We have had the privilege of spending the last few weeks in many teachers’ classrooms supporting them as they launch their literacy workshops. The first few weeks of school are so important for making the structures and routines you want to use all year long consistent and predictable. It is amazing how exhausting it is to teach 26 youngsters to follow directions, sit in the correct spot, find their materials, not talk to the person next to them, and read! One topic that comes up again and again with the teachers we mentor is student distractibility. Distraction can play out in many forms depending on the grade level and chemistry of the class, but the concern is common across many classrooms, schools, and districts.
Distraction is a reality of life—we get distracted by many things that tug our attention and time away from the things in which we want or need to engage. The average person gets distracted six to ten times every minute, and research is also being conducted to study what is happening to the human mind in our current culture of multitasking. Over a century ago, psychologist William James asserted, “The human mind can’t actually focus on any unchanging object for more than a few seconds at a time. Focus is a paradox—it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic; we need both.” When we think about students in classrooms, it is no wonder they are distracted. It’s time to talk about focus with our students, embrace distraction, and discuss strategies we can use to concentrate on literacy tasks despite distractions. Here are some lessons we have been using to help kids focus:
It Happens to Everyone
As I sit in front of 26 sets of young eyes, I begin to talk about distraction: “Sometimes when I am reading, I get distracted. I hear something and look up; or I remember something I was supposed to do and I think about going to do it; or my stomach rumbles and I think about what I want to eat for lunch. Does this ever happen to you?” Twenty-five sets of eyes look around unsure, but one set takes a risk and slowly raises his hand. “Yes,” I continue, “it happens to everyone.”
The risk-taker sits up a little straighter and asks,”Even teenagers?”
Trying to hold back the laughter, I look him straight in the eye and in the most serious voice I can conjure up reply, “Yes, even to teenagers.”
By beginning this conversation we make it safe to discuss it in the classroom. Rather than being frustrated by it as the teacher or embarrassed of it as the student, let’s just get the issue out there. Distraction will happen, it should happen, and it is happening. The most important question is What are we going to do about it?
Share the Research
“Did you know that scientists can now place probes on people’s brains to learn how we think and learn? One of the things scientists have learned is that the human mind is constantly being distracted from what a person is trying to attend to. This means that even if you are trying to pay attention to something, your brain becomes interested in paying attention to something else. One scientist explained, ‘We need to decide what we want to pay attention to, it just doesn’t happen. We have the ability to shift our attention and focus on what we decide is important. People who achieve great things choose to focus their attention on what they think is important.’
“Even Sir Isaac Newton, the famous scientist who discovered concepts like gravity (why things fall down) and the laws of motion (why things move), credits his discoveries to ‘having patient attention more than any other talent.’ This means that he thinks he made these discoveries because he chose to pay attention to these ideas for a long time.
“In readers’ workshop, it is easy to become distracted. You may see someone moving around, you may hear teachers meeting with other students, and you might begin to think about recess or lunch. Thumbs up if any of these things happen to you.” (Today I see lots of thumbs. I know I am making this a safe topic to talk about.) “Well, if it hasn’t happened to you yet, I promise it will. It happens to everyone, it is just how our brains work. We need to notice when it happens because if we do not notice it, then we cannot choose to refocus our attention on reading. If we want to be the best readers we can be and love reading, we need to teach ourselves how to focus our attention—just like Sir Isaac Newton. Everyone turn and talk to your partner about what tends to distract your attention from reading during readers’ workshop.” There is an explosion of conversation. We share ideas and build and add the chart titled Things That Distract Us.
“Today as you are reading, notice if you are distracted at any time. Noticing is the first step in understanding how attention works and learning how to choose to refocus our attention.”
We have found that it is powerful to share specific research findings with our students and explain why they are getting distracted. If they do not notice it is happening or understand why it is happening, then they cannot begin to use strategies to change it.
What We Can Do About It
“We have been discussing how our brains work over the last week and noticing what distracts us as we read. Yesterday, Adam shared that he was distracted during reading workshop because he saw the rain out the window and then began thinking about recess. He was wondering if it was going to be canceled. Many of you shared things that you found distracting. It is great that we are now noticing how our brains are working so that we can learn how to refocus our attention. A scientist named Dr. Desimone from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has done research that shows we can train our brain to focus on what we want to focus on. It has been shown that we need to figure out what is distracting us and try to limit that distraction. If we become distracted, then we need to notice it and then refocus. Remember the chart we compiled of the things that distract us during reading workshop.”
Things That Distract Us During Reading Workshop
- People talking
- Teachers conferring
- People walking around
- People moving
- Things I am thinking about
- What I can see out the window
- My mind
- Other books I want to read
- Someone getting a tissue
- Someone coming in the classroom
- Talking to my friend
“Some of the things listed are things we can hear, some are things we can see, and some are thoughts in our mind. Turn and talk to your partner about one of these distractions and how you could help yourself not to get distracted. Let’s chart your ideas.”
Strategies to Focus Our Attention
- Find a quiet spot to read
- Try to not sit close to anyone
- Plug my ears
- Notice if I am distracted and refocus
- Reread the section we missed in our book
- Find books that we can really get into
- Don’t sit near my friends
- Try to block everything out
- Make rules that we cannot walk around
“These are some great ideas. Today, during reading workshop, let’s try some of these strategies to focus our attention. Remember the most important thing is to notice when you are distracted, and then refocus and reread. We can train our brains to focus on what is important to us: our reading! Let’s see how it goes today.”
Our classrooms are always bustling with energy and activity. It is not realistic to expect our students to work without distraction. They need to move, chat, wonder, think, and eavesdrop from time to time. Is this behavior much different from what we do during a faculty meeting or staff development session? If we accept that distraction will happen, then we need to teach our students that “Attention is a finite resource. We are constantly making choices and we need to choose what we want to focus on” (Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life). If we instill the love of reading in our students and find books our students love, we will have taken the first step. The next step is helping them each find strategies that help them focus their attention so they can become lost in a wonderful text.
To explore more of the attention and distraction research base, read Christine Rosen’s essays “The People of the Screen” and “The Myth of Multitasking.”