Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Attention and Mind Wandering
February 2016
In This Issue

Preschool STEM Workshops Available!

Educational Technology Gets a Jumpstart Through SIBR


Learn about the impact of trauma on the brain

Dream Flight Simulator 'Takes Off' at Stewart
CEI Principal Leader Greg Egnor furthers STEM at his school
Dear Educators,

Leaders, think of it. All the ideas that run through our heads, triggering our neurons to jump to attention. There certainly are some tricks of the trade that teachers have discovered over the years. Yet, we continue to be faced with high numbers of students who have trouble "attending" to instruction. Some estimate that almost 17-25% of our students experience attention problems. Concomitant with these problems are risks of dropping out of school, followed by difficulties in college, and difficulties into adulthood.

In this issue of Wow!, Sheri Brick and Donald Kim provide recommendations for teachers to strengthen the odds that students will pay attention to our instruction. This is followed by an article that CEI's executive director has written on attention, lesson planning, and spontaneous thinking or mind-wandering. This article provides an opportunity to consider some of the positive benefits of not focusing attention.   
Being Proactive, Not Reactive: Addressing the Attention Span of a 21st Century Learner
By Sheri Brick, CEI Intern 
I used to find myself reacting to students who had trouble paying attention. "Pay attention! Eyes up here! Please focus!" Simply reacting only made it worse. It was an impulsive response to a problem that required more, for lack of a better word, attention. In the 21st century students' attention is key. Gaining and maintaining attention is the gateway to taking in new information. It is inevitable that in our world of instantaneous information overload students will be distracted by their own internal thoughts and/or stimuli in the environment. Fighting distraction reactively is not the comprehensive answer. We need to proactively channel students' attention in order to focus attention on learning. 

Refocusing and Refreshing Attention. Students need the opportunity to refocus and refresh the brain before and after learning. Incorporating regular breaks into the day will allow for effective and efficient instruction as teachers will be spending less time redirecting unfocused students. In an Edutopia article about regaining focus and calm in the classroom, Dr. Lori Desautels categorizes breaks into two major categories - brain breaks and focused-attention practices

Brain breaks re-energize students by allowing them to use alternative ways of thinking. For instance, teachers can have a junk bag containing household materials. Students would pick an item out of the bag and come up with two ways the object can be reinvented for other uses. Dr. Desautels also suggests ideas for focused attention practices, which are brain exercises for quieting distracting thoughts  some practices include movement breaks, breathing exercises, and music for relaxation and visualization. 

A popular website for focused-attention practices is GoNoodle. GoNoodle has a variety of interactive activities for K-5 classrooms that help children recharge and get ready to learn.

Building Attention Skills. In the primary grades, teachers will find it worthwhile to consciously devote time to building students' capacity for sustained attention. Training the brain to pay attention for longer periods of will lead to better performance. (See Dr. Mason's article below for suggested steps.)


To help students become aware of the importance of paying attention to instruction, teachers can engage even the youngest students in meaningful dialogue. 

  • Teachers can help students become aware of what may be distracting for each of them.
  • Students can discuss strategies for what to do when there is a distraction or when they feel their attention starting to drift.
  • Students can also self-regulate their attention through checklists, timers, or charts.
  • When introducing new tasks, such as reading for a long period of time or taking tests, challenge students to stay focused for one to two minutes. Each day increase the amount of minutes for these tasks.
  • Provide students feedback - "Wow, you really focused on your math!" Help them understand that often when they stay focused, even challenging academics become easier. It's the way our brains work!
Using Technology to Increase Attention. Techno- logy can be embraced as a friend rather than a foe if the devices are used purposefully. Educational apps and electronic games can increase focus for tasks that students may find boring. ADDitude screened some computer games as well as reading programs and websites for students with attention disabilities. The ACTIVATE learning program is another computer based resource designed to improve attention as well as other core cognitive functions.

Gaining and Maintaining Attention. To increase meaningful learning, teachers must be mindful of the strategies that keep children engaged in instruction. Gaining student attention requires teachers to pull students in by generating interest. This might include links to students' lives and background knowledge, visual materials, using humor or emotion, or questioning to spark curiosity.

