Attention and the Classroom

Attention Difficulties in the Classroom

Here’s a summary of Thomas and Grimes’ 1995 chapter on Attention Difficulties:

Students with attention disorders without hyperactivity often fail to finish tasks, they are easily distracted, they have difficulty listening, concentrating, and organizing their work, they require supervision to accomplish tasks, and they frequently shift activities. Students with attention disorders with hyperactivity display these same characteristics. They are also described as having difficulty remaining seated, exhibiting excessive fidgeting, frequently calling out in class, being always on the go, and often acting without thinking.

Although children with ADHD are commonly considered to have problems paying attention, for the purposes of developing effective interventions, it may be more useful to think of the disorder, as Barkley (1990) has suggested, as a biologically based “motivational deficit.” Children with attention disorders appear to be insensitive to normal behavioural consequences, either positive or negative. Thus, the typical responses to behaviour in school, such as praise, reprimands, or test grades, tend to be ineffective in shaping behaviours of children with attention disorders. Viewing attention disorders in this light helps resolve some of the seeming inconsistencies these children display. Parents and teachers often comment, “But he has no trouble paying attention to things he enjoys!” (E.g., video games). They also note that the quality of work these children produce in school can sometimes be exceptional, leading them to wonder why such children cannot produce work of high quality all the time. A motivational deficit hypothesis would suggest that many of the problems these students encounter in school (and at home) occur because they have an inordinate amount of difficulty making themselves do tasks that are not intrinsically interesting to them.

This also accounts for another characteristic of students with attention disorders: These students are susceptible to attention problems on tasks that they find difficult. While all people attend better to tasks that interest them, those with attention deficits show greater problems with tasks that are difficult, or uninteresting to them. It takes students with attention deficits a huge amount of effort and motivation for them to apply themselves to tasks that an ordinary student can accomplish with less effort and self-determination.

Another common characteristic of students with attention disorders is academic underachievement. Often these students have acquired basic academic skills but demonstrate difficulties with day-to-day classroom performance that stem from characteristics inherent in the attention disorder. Most often in written production, poor planning and organization, difficulty generating ideas, and problems sequencing thoughts. Some students with ADHD may also exhibit problems with reading comprehension—again, not because of skill deficits in either decoding or comprehension but because they have trouble concentrating on what they are reading sufficiently to grasp the meaning.

A significant number of children with attention deficits exhibit problems with a constellation of behaviours referred to as “executive functions.” Beside problems with sustained attention, executive function deficits may include problems with planning and organization, task initiation and follow-through, goal selection, anticipation of consequences of actions, and inhibition of impulsive responding.

It is important to recognize that all children with attention disorders (indeed, all children) bring a unique set of characteristics, both strengths and weaknesses, to any learning situation. While it is helpful to be aware of problems commonly associated with attention disorders, ultimately one must consider the specific needs of each child in order to develop interventions effectively tailored to those individual needs.

Suggested Strategies for Reducing Attention Problems

Written expression

  1. Provide assistance with prewriting activities (brainstorming/concept mapping)
  2. Allow use of computer or dictation for longer assignments
  3. Provide assistance with proofing, preparing final draft

Long assignments

  1. Break down long assignments into shorter ones
  2. Help develop time lines for longer assignments
  3. Reduce writing requirements by reducing length and allowing alternative methods of demonstrating learning

Following directions

  1. Provide written as well as oral directions
  2. Repeat group directions individually
  3. Have student repeat directions to show understanding
  4. Break down longer directions into smaller steps
  5. Build in incentives for following directions and for asking for help


  1. Preferential seating during whole class work
  2. Nonverbal signal from teacher to attend
  3. Quiet place to work during seatwork
  4. Cue for transitions
  5. Incentives for timely work completion

Incentive Systems. Children with attention disorders frequently do not respond to natural incentives, (positive or negative) that are effective with other students. Research has demonstrated that positive reinforcement is effective in addressing problem behaviours associated with attention disorders.

In its simplest form, a positive reinforcement procedure involves administering a reinforcer upon demonstration of an appropriate target behaviour. An example would be allowing a student to spend the last 15 minutes before lunch playing a computer game with a friend after completing all required morning seatwork. Simple reinforcement procedures, however, often are ineffective with children with attention disorders. Experts in ADHD (e.g., Barkley, 1993) offer suggestions:

  1. Ensure that reinforcers are administered immediately and frequently. Continuous reinforcement systems are more effective than partial reinforcement systems. Systems need to be designed to ensure that the reinforcer can be administered consistently.
  2. Build variety into the reinforcement system. Children with ADHD often crave novelty and satiate very quickly on specific reinforcers. This problem can be addressed by developing a reinforcement menu so that the student can choose from a variety of attractive rewards.
  3. Assume that whatever system is designed will require adjustments. That the system will require some “fine tuning” to make it effective should be communicated to those who implement the system, lest they decide too quickly that the system has failed and should be abandoned.
  4. Involve the student in helping to design the incentive system. Students often have good ideas about how the system can be administered, including how to keep records and how often and under what circumstances to give reinforcers. When the program needs to be revised, students often offer valuable insights into how it can be improved. When students are active participants in the process, they more likely to “buy into” the system. They also can learn valuable skills in task analysis, goal-setting, and self-monitoring.

