Channeling Attention to Achieve Academic Excellence

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“If they could just pay attention…”

How many times a day have you caught yourself saying or thinking this statement??

And what improvement would you see in your students and in your classroom if they were able to hone their attention towards what was important in the moment (like your lessons)?

As Daniel Goldman writes in his book by the same title, “Focus is the hidden driver of excellence.” This can be excellence in absolutely everything and anything. However, as an educator, I am sure you are most invested in academic excellence. 

As we are seeing increased mental health issues throughout the educational community, it is important to note that improving attention has important implications for healthy psychological function and wellbeing. Distraction and inattention are associated with higher rates of stress, anxiety, and depression. They have also been found to impair executive function. 

When we address attention as a skill in the classroom, we not only help lead our students toward academic excellence, we also improve mental health.

Teaching Attention

The challenge I see in most classrooms is that educators expect students to be able to access their muscle of attention at will, and from what I have seen over the years, many students can not. 

Like everything else that you teach in your classroom, if you want students to use a skill, you need to make time to teach it and practice using it in different ways. When you explicitly teach students how to focus their attention, changes are created within the brain, growing the neural circuitry needed for sustained attention.

Like other executive function skills, attention is developmental. A first grader will not be able to focus their attention with the same degree of fortitude as a high schooler. At any age, and any ability level, attention is something that is malleable, teachable, and capable of growth. 

Mindfulness practices have been found to improve attention as well as outcomes related to self-regulation of emotion, lower levels of stress, decreased reactivity to pain, improvements in symptoms related to anxiety, depression and other mental disorders, increased positive emotions, and overall psychological well being. (Dahl, 2020)

Below are a few mindfulness practices from our Educate 2B and Everyday Mindfulness curriculum that will assist you in teaching students more about their own attention skills, and help them improve that muscle in their mind.

Drifting Clouds – This is a meta-awareness practice that provides the opportunity to to recognize the occurrence of a distracted, wandering mind and practice redirecting it back to the activity.

Body Scan – This practice provides the opportunity to notice the emotional and sensory cues within the body which plays a critical role in self-regulation. As you slowly scan the body from head to toes, notice any sensations that are felt. Here is a list of sensations that may be experienced in the mind and body. You can use this list to create a new kind of word wall.

Take 5 – This breathing practice has been so helpful to my students with ADHD who need an immediate resource to help them in the moment that they can easily access independently.

Energy Ball – This movement and breath practice can be introduced as a classroom experiment. Use Drifting Clouds first and have them notice how many thoughts come in and out of their mind. Then share this practice and ask them if they noticed more thoughts streaming or was their mind pretty relaxed and focused on the activity.

Each of these practices are an opportunity to build inner awareness and to PLAY with our attention. Research suggests that pairing these practices with an attitude of acceptance allows more pronounced effects to occur. I suggest offering each of these practices as an opportunity to observe how the mind and body respond when our attention turns inward. Rather than place judgment on ourselves, thinking that we are doing it wrong, or our mind shouldn’t wander or spew unkind thoughts, we have create an opportunity to explore and observe.