Strategies for Getting and Keeping the Brain’s Attention

12 01 2015

By DONNA WILSON

JANUARY 6, 2015

Editor’s Note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University.

The human brain has an amazing capacity to wield a potent cognitive strategy: selective attention. When we consciously focus our attention on something, we bring the power of the prefrontal cortex to this endeavor. By honing our ability to focus attention at will, we can more effectively screen out two types of distractions:

  1. Input through our sensory organs
  2. Our emotional responses.

Distractions via sensory input may be the easier of the two to block, according to Daniel Goleman in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. As educators, we may tend to notice the impact of sights, sounds, and touch points that draw students’ focus away from lessons and learning activities. But while all of the sensory stimulations in the environment are readily obvious, emotions can be even “louder” when it comes to diverting attention in unwanted directions and making it hard to focus on learning.

Which Neural Network Do We Activate?

To help students learn to maintain focused attention, we can guide them to wire their brains for staying the course even during times of emotional upheaval, remaining level-headed, and riding the emotional waves of life. As with other skills, this cognitive strategy comes with conscious recognition and deliberate practice.

Brain research summarized in a briefing paper from the Dana Foundationindicates that attention activates not one but several neural networks, including an alerting network that signals the brain about incoming sensory stimuli and an orienting network that directs the brain to take notice of the source of the stimuli. A third network, referred to as executive attention, enables us to choose which of the stimuli competing for our attention we will focus our thinking on. In effect, executive attention functions as a control tower for guiding the brain’s higher-level cognitive processes to land on specific tasks and information.

Applying this research, scientists suggest a different way of thinking about and addressing attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The “deficit” in its label suggests inaccurately that students diagnosed with ADHD have a shortage of attention, when in fact the problem may be that they have difficulty in allocating their attention on learning in the classroom.

Cognitive Strategies

This shift in emphasis about where problems with attention may lie, when combined with recent neuroscientific findings, suggests that explicit instruction on regulating students’ attention may provide them with a valuable cognitive strategy to support self-directed learning. The focus of this instruction is on guiding students to understand that they can consciously direct and maintain their attention on learning tasks and that, with regular thoughtful practice, they can improve their ability to attend to learning.

1. Shine the spotlight on attention.

Introduce the subject of attention by asking students to share examples of being so focused on an activity that they’ve blocked out distractions around them, such as getting lost in a good book or movie, practicing the piano, or perfecting their jump shot in basketball. In the same way, they can purposefully focus their attention on learning, and shift their attention from one learning task to another throughout the school day. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of focusing attention, and students can train their brains to better control their attention. Brainstorm ways that regulating attention can improve learning, such as:

  • Paying attention to a lesson instead of being distracted by noise in the hallway or something happening in the schoolyard outside the window
  • Switching from learning one subject to the next or from one class to another
  • Putting aside a lunchtime disagreement with a friend to focus on class in the afternoon
  • Completing a homework assignment before turning on TV or a video game
  • “Turning off” worries about doing well on a test in order to stay focused and remember everything studied
  • Identifying what’s most important right now and paying attention only to that most important thing.

2. Emphasize that focusing attention is a skill that can be learned and improved.

Like any other skill, students can develop their attention for learning through regular practice and training. Give them good reasons for training their attention — people who can take charge of their attention are better at remembering things and figuring out what new information means and how they can use it. They are better at metacognition and higher-order thinking processes. For practical tools to increase student attention and other thinking skills, check out these suggestions.

3. Pace your teaching with students’ attention.

While attention spans vary between individuals, we’ve found that a useful rule of thumb is to focus on presenting new information in roughly eight-minute “chunks.” Students under age eight may benefit from even shorter chunks of lessons and learning activities. In our book BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning, we suggest the acronym CRAVE as a way to remember five other strategies for keeping students’ attention focused on learning:

  • Build curiosity for learning with “teasers” that get students interested in a lesson.
  • Look for ways to make lessons relevant to students’ lives.
  • Ask questions to engage students in learning and inquiry.
  • Remember that variety is the spice of attention — a mix of learning activities helps keep students engaged.
  • Evoke emotions. Just as emotions can be distracting, they can also be used to enhance attention by making a lesson or learning activity more interesting.

Advertisers use these same strategies to grab consumers’ attention, so you might find inspiration for ways to adapt them to your lessons in a TV ad or on the side of a city bus! Keep this in mind as you guide students to improve their selective attention: The first step toward learning is paying attention.

Research

Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. (2011). BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning. Orlando, FL: BrainSMART.





5 Math Games Every Classroom Needs to Play

12 01 2015

Guest post by Leigh Langton


Hey guys! It’s Leigh from The Applicious Teacher! I am super excited to be blogging at Corkboard Connections today. I’m sharing a practice that I use to help increase my students’ engagement and number sense during my math block.

Do you play games in your classroom? Wait… what?! No time? Well… you should make time! Especially during your math time. To me, math and games go together like Nutella and pretzels. Delicious separate, but amazing together.

As a third grade teacher, I know how limited our time can be, so I am here to share with you 5 math games you should take the time to play this year!  All of these games are fun, easy, and require little to no prep. They are math games that I’ve played for years with my second graders. When I moved up to third, I was able to easily modify these games for my new “big kids”.

First up… 100’s Game

This game can be played in a k-5 classroom. It is perfect for building number sense and it’s only prerequisite is that students can count. There’s no supplies needed to play and my kids loved playing this as a “brain-break” before math.

