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OT Corner: Twelve Ideas for Improving Attention in the Classroom

By: Loren Shlaes, OT
Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique

1. Make sure that the child with attentional issues is sitting near an adult with his back facing a wall, or better yet, niched in a corner. A sensory defensive child lives in a chronic fight or flight state, and sitting with his back exposed will make him even more vigilant. The more vigilant he is, the less he is able to attend.
2. During circle time, the child’s place should be next to an adult, against a wall or sitting in a chair. Many times the child just doesn’t have the postural stability to sit in the traditional “criss cross applesauce” position and is struggling just to stay upright. This means that he doesn’t have a whole lot of energy left for anything else. If he can sit with his back supported, he’ll have more energy for attending. The teacher should not insist on the child maintaining a cross legged posture on the floor if it is an obvious struggle.
3. Auditory defensive children just can’t handle the typical noisy atmosphere of a nursery school or kindergarten classroom without losing their ability to stay organized. Earplugs can help. So can having something to chew on, which will help the child dampen sound. For a very young child, I have a stash of small diameter clear plastic fishtank tubing, which you can buy in a hardware store or pet shop specializing in fish. For older children, I buy tubing large enough so that it will slip over the end of a pencil. {I don’t like chewable jewelry, which I feel is stigmatizing. The clear tubing is super cheap, and discreet.}

4. If the child is really struggling in a noisy atmosphere, he needs to have a break. Send him out of the room on an errand, like carrying a box of books to another floor in the building, or have him carry something heavy in a backpack. Make sure he stops for a drink of water on the way back.
5. A small fidget toy, employed discreetly, can help a child maintain appropriate arousal levels in the classroom. Discuss this with the child’s teacher in advance, and have a small stash available for the child to keep in his pocket or desk. Or give them to the teacher to dole out when appropriate. Have the teacher take the child aside, tell him that she observes that his attention is flagging, and that she is giving him a strategy to help him stay present. Have the child outline some other good strategies that can be employed discreetly in class: chewing on something, getting up for a quick drink of water, stretching in place, etc.

6. If there is enough space in the classroom, a large cardboard box big enough for a child to sit in provides a wonderful refuge for any child who needs a break from the noise and busyness of the school day. These are readily available at stores that sell large appliances like stoves and refrigerators. Put a few cushions in there, and store the box on its side so that it’s easy to climb in and out. Leave the flaps on so that the child can have complete privacy if he so desires. The rule is that the child must have time in there undisturbed, so no following him in there and forcing him to engage with you or to participate in class from his hiding place. If there is no room for the box, a couple of bookshelves placed a foot or so apart will provide a little niche in between.

7. A child who is struggling to read will benefit from a slant board or document holder so that reading and writing materials can be presented upright. This reduces visual distortion.

8. A child who constantly fidgets and can’t sit still needs an inflatable cushion like a Disc-o-Sit or Move-N-Sit. The classroom should have a few available for all of the children to try at the beginning of the school year. Eventually the children who don’t need them will lose interest in them, and those who need them will continue to use them.

9. A classroom where the teacher is constantly fighting with the children to sit still is a classroom in which the children aren’t being allowed to move enough. Movement is what activates the brain, increases alertness, and allows for focus and attention. Is it possible to suggest that more structured movement be incorporated into the classroom routine, such as calisthenics, Brain Gym exercises, or songs with accompanying dance or movement routines?

10. I’m fighting an uphill battle here, but when I see a classroom of small children get fed a snack of blue gummy bears washed down with Hawaiian Punch, I’m not surprised that the teacher has a hard time keeping order for the rest of the afternoon. Children should not eat bad food. You can’t expect a car to run smoothly on second rate fuel! What can you do about making sure that classroom snacks are low in refined carbohydrates and additives, and high in complex carbs and lean protein?

11. A recent study published in the New York Times suggested that children had a much better time of it staying focused in the afternoons when the school switched their recess time to before their lunch break. Can you see about trying to make this happen in your school?
12. I have been to unfortunately many classrooms in New York City that have no outside windows, which means no natural light, ever, and poor ventilation. How would you cope, day after day, in such an environment? If I were to interview for a job in an office with no outside windows, I would turn it down immediately. Children should not be expected to spend huge chunks of time on a daily basis in artificial light, with no outside air. It’s not healthy.

Our Featured Author: Loren Shlaes, OT
Thanks to Loren Shlaes for providing us with these Attention Improving ideas.
Loren Shlaes is a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration and school related issues, particularly handwriting. She lives and practices in Manhattan.

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