Something ridiculously easy to do in your classroom to improve attention
You all know how frustrating it is when you’re trying to get an important message across to your class and you notice that one or more of the learners is not listening. At other times, the end of the school day looms and the learners are tired. It becomes increasingly more difficult for them to maintain their level of focus. There is something you can do to help in these situations.
It’s all about one of the most primitive of reflexes human beings share. It’s crucial to our survival and without it, we would die. I’m talking about sucking. If a baby is born unable to latch and suckle, very rapid steps will be taken to ensure that the infant is tube-fed. But apart from the importance of taking in nutrition, sucking and swallowing have very significant effects on brain function. Infants can self-sooth by sucking on their fists or thumbs and sucking and swallowing also help them to breathe deeply. This early reliance on sucking and stimulation of areas around the mouth doesn’t leave us either. Watch how young children move their mouths in rhythm with their hand movements when they are learning how to cut with a scissors. How many of us turn to chewing or sucking sweets when we are tired but still have marking or lesson preparation to do! Do some of you bite the end of a pen, your nails or even your bottom lip when listening closely to something?
Sucking and swallowing, which are controlled by tongue actions, are our very first brain organisers. When babies suck, swallow and breathe, they are laying the foundations for arousal, attending and focus. By helping to organise the communication between different neural pathways, sucking can reenergise us when we’re tired or calm us down when we’re excited.
In addition, tired eyes might not be focusing on you or on a task requiring reading or writing. Sucking with eyes closed helps the eyes to maintain focus. Try this yourself: close your eyes and put your index finger between your lips on the midline of your face. Suck hard and feel how the eyes pull in together.
Because the eyes and ears work together (through the mechanism of a part of the brain called the colliculus) the ears follow the eyes to focus on the sound coming from whatever the eyes are looking at. This means that what we look at directly affects what we listen to. Grandparents were quite correct when they insisted on us looking at them when they spoke to us! In this way, vision that is focused on something specific in the environment produces focused auditory input as well. This lessens the distracting effect of extraneous sounds in a classroom.
So what can you do? ILT doesn’t recommend that you have children sucking on their fingers, unless they are very young children and you have nothing else for them to suck on!
Instead, try to supply your class with some ‘crazy’ or ‘loopy’ straws that you can buy in the party section of several of the supermarkets. Insert these straws through a small hole in the top of a small bottle of water (or supply plastic cups or glasses). When you feel the attention of the children is waning, ask them to close their eyes, place the straw in the middle of their lips and have them suck – swallow – and breathe. Or have this as a routine part of your lessons. Before beginning a task, have the learners drink some water through their straws. Their concentration will improve – and the water will do them good too!
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) addresses learning and behaviour difficulties caused by disturbances in neurodevelopment or environmental factors. If you are interested in learning more about this approach, visit our website www.ilt.co.za. We have practitioners around the country ready to help and also offer training courses that are accredited with SACE and ETDP-SETA.
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