To maintain student attention, teachers should have an understanding of their students' learning styles. While we must use care not to over-generalize and to realize that preferred learning style is not constant, but rather dynamic, students learn in a multitude of ways. Learners who are particularly attuned to kinesthetic experiences will often succeed with hands-on activities, while aural learners will often benefit from sound and music in learning. 

Using a variety of learning structures throughout the day will also help maintain attention as long as opportunities are provided for all students to be involved. During whole group lessons, partner or small group talk will allow students to listen to, share, and build on ideas. Whole group lessons should include occasions for students to interact -- filling in the blanks, writing a shared story, or sharing the pen. Small group lessons need to be targeted and based on students' instructional level or learning style. Learning centers or stations offer opportunities for intervention, reinforcement, and enrichment through self-directed activities that allow students to delve deeper into the subject matter.

Does Gender Play a Role? Gender differences in learning is a topic that still remains controversial. Some scientists say that boys and girls are hardwired differently, while others say that there is little evidence of differences in children's brains. In your classrooms you may find that some activities that have been promoted for increasing attention for boys, such as tossing a ball as part of a Q&A session, work well for both boys and girls. As educators, we must be sensitive to the gender stereotypes that do exist and focus our efforts on the students we educate and what they need as individuals to be successful.
Getting and Keeping Attention
By Donald Kim, CEI Intern
AttentionWe want it, give it, pay it, lose it. But what is attention? And how does it work? How much control do we have over our attention? In general terms, attention is how we process information in our environment - information can come in the form of sight, sound, touch, smell, taste.

Take a look around a room in your house. There are an unthinkable number of sights on which you can focus, but more than likely only a few things stood out. Maybe it was a piece of furniture which find to be particularly attractive, or maybe it was the growing pile of dishes or laundry.
How Does Attention Work?

Alex Thiele, a researcher at Newcastle University, explains:

When you communicate with others, you can make yourself better heard by speaking louder or by speaking more clearly. Neurons appear to do similar things when we're paying attention. They send their message more intensely to their partners, which compares to speaking louder. But more importantly, they also increase the fidelity of their message, which compares to speaking more clearly.

Our brain utilizes two different systems of attention:
  • Top-down attention is when you consciously focus on something, and
  • Bottom-up attention is when your attention is drawn automatically. Here is a fun video explaining how the two systems work, and interact.
Limitations of Attention

As you could probably tell from the exercise in the first section, attention is limited. Attention is also selective. And these are good things! Being able to focus on one thing, and being able to tune out unimportant things are one and the same. Colin Cherry, a psychologist, described our ability to tune out and focus in on certain things as the "cocktail party" effect. When you are in a crowded place with many people speaking, you can probably hone in on a single conversation. But could you do so while holding your own conversation? Because our attention is limited, this makes multi-tasking difficult - so next time you hear someone claim to be a proficient multi-tasker, take it with a grain of salt.

Fighting Distraction

Distraction is the misplacement of attention. Distraction exists because there are so many different things fighting for our attention. What are ways to combat distractions?
  • Removing Distractions: The simplest solution is to remove whatever may divert attention from the premises. But this solution is only sometimes possible. 
    • It's not only important to think not only about the distractions themselves, but also about what precedes distraction. Distraction may follow long periods of work, difficult problems, problems that are too easy, or even times after lunch or recess when a child may be troubled by an argument with a friend, for example.
  • Remove Interruptions: After attention is properly placed, any kind of interruption to the task at hand can hinder attention. It takes time to reapply attention, therefore hurting productivity. Having assignments that don't require intermittent interruption may be beneficial.
  • Breaks: It takes energy to focus our attention on anything, so taking a break may do wonders. But because time is often very limited, a break during a class or assignment may be counterproductive.
    • I once spoke to one of my professors, and he told me that his secret to keeping the attention of the class was telling stories. He said students get tired of hearing lecture material very quickly, so in order to maintain attention he would tell a story for a minute or two. The stories would only sometimes relate to the subject. Stories and jokes within a lecture can serve as micro-breaks for students. But one must practice caution, because frequent storytelling may cause students to lose attention or get off topic.
  • Groupwork: Groupwork is a mixed bag. One study showed that increased class size was associated with increased engagement. But the study was conducted with only first graders. Small groups working on assignments together may also help students focus on a task.
When it comes to getting a class to pay attention, each class is different. However, if you consider the individual students, you may topics that are particularly interesting, or projects that fascinate students. Some students prefer hands-on materials, others may pay better attention if they are leading a discussion or drawing pictures. Some students may be able to focus and stay on task for 20-30 minutes; for others 7-10 minutes may be their outside limits.

