Easy strategies and tools to engage students with attention challenges


Ezra Werb

Helping students with attention challenges to focus on the tasks before them can seem like the holy grail of special education. Yet it doesn’t have to be complicated, says Ezra Werb, educational therapist and author of “Teach for Attention!”. In his edWeb.net webinar “Engagement Strategies for Students with Attention Challenges: Lower Anxiety and Raise Confidence,” Werb presented some easy tips for engaging students, which he said could be sprinkled into the teaching day “like chocolate chips into oatmeal.”

Werb, who has a master’s in Special Education, advises striving for incremental successes when working with students who face academics with anxiety and low self-confidence. Small steps can lead to big gains.

Increasing interest rates

Rather than a financial strategy, increasing a student’s interest rate refers to finding out and concentrating on those things that students feel confident or passionate about. For example, one student really liked the TV show “Gravity Falls,” so Werb showed the student how to create a Venn diagram about characters in the show, and let the student teach him about the content. Allowing students feel supeiorr in knowledge about their “island of competence” is helpful for building student confidence.

Another student was a fan of the Disney show “Descendants” , which features teenage children of The Evil Queen, Jafar, Maleficent, and Cruella de Vil. The student had a good sense of humor and was athletic, but immediately lost interest during math, especially story problems. So Werb replaced elements of a typical story problem with characters from the show and the items they use, such as spells and magic.

Instead of assigning essay topics, Werb advises letting students write about what they are passionate about.

Letting out the fizz

Faced with fidgeting students, Werb said teachers can be surprised how helpful it can be to try different classroom furniture. Is the seat uncomfortable? If so, try alternative seating such as yoga balls, a sensory seat cushion, or letting kids bring in a sweatshirt or blanket to sit on.

The right size desk is important. If a student’s feet don’t touch the floor, it’s a sure thing those feet will be swinging. A cheap stool on which the student can place his or her feet can solve the problem. Students also shouldn’t be in desks which are too small for them.

Fidgets such as spinners, thinking putty, and sensory bracelets can be helpful. However, if the student turns fidget use into a game, the fidget becomes a toy and is distracting.

Werb also suggests letting students move about the room when possible, such as bringing them up to the board, making them classroom helpers, taking frequent breaks, and letting students stand if they want to. Werb said that when given this choice, many students respect it and do not abuse it.

Making a long story short

When assigning a book, practice front-loading, or discussing the main characters, setting, plot points, and even spoilers before reading begins. A highly effective way to do this is through a presentation with graphics. For example, here’s an example of frontloading for “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton, which was found by googling “front-loading the Outsiders”. But a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation could work just as well.

Another great strategy for teaching literature is to let students use graphic novels, ebooks, and audio books in conjunction with the regular text.

Sending students in the write direction

The physical act of just producing letters can be a barrier to writing, if students are struggling to use a pencil. If students are allowed to use technology, it can be like the difference between night and day.

Technology such as tablets, keyboards, and especially speech to text is helpful. Speech to text technology has improved quite a bit within the last five years. Try Google Chrome extensions such as Read&Write and software such as Dragon Dictation and Dragon Speech. Werb found that using speech-to-text software even improved one student’s pronunciation.

Another helpful strategy is to have students write essays on slides, such as in PowerPoint, or Google Slides, and provide templates and models of expected work.

Teaching in high definition

“High definition” encompasses several concepts. One is to provide a lot of space between text. Microsoft Word provides this in its “Immersive Reader” feature, found by selecting View > Immersive Reader from the menu bar. Immersive Reader also highlights lines of text, allows adjustable column width and breaks words into syllables.

You can also help students with comprehension by highlighting and color-coding key words in text.

Werb’s book, Teach for Attention!, is available through Free Spirit Publishing.


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