Nine Tactics Therapists Can Use to Help Students Focus

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Nine Tactics Therapists Can Use to Help Students Focus

To learn and eventually master new skills, children must pay attention. Attention spans can vary greatly from child to child and fluctuate at various times of the day. Those students diagnosed with specific attention issues (e.g. ADHD) are doubly challenged when it comes to sitting, working and staying focused in a classroom setting. Experts say the average child can be expected to concentrate on one task for two to five minutes per year old. So, if students needing school-based therapy services are six year olds, expect 12 to 30 minutes of attention—perhaps less, depending on the individual.

No doubt your special education classroom or therapy room is full of creative tools designed to engage students. In addition to what you’re already doing, here are some new ideas you can use redirect eyes, ears and minds on what you’re teaching—whether you’re a speech-language pathologist (SLP), occupational therapist (OT), physical therapist (PT) or Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

  1. Incorporate Physical Activity

When a child struggles to stay focused, even a few minutes of active play can go a long way to get him or her back on track. Taking a walk, bouncing on an exercise ball or a few minutes outside can work wonders. Even those students with razor sharp focus can benefit from a quick stretch or a few jumping jacks before taking on a challenging task. Try them as a group, so everyone benefits and no one feels singled out.

  1. Teach Good Basics

Show children in school therapy what good body basics are for paying attention: eyes on speaker, body still, mouth closed, shoulders back, etc.  Then, practice paying attention at non-crucial times during therapy sessions. Use a timer with a signal set to go off after a set work period to signal a break. Then, have the student mark whether he or she was paying attention. This can help train students to better understand what attention looks like and when it becomes divided.

  1. Work in Shorter Intervals

There will be times that no matter what you do, a student will not be able to stay on task.  When this happens, consider breaking your school-based therapy lesson into smaller chunks. Students who are easily overwhelmed or reluctant to do things they think are “hard” may be more willing to try if they can see the end in sight. When a task should be completed independently, use a timer and invite the struggling student to come to your desk and check in with you after a short period of time. This not only works to break up tasks, but also gives your student the opportunity to physically get up and move.

  1. Remove Visual Distractions

Even mundane objects become invitations to fiddle when kids have trouble paying attention. Think pencils, erasers, extra paper, scissors and everything else that you may not even notice. So, remove clutter and visual experiences from the workspace to help students maintain focus during your speech therapy session, occupational therapy interventions, physical therapy activities, special education teacher lessons or behavioral therapy interventions.

  1. Incorporate Memory Games

Memory games are a great way to hone focus—and they’re fun. When possible, find time to incorporate memory games into your school therapy sessions. If you’re in a speech-language pathology job and are looking for memory recall activities, check out our May 2016 article that gives you 10 fun ones to try!

  1. Adjust the Thermostat

Believe it or not, a comfortable room is key! If it’s too cold, focusing is going to be more difficult (no one likes cold hands). An overly warm room may cause drowsiness.  Uncomfortable temperatures aren’t good for those in therapy jobs—and aren’t good for students, who are ultra-sensitive (and often, ultra-impatient with!) discomfort, even with those for whom attention struggles are atypical.

  1. Keep it Short and Sweet

Make an effort to say only what needs to be said. Keep instructions, explanations (and even reprimands) brief and clear.  If you use more words than necessary, a student’s mind may wander, and what you’re saying may not be fully absorbed. Similarly, you’ll want to create opportunities for children to respond to the material as it’s being presented. Ask your speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy or behavioral therapy students to comment, or answer questions regarding new techniques, interventions or response tactics.

  1. Offer Decision-Making Opportunities

If possible, give student options to choose from. When you’re able to let kids decide which therapy game, or assignments to do or in what order, it can be great inspiration to get moving. Feeling empowered to make decisions can increase motivation, and increased motivation will lead to sustained attention.  Giving decision-making opportunities to students in your school-based therapy sessions can also have the nifty side effect of building their confidence!

  1. Ask Questions to Empower

When a child seems overly distracted, try asking him or her to rate the lesson’s difficulty on a scale of 1 to 10. If he or she responds with eight or higher, ask what could be done to make the task a two or three. You may get excellent insight straight from the student on what you can do to help decrease frustration and increase the effectiveness of your school-based therapy work.


How do YOU gain and keep the attention of your students throughout the day?  Our school-based therapists and special education teachers are always looking for new strategies, so please share what works in the comment box below!



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