QUESTION: How can I support attention in the classroom?


“How can we support attention in the classroom?”

Why can you spend hours putting together a lesson, meticulously planning and creating resources – to find it falls flat?

Often, it can be linked to attention. Attention can make or break any activity and plays such an important role in a student’s success. Regulation, sensory needs and communication needs can come into play: prior to and during the lesson itself. As a speech and language therapist and an occupational therapist, we share our collaborative approach to help children to engage.

Helping a child to be ready to attend

Before the lesson is introduced, aim for the child to be in a ready, regulated state to focus. To get them there, we should consider two things.

What is their current state of arousal? What does the next lesson involve?

Children will be transitioning from activity to activity and across arousal states too. Activities packed with movement will bring much- needed energy to a tired class, whereas calming activities may bring them down, if they are in a heightened state.

How you communicate with the children should work towards this ready state. For those with lower arousal levels, stepping up our energy so that our voice is expressive and more animated works well. When there is lots of movement, excitement and a frenzy of chatter, it is tempting to try to talk loudly over the activity to gain everyone’s attention. In fact, dropping our volume and adding in anticipatory pauses encourages listening and supports calming.

The environment has a large impact on regulation. Stripping back overly busy, bright displays, closing doors or dividers and putting up curtains to block out visual and noise distractions are definitely worth considering. Busy patterns and bright colours on clothes and strong perfumes may be overwhelming too.

The Activity

Ensure that the activity is at the appropriate attentional skill level for your learners to lead to increased success and engagement in sessions. Some children cannot listen and do at the same time. The adult can help by waiting for them to finish what they are doing and then giving the next instruction. The same distinctive reintroduction phrase used across staff to get the child’s attention back may help e.g., “OK, OK and – back to me.” or a countdown to prepare them that they will need to switch attention soon.


Supporting the core makes all the difference. If a child is not supported, their sense of instability can take up some of their focus. The core can be supported by having an appropriate height chair and table and modelling leaning on the back of the chair to encourage upright sitting. For those children who may need additional support to sit up on the carpet, using a cushion may help.

Activities do not have to be seated as some children benefit from standing activities to have a break from prolonged sitting. Movement breaks and changing positions will help support attention.

Useful tools

Trial small equipment such as fidgets for those pupils who seek sensory stimulation to regulate their arousal level; drawing or doodling may work too. The use of a wobble cushion will support attention for those children who have difficulty sitting still and require additional movement feedback when seated. Chewelery (or a drink to sip) may help those who benefit from oral sensory stimulation to focus, those we may observe to chew or mouth items, for example.

Other considerations

Eye contact can be stressful for some individuals, and insisting on eye contact can stand in the way of being able to focus. You can reduce the stress by making it easier for children to ‘facewatch’, e.g., sitting at an appropriate level when you are leading a group. Understanding a child’s unique signals that shows they are attending would be important.

For some children, just being present in the classroom can be challenging enough. Our priority at this stage is to work on how to keep them regulated, not focus on if they are taking in the information or demonstrating overt listening behaviours. Placing further expectations here might be overwhelming.


Lastly, it is very important to consider how what we say impacts on attention. How many of us have ‘zoned out’ during a meeting at least once? Attention is a huge struggle for many children with SLCN and we should consider our use of universal strategies to scaffold what we say:

  • Breaking language down
  • Providing clear explanations
  • Checking understanding as we go
  • Providing visuals to help children to attend and engage

Agreed, there are plenty of things to consider here. This is where we call for the support of the fellow adults in the class to observe children’s attention behaviours and feed back to you.

It’s not always easy – but if you get it right – all of that meticulous planning and lovingly-crafted resource making will have been worth it!

A child with attention difficulties may find it hard to:

  • Follow instructions, especially whole class instructions
  • Follow large chunks of spoken information
  • Stay on track when talking
  • Participate in conversations
  • Take turns and follow social cues
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