Here’s how to play… Have your class stand in a circle. Moving in a clockwise direction, have the students count out loud until they get to a hundred. The person who says, “100” sits down. The last person standing, WINS!

The idea is simple, but can be modified for your students. In second grade we’d count by 5’s,10’s, and 25’s (to help with money later on in the year). For third, we count the multiples of numbers. For numbers that don’t have a multiple of 100, I choose the last number in the sequence of 12 as the “end number.”

Other Variations 
Students sit down on a certain multiples (like the multiples of 7) Students don’t say the multiple. Students can count by ones to a hundred, but all the multiples of say, 4, are “off limits.” If a student says them, they sit down. You could also change it to student don’t say the divisors (perfect for those 4th/5th graders who need more practice with their facts!)
101 and Out…
 

 

This paper and pencil game works well in second to fifth grade classrooms and can be played by teams of students (like boys against girls) or in pairs. To play you will need a sheet of paper, a pencil, and one dice. The object of the game is to score as close to 101 without going over or “out.”

To play, students take turns rolling the dice. As they roll, they can either take the number as a one or a ten. For example, if a student rolls a 5, they could take it as a 5 or a 50.  Students keep a running record of their total as they play.

I love how the kids start to form a strategy for what numbers they want to roll next. It’s a great way to build mental math strategies. To introduce this game, I usually play it as, “The Teacher vs. The Class”. This allows time for modeling while keeping the kids in on the action. What class doesn’t love beating the teacher? They always want to play again if I win the round.

This game works best in longer stretches, so multiple rounds can be played. I usually like to use it at the beginning of the year as a class game before math centers. It then becomes an easy and fun game for the kiddos to play during math centers.

Back 2 Back
 

 

Seriously, hands down, my class’ favorite game to play! This game is perfect for inside recess as the whole class can play at once and everyone is excited for the game. This game requires some “brain sweat”, so it works well for grades 2-5. There are two different versions of this game. Supplies needed are minimal:  a writing surface, writing utensils, and someone who is quick with their math facts for a “caller.”

The object of the game is to guess the other player’s number before they guess yours. To play, two students come up to the board and stand back to back (hence the name). This allows for the students to write on the board, but blocks their view of the other person’s number.

The “Caller” states, “Numbers Up”. This signals the two students write a number of their choice on the board. I usually play with numbers 2-9 to keep kiddos from dwelling in the 0’s and 1’s easy train, but you can play with numbers as high or as low as needed for your group of kids.

The caller then states the sum (for younger students) or product (3rd-5th) of the two numbers.  The students use their understanding of math facts to figure out what they other person’s number is when added or multiplied by their number. The player to say the other person’s number first wins the round. The “loser” gets to choose the next person to come to the board. Please be warned… this game can get a little rowdy as students win and lose rounds and somehow the teacher always gets pulled up to “clear out” a player who’s been up a little too long… But it’s a lot of fun and well worth the 10-20 minutes! Beats the repetitious practice drills of flashcards!

Guess My Number

This next game is very versatile and can be modified in so many ways! It can be played in kindergarten all the way through 5th grade classrooms. To play, you need a number chart and a dry erase marker. This game can be played whole group, in pairs or in small groups of 3-4.

To begin, one student chooses a number. The other players try to guess the number by asking a series of questions. The student crosses off numbers it can’t be and circles numbers it could. The person who guesses the right number, wins and gets to choose the next number.

The best part of this game is that it can be played with laminated personal hundreds charts in small groups.

It can also be played as a whole group game using  a large chart.

For third grade, I encourage the use of question clues like “Is it a multiple of 5? Or greater than 70?” To introduce the game, I usually model crossing out numbers as students ask questions about the numbers and help link the clues to finding the right number.

For a kindergarten or first grade classroom, you may want to play with a number line with numbers 1-20.  Then, students could ask if the number is bigger or smaller than numbers within that range.  A 4th or 5th grade classroom can beef up the game with question clues like, “Is it divisible by 3?” or “Is it a multiple of 5?” The possibilities are endless! Time range to play can be from 5 minutes to 20 minutes and can be used as an inside recess game or a quick brain break before or after a lesson.

Math Fact Top It!

 

 

This last game works well in 1st through 5th grade classrooms and is best played in groups of 2-4 students. All that is needed to play are math fact flash cards. You can use addition, subtraction, multiplication or division cards. It just depends on where your students are in their math skills. I like to think of this game as “War for the Classroom,” as the rules for the traditional card game apply to this math fact version.

To play, students divide the flash cards evenly among all players. Then, on the count of three, all students throw down a card. The card with the highest sum or product wins all the cards in play. This can be modified to lowest difference or quotient. If students have the same answer, then they play each other again, with the winner capturing all the cards in play. Students play until all the cards are won. The student depending on the flashcards you are using. with the most cards at the end wins. I find this game works best in math centers and is an easy way for students to practice their math facts in a new and unique way!

Download Freebie with Game Directions 
So go forth and play! Get your students engaged and learning in the new year! If you’re not sure you’ll remember all these games I shared today, I’ve compiled all the directions in one file for you. It’s available here at my TpT store!

Leigh is a wife, mother, and a second-grade- turned-third-grade teacher. She currently resides in Central Florida where she has been teaching for 7 years. When Leigh isn’t teaching or writing for her teacher blog, The Applicious Teacher, she enjoys snuggling up with a good book, running a few miles, or spending time with her family.

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