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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Dealing With
An Attention Deficit

Almost every classroom includes at least one student with an attention deficit. She is the student who has problems focusing for long periods, who is distracted easily, who has difficulty understanding directions, who often is confused about what to do.

Even when she knows what to do, the student with attention deficit might have trouble settling down and doing the work. Such seemingly simple tasks as remembering to take papers home or to bring a pencil to class become problematic. A child with an attention deficit can pose serious management problems for the classroom teacher and, if not managed successfully, can take up a considerable amount of instructional time.


Identify the source of the student's attention problem. Children can have difficulty paying attention without having an attention deficit disorder. They might have trouble focusing because they are anxious, upset, not feeling well, or simply bored. Attention difficulties also can result from hearing or vision problems. Understanding the reason for the student's attention problem can guide you in helping her in the classroom.

"Catch" the student being good. That is the most basic application of behavior modification, namely praising a student when she displays appropriate behavior. Students with an attention deficit, who frequently experience frustration and failure in school, have a particular need for a pat on the back. Your challenge with this kind of student, especially in a large class, is to catch her when she is on task and then praise her immediately and genuinely. You might remind yourself to try to catch the student being good by placing a visual cue, such as a smiley face, at a place you look at often -- perhaps near the clock or in your plan book.

Minimize distractions to the student. Try to seat her in a location you can monitor easily, but where there are few distractions. While placing her near your desk might seem reasonable, that is not a good location if other students frequently come to your desk for help. For the same reason, avoid seating her near the pencil sharpener, the window, the hallway door any location that is likely to divert her attention. The best place to seat her might be next to a quiet, hard-working student -- with sufficient distance between desks to avoid distractions. Also, eliminate visual distractions by keeping the student's desk free of clutter.

Use a kitchen timer to motivate the student to complete seatwork. In this classroom version of "Beat the Clock," let the student know how much time she has to complete a task. Five or ten minutes before the timer goes off, let her know how much time is left. Make sure that the student doesn't race through the task, however, resulting in a careless or sloppy performance.

Limit the information on handouts. Students' attention can be distracted by clutter on their papers. If possible, limit the amount of information on a page, or show the student how to fold or cover a paper so she can concentrate on only one question or problem at a time. You also might make for the child a cardboard "window" that exposes only two lines of print or one math problem at a time. When giving a test that's more than one page long, consider giving the student only one page at a time.

Present tasks that tap the student's interests and areas of competence. Students who have trouble focusing on schoolwork are more engaged if the academic tasks reflect their interests and tap their areas of strength. Identify your student's strengths and interests (you might have her fill out an interest inventory) and then use that information to design academic tasks that exploit those interests and skills.

If a student is on medication for attention deficit, monitor her behavior.The effects of medication probably are more evident in school than at home, so your observations can be crucial in helping the parents and physician assess whether it is working. A note of caution about medication: You might believe that one of your students will be helped by medication, bear in mind, however, that it is not your role to recommend it. That is strictly a medical issue; encourage parents to discuss any concerns with their child's physician.


About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.