As you learn about your class, you may be able to come up with a formula that works best for them. Adding routines for beginning or ending the class and using consistent prompts and reminders, such as "three minutes are left-hang in there for a few more minutes" may be useful. Some students do best with a visual reminder (like notes on the board) about expectations. Others may do best when they are asked to repeat the directions. While getting and keeping attention is not rocket science, it sometimes takes some experimenting to come up with the combination of instructions, materials and activities for each class.

Cherry, K. (2015, April 10). How does attention work? the brain processes behind attention. About Health.

Herrero, J. L, Gieselmann, M. A., Sanayei, M., & Thiele, A. (2013). Attention-induced variance and noise correlation reduction in Macaque V1 is mediated by NMDA receptors. Neuron, 78(4), 729. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.03.029

Lan, Xuezhao; Ponitz, Claire Cameron; Miller, Kevin F.; Li, Su; Cortina, Kai; Perry, Michelle; Fang, Ge (2009). Keeping their attention: classroom practices associated with behavioral engagement in first grade mathematics classes in China and the United States. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 24 (2), 198-211.

Moffit, M.; Brown G. (2013, January 31). Brain Tricks - This Is How Your Brain Works. 
Rock, D. (2009, October 4). Easily distracted: why it's hard to focus, and what to do about it. Psychology Today. 
Whipps, H. (2007, March 29). Study reveals why we get distracted so easily. Live Science.  
Some Considerations Regarding Student Attention and Mind Wandering 
By Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director 
 Normally the expectation for a teacher is that she will be a master at getting and keeping the attention of her class. Certainly there has been a significant amount of research on strategies for maintaining and even stretching attention. There have even been national efforts to assure that teachers "use a hook" to draw students into their lesson. As early as the 1970s Madeline Hunter prescribed use of an "anticipatory set" to capture student interest in her approach to lesson planning. Since then many research studies such as the one by Stallings and Karasavage (1986) have demonstrated significant achievements in math and reading with Hunter's approach to mastery instruction. However, as Hunter herself indicated (1989) in a discussion of this research, factors such as principal leadership, supervision of teachers, and the teaching techniques used all impact the effectiveness of the model.

The Hunter format continues to provide the basis for lesson planning in thousands of school districts throughout the United States, including its use in developing primary anchor lessons that provide a foundation for a unit of instruction (Meyer & Weih, 2013). Yet, to actually achieve the best outcomes, the Hunter format might not always be the best approach. As Berg and Clough (1991) have suggested, the Hunter model may be most effective with teacher-led lessons -- a lock-step approach to modeling before independent practice does not support inquiry-based learning that is recommended for many science activities. We need to consider also that for many, engagement and attention is strengthened when their curiosities are challenged as well. 

Our recommended take-away from this is to think through the best instructional approach to use for the topic, the intention of the lesson, and your students. How you get their attention may then vary with these factors.

Attention is Multifaceted. While we often describe attention as if it were a single variable, there are an array of ways to view attention, including ways to further skills for improving simultaneous versus sustained attention (Druzback, 2012; Hart et al., 1999). These are important considerations for teachers, as the most effective techniques may shift according to situational needs. When trying to help students attend to relevant stimuli from among numerous simultaneous considerations specific prompts such as color coding or even repetition of the rules for a game may be helpful. Computer games, which bombard students with incoming sights and sounds, may require different skills from focusing on step-by-step procedures for learning a new math process. Similarly, the skills students need for sustained attention differ from the skills for focusing on one thing for a shorter period of time. Sustained attention is important not only when considering how to help students remain on task for longer periods of time, but also in teaching application of skills in problem solving. As Sheri Brick stated in the first article in this eNewsletter, teachers may need to gradually increase expectations for the amount of time students stay engaged.

Our conclusion? Realize first that different approaches may be needed to help students attend to the relevant details-this may include ways to emphasize what is important through visual or verbal prompts. Secondly, if sustained attention is the issue, we recommend you:
Step #1. Identify students for whom this may be an issue,
Step #2. Consider how long these students will be able to pay attention without getting distracted, and
Step #3. Consider ways to gradually increase the length and/or complexity of the session.

