Four Ideas for Engaging Students with Short Attention Spans

Today’s teachers face a number of challenges. More than ever, teachers are under intense scrutiny with regard to how well students perform on standardized tests and meet state and national educational standards. In turn, student test performance is related how well students process and retain the information presented in the classroom. But what are teachers to do for the restless students who never seem to pay attention? Research shows that attention spans are no more than 20 minutes on average for students aged 6 through 12. Older students can usually focus longer; younger students and restless students have shorter attention spans. Below are several ideas for keeping students with short attention spans engaged in learning activities. 

Shorter Activities
                                                                                                                Consider your assignments. How many math problems do you assign? How many sentences do you expect students to write? Some teachers have the habit of assigning work to keep students busy. Keeping in mind that 20 minutes is the upper limit for how long most students can focus, it may be best to think in terms of the minimum amount of work for students to demonstrate mastery. A focus on demonstrating mastery may dramatically reduce the amount of student created work, but may greatly increase the quality. If having students solve only 5 math problems gets the job done, assign just 5. What to do with the extra time? Keep reading.

                                                                                                                            To engage students with short attention spans, keep them moving. Try choral response, hand signals, and interactive reading and writing activities. Cooperative Learning Activities allow for greater student movement and interaction than more traditional methods. For articles on cooperative learning, click here.

Also, remember the rule regarding attention spans only being 15-20 minutes in the best possible cases for most students? Plan accordingly. Try to break up activities with movement. Moving from one part of the classroom to another gives students a chance to break up the activity and refocus. More subtle movements may also work well: shifting desks into a different arrangements; students repositioning themselves on the carpet; choral reading before beginning a lesson at the board. This doesn’t mean lessons can’t run longer than 15 minutes. Rather, try to break up longer lessons. A 45 minute activity could start at the carpet, then require students to work at their seats independently before sharing with a partner.


No matter how well you plan your lessons, break them up with movement, and plan short, relevant assignments students will still need breaks from highly structured academic time. This doesn’t mean that you should dump learning activities; rather, consider PAT time. PAT time is learning activities disguised as games; common examples are Jeopardy and Around the World. Anything that seems to students like a break from the typical classroom routine can work as PAT.


Remember all that scheduled learning time that will be left over when assignments are no longer busy work, but instead require the minimum amount to demonstrate mastery? Use incentive activities to encourage students to work quickly and accurately. Once students have completed an assignment, they can turn to preferred learning activities like reading, writing, supervised (and academically relevant) time on the computer, etc. Experiment to find the incentive activities that work best for you, your learning goals and your students. 

In sum, the preceding article presented 4 ways to consider restructuring the classroom to engage students who have trouble focusing. The ideas presented are broad and require experimentation on your part to find what works for you and your students. Keep with it long enough and you’ll develop into one of the rare teachers who can inspire even the most restless of students.