Professional Development for Teachers: Keeping Attention, Part 1

by | Jun 12, 2023 | 1 Minute Mastery, Getting and Keeping Attention | 0 comments

Are you looking for professional development for teachers that really works? How about something practical and timely, like getting and keeping students’ attention? As teachers, we know that you can’t keep kids in their seats endlessly while you teach.  But how do you know when the kids have had enough and need a break?  And, once you know they need a break, what do you do for a break that will refresh their minds, but not create chaos in the classroom? We’ll tackle these very important topics one at a time. This article will focus on “How do you know when they need a break”?

What does the research say about attention?

How long can a student pay attention? That is a complicated question to answer. To help determine this, we could turn to science and see how long students can pay attention to something before losing interest. I have seen the rule of thumb that posits students can pay attention 2-3 minutes for each year of life. So a 6 year old could pay attention 12 minutes, a 10 year old, 20 minutes.  Hmmmm…Interesting, but accurate?  There is some neuroscience research that explores the concept of “Cognitive Backlog”. This theory states that it takes a lot of brain power to pay attention, and the longer the demand for attention is, the more depleted our attention reserves become. It is like trying to lift weights. After a while, the muscles get tired.  The Goldilocks zone for attention, according to this research, is right around 18 minutes for adults. This is why TED talks (Technology, Entertainment and Design) are 18 minutes long.

Anytime I hear an exact number when it comes to human beings, I am suspicious. What is the real answer to the question “How long can students pay attention?”  The real answer is…it depends.  If I am a kindergartener about to see vinegar mixed with baking soda for a volcano eruption for the first time in my life, believe me, I am paying attention!  If I am a senior in high school, and I know I am going to be a math teacher for a career, you could talk calculus to me all day!  But how quickly would I lose attention if it’s the last week of school, the sun is shining, and the kindergartner is inside learning about “sh” blend sounds.  Or if I am a senior in high school taking Algebra 1 for the third time.  Again, it depends. For the kindergartner who is great at reading, they may love learning about “sh” blends. For the kindergartner who struggles with reading, they would rather be anyplace else.

So, how DO you know when your students need a break? Well, the easiest way would be to read their minds and know what is going on in there.  So far, we can’t do that, but there is a way to know what is going on in your students’ brains.  It seems like the brain and the body are referenced and discussed as separate entities.  They are not. The brain and the body are very much connected.  Whatever is going on in our brains absolutely affects our bodies.  If I am angry, and I think angry thoughts all day long, that will raise my blood pressure. Then my body will line my veins and arteries with platelets to hold in the extra pressure.  Eventually that clogs an artery, and I have a heart attack and die.  From my thoughts!  Wow. Powerful.  The body also affects the brain.  If I am tired or sleepy, not getting adequate nutrition, that can affect my mental acuity and processing.

Professional Development for Teachers: Mind Reading

Since the brain and the body are connected, there is a little miracle that occurs. Whatever is happening in the brain has a vocabulary of movement, expression and posture in the body.  You may have had the experience of looking at someone and thinking that they must be depressed or sad. How did you know?  In the 212 CreativED professional development for teachers, you will learn how to observe students’ body language. Someone who is depressed may walk slowly, with their head down, shoulders hunched, with a sad expression on their face. Contrast that with someone who is wildly happy.  Big smile, big gestures, head up, confident walk.  Whatever we can feel, there is a vocabulary of movement, posture and expression in our bodies. That is how we know when kids need a break.

The Crest of the Wave

One of my mentors used the metaphor of a wave when describing attention. If you imagine an ocean wave coming toward the shore, as it gets near the end, it crests.  Right at the crest of the wave, if something doesn’t change, the wave will come crashing down. That is exactly what happens with attention. To know when students’ attention systems are at the crest of the wave, you can’t read their minds, but you can read their body language.

Four things to watch out for to know  you are at the crest of the wave, and have held on to your students’ attention as long as you can, and it’s time to give them a break:

  1. Movement

Keep an eye out for student movement. If you start to notice students squirming in their 

seats, tapping their pencils, being restless, it may be time for a break.

  1. Gaze

You can notice, even from the front of the room, when kids start shifting their gaze.  You can tell when a student is sneaking a look at their phone, the clock, or glancing wistfully outside. If any of that happens, it may be time for a break.

  1. Talking

As a teacher, whenever there was a low hum of conversation in the classroom, I was never great at being able to pick out of the crowd who was talking. But in terms of the crest of the wave, if there is an uptick in talking, whispering, passing notes, etc.  It may be time for a break.

  1. Energy level

If you notice the kids having low energy, putting their hand in their hands or on their desk, slouching in their desks, it may be time to have a quick break.

You can’t read students’ minds, but you can tell when you are at the crest of the wave by observing physical cues from your students.  This skill and many more can be found by subscribing to 1 Minute Mastery or booking 212 CreativED’s award winning presenters for your next professional development for teachers.