Lack of Attention Interferes with Learning. The field of education is replete with numerous examples of how attention deficits or learning difficulties interfere with learning (Swanson & Beebe-Frankenberger; 2004; Swanson & Jensen; 2006). If students are easily distracted they may find it difficult to learn new material or to compete assignments. As students age and their interests evolve, the things that interfere with learning may also change. Having an idea of what is likely to interfere with attention can assists teachers in configuring ways to minimize distractions. See also CEI blogs on attention deficit disorders, the importance of cultural relevance and the role of the arts in facilitating attention and learning.

Considering the Other Side of the Coin. 
A basic premise in education is that student attention will facilitate student engagement in academic tasks and student learning. However, what about the opposite premise? Is there any value in giving students time for divergent thinking? In essence, could creativity be promoted by "mind wandering?" Amy Fries (2010) has recently described the benefits of mind wandering. Fries, in a blog for Psychology today, puts it this way: "mind-wandering capacity is like a computer-program in that it can get to solutions that the conscious mind can't see." She references a 2009 study by Kalina Christoff and colleagues from the Cognitive Neuroscience of Thought Laboratory in British Columbia that describes how the brain recruits complex regions of the brain, including the "executive network" which is associated with complex problem solving. Since then Christoff with a group of researchers has continued to investigate mind-wandering or what they also refer to as spontaneous thinking. They are suggesting that what appears to be daydreaming or obsessing might actually aid us in complex problem solving and can be not only important, but also a pleasant activity. 

Our take-away? We must use caution in regulating student activities; not all day dreaming is bad or to be avoided at all costs. Some of the greatest discoveries might even arise from times of quiet reflection where an individual begins to associate disparate topics. Educators may even want to schedule, encourage, and prompt periods of mind-wandering.


Berg, C. A., & Clough, M. I. C. H. A. E. L. (1991). Hunter lesson design: The wrong one for science teaching. Educational Leadership, 48(4), 73-78.

Christoff, K., Gordon, A. M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R., & Schooler, J. W. (2009). Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 106(21), 8719-8724.

Dzubak, C. M., (2012). Learning and multitasking: Can we do both? Student Affairs. 

Fox, K.C.R., Thompson, E., Andrews-Hanna, J.R., & Christoff, K. (2014). Is thinking really aversive? Commentary on Wilson et al.'s "Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind." Frontiers in Psychology: Cognition, 5(1427), 1-4.

Fries, A. (2010, April 19). Mind wandering enhances creative problem solving: Are you obsessing or creative problem solving? Psychology Today. 

Hart, T., Schwartz, M. F., & Mayer, N. (1999). Executive function: Some current theories and their applications. In R. Varney & R.J. Roberts (Eds.), The evaluation and treatment of mild traumatic brain injury, (pp. 133-148). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hunter, M. (1989). Join the par-aide in education. Educational Leadership, 47(2), 36-41.

Meyer, J., & Weih, T. G. (2013). Engaging emergent writers with anchor lessons. ERIC Online Submission. ED542334

Stallings, J., & Krasavage, E. M. (1986). Program implementation and student achievement in a four-year Madeline Hunter follow-through project. The Elementary School Journal, 117-138.

Swanson, H. L., & Jensen, O. (2006). Math disabilities: A selective meta-analysis of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 76, 249-274.

Swanson, H. L., & Beebe-Frankenberger, M. (2004). The relationship between working memory and mathematical problem solving in children at risk and not at risk for serious math difficulties. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 471-491.
Attention - A Coin Toss

Heads or tails? Is it better to pay attention or to simply let thoughts flow like a river? Perhaps a stream of thought that arises organically rather than being forced into a compartment that has been set aside for academics? 

We know that there are times that we absolutely need students to follow along as instructed. Perhaps it is a matter of when and where?  Next time you see a student doodling perhaps it might be wise to see where the doodles lead.  Perhaps your teachers might even find time to schedule some mind-wandering sessions. Mind- wandering, spontaneous thinking, mind expansion. Picture neurons jumping for joy. The freedom of a few unrestrained thoughts.



Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement