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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Teaching Students
With Attention Deficits

Students with attention deficits often are bright and capable of learning, but problems focusing and low frustration tolerance can impede their academic performance. In addition, those students might exhibit organizational and learning difficulties. In fact, about one of every three students with an attention deficit disorder also exhibits a learning disability. If an attention deficit goes unrecognized and accommodations are not made, those student also might exhibit significant social and behavioral difficulties.


Help keep the student on task by using a signaling system. You might signal the student that he needs to pay attention or get back to work by walking past his desk, making eye contact with him, or pausing while you are speaking. Or you might work out a private signal with him, such as scratching your head, raising your eyebrows, or tugging on your ear. In a similar vein, develop with the student (and with other students) a signal that he can use to ask for help. That signal might be a "help" flag attached to a pencil that they can stick in a piece of clay on the corner of their desk.

Make sure the student is paying attention when you give directions. Use his name and make eye contact with him when giving instructions. Keep directions clear, short, and specific. If you give a long string of instructions, he might remember only part of what you say. Even if the student is looking right at you and seems to be paying attention, he might be thinking of something else, so you might want to have him repeat the directions in his own words to make sure that he understands. If necessary, write the directions down in addition to stating them orally.

Seat the student in a study carrel. You also can use a cardboard divider or partition to decrease distractions while the child is working independently. Make the idea inviting by telling the student that this is his "office." Only place him there for short periods, however, and do not use the strategy at all if he seems to feel singled out or isolated from his peers.

Shorten the student's work periods. Your student might have difficulty working for long stretches. He might be more productive if he works for two or three short periods rather than one long period. Instead of having him work on a task for 40 minutes, you might have him work for 20 minutes, give him a break, and then have him work for 20 minutes more.

Break a large task into smaller, more manageable parts. Students with attention problems can be overwhelmed by large tasks. As a result, they give up quickly or fail to even attempt a task. Breaking the task into more doable parts can give the student more confidence and help him complete the task successfully. Instead of asking him to complete a whole page of math problems, for example, you might assign him two or three problems, check his performance, and then assign him a few more.

Vary your presentation of information. Direct a student's attention to important information by making it stand out. When writing on a chalkboard, for example, you might underline key words or write them in all capitals or in a different color. On handouts, you might highlight essential information or change the color, font, or size of the type. For students prone to careless math errors, you might try circling the math signs or highlighting them in color.

Help the student adjust to change. Students with attention problems often have difficulty with transitions. To deal with that problem, let the student know in advance of any upcoming changes. Keep him informed about daily activities by putting his work for the day on the chalkboard. Also, consider posting his personal schedule and responsibilities on his desk on a 4-inch by 6-inch card, perhaps numbering the tasks in the order you want him to work on them.


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.