Token economies. The use of token, reinforcers gives a teacher more flexibility in what rewards can be earned and when they will be given. By giving the student tokens (or points) for demonstrating appropriate target behaviours, the teacher gives immediate feedback regarding performance without having to give the reward right away. Such a system allows the child to earn a variety of reinforcers, since specific points values can be attached to each reward. This approach can be used with an individual student or with groups of students, with different target behaviours and reinforcers assigned to each student if desired. Reinforcers should include a variety of activity as well as tangible reinforcers. By building in group rewards, the aid of the whole class can be enlisted in helping the youngster achieve his or her goals, since all will benefit from the child’s earning rewards.

Response cost. With response cost, earned tokens are withdrawn when undesirable behaviours occur. This approach has been found particularly effective in increasing attention to task and work completion, and, as with many other interventions, it appears to be particularly effective when paired with medication.

Cognitive-behavioural interventions

Self-monitoring. These procedures involve training students to become aware of their own behaviour, with the eventual goal being for them to cue themselves to attend. The most common training procedure is to employ an audio track that sounds electronic tones at random intervals ranging from 15 to 90 seconds apart. When the tone sounds, students are instructed to ask themselves, “Was I paying attention?” Initially students are instructed to note their responses on a checklist. Eventually, they are weaned from both the checklist and the audio, but are instructed to note covertly whether they are attending. Visual reminders on student’s desks have also shown to be effective.

Self-evaluation. In this approach, students are taught to evaluate their progress on specific goals. For example: a teacher would have reading group members rate how well they attended or how much they participated during the reading group session.


With appropriate modifications, the educational needs of most students with attention disorders can be met primarily in a regular classroom environment. While behaviour modification strategies can be very effective in improving classroom performance and behaviour, altering the environment and making task modifications are also important. Research has found:

  1. Stories presented at a faster-than-normal rate of speech resulted in improved listening comprehension and decreased activity level.
  2. Using color to highlight important information increased accuracy and decreased activity level for students with ADHD.
  3. Tasks with a high degree of structure decreased activity level, compared to low-structured, more open-ended tasks.
  4. Requiring a motor response during activities resulted in improved performance, compared to more passive conditions.
  5. Providing brief, global instructions, instead of lengthy, detailed instructions, produced shorter task completion time and fewer requests for cues.
  6. Math and reading tasks presented in a low-noise environment created better performance and decreased activity levels than did a high-noise environment.
  7. Other Effective classroom modifications included
    1. Seating students preferentially
    2. Calling on the student frequently during class discussions
    3. Writing start and stop times for written work completion
    4. Using a kitchen timer as a motivator

Children with attention disorders, particularly if they have concomitant executive skill deficits, may need help getting started on assignments. This can be done by walking them through the first few items or talking to them about the assignment to help them get oriented. They often do significantly better when tasks are modified to respond to their deficit areas, including presentation of briefer tasks, building in breaks, allowing the opportunity to stand up and move around, and, as noted above, providing high within-task stimulation.

Other modifications for children with ADHD address the fact that they do better when they have frequent opportunities to respond and receive immediate feedback. Peer tutoring and cooperative learning approaches both build in greater opportunities for individual response and immediate feedback than do more traditional classroom structures, such as lectures and individual seatwork activities. Computers also offer great promise for children with ADHD, because computer software can be novel, entertaining, and interactive.

Modifications that address difficulty in written production include reducing writing requirements, allowing students to dictate or tape record assignments, and allowing for alternative means of demonstrating knowledge, such as projects and oral reports. Providing access to computers to complete written assignments is an essential modification for many children with ADHD.

Still other modifications address the fact that children with ADHD do more poorly with tasks they find tedious, difficult, or uninteresting. These modifications include reducing repetitive seatwork and making tasks and assignments as appealing as possible. Children with ADHD respond very well to activities with a game format or to lessons that are presented as problems to be solved, particularly if they have real-life applications. Project-oriented learning is ideally suited to the learning style of many children. Others respond to the opportunity to design their own assignments.

Giving these students choices in terms of what assignments they will do, how they will do them, in what order, where, and with whom they will complete the work can have a dramatic impact on productivity and task completion. Pairing children with ADHD with other students allows them to use complementary strengths. A child with ADHD may have very creative ideas but have trouble putting them down on paper, while another student may be skilled at organizing work and writing but lack imagination; by pairing the two, both can benefit and learn from the strengths of the other.

While we generally think about classroom and task modifications in terms of the learning weaknesses of children with attention disorders, the strengths these students have must not be neglected. It is critically important to identify skills, and talents, to find ways to encourage their development, and to ensure that these students are recognized for their accomplishments. Children with attention disorders tend to receive negative feedback in greater quantities than their classmates. Special efforts must counteract these threats to self-esteem by finding areas where these students can shine.

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