to new ideas, conduct continued research, be comfortable with measurement and assessment, support one another, and seek more resources to nurture our most precious resources so they build both their futures and ours.