Teaching Kids to Focus

Teaching Kids to Focus via Wonder Teacher Photo Credit: Mark Hunter via Flickr, CCL 2012

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… and also the most challenging time of the year to teach. The holidays bring a heightened level of excitement and energy to our classrooms. We teachers sometimes end up in “survival mode” just counting the days until we get a break.

One helpful solution is to intentionally plan calming, focusing activities for your students. I used to start the year by teaching my students about the meaning of the word “focus.” (Though any time of the year works!) We would learn that when we focus, we give something our complete and total attention. If I am focused on my hand, everything about me is centered there: I’m listening to my hand. I’m looking at my hand. I’m thinking about my hand. I’m focused.

I tell the children that focus is a source of personal strength. The ability to control one’s mind and body makes one “powerful.” Language like, “I see that Devonte is strong in his focus today- I wonder who else is going to be strong?” is incredibly effective. It also creates a culture of positive talk. Instead of, “You all are wild! Calm down!” you can say, “Right now we don’t seem to have control. I’m looking for students who can show me powerful control.” You’ll be amazed at how they respond to that kind of language.

Just the other day I was leading a line of 1st graders down the hall. One little boy in particular was bouncing in and out of the line, tapping other kids on the head, switching places, etc. I was very tempted to scold him. Instead, I announced, “I see that Henry (another child near my line-breaker) is really strong with his control today. I am looking to see who else has strong control in this class.” Boy did that do the trick! My little rule-breaker suddenly threw his shoulders back, pasted his arms by his side, and started walking calmly like the rest of the children (looking at me out of the corner of his eye the entire time.) I let a few seconds pass and then made sure to “see” his powerful control (out loud) too. 😉

I first learned about teaching “focus” from Lanie Keystone, arts integration guru and excellent professional development leader. She publishes a booklet titled “Focus Fun for the Classroom” that is available through her website.

Once you teach kids the concept of focus and control, here are 3 fun ways to “practice.”

Focus On…:  This game relies on memory and concentration. Say, “When I say reindeer focus on the ceiling. Reindeer!” (The children should silently stare at the ceiling in stillness.) Quickly add another one, “When I say cookie focus on the floor. Cookie!” (The children should silently stare at the floor.) Test them a bit, “Reindeer! Cookie! Cookie! Reindeer!” Then add another, “When I say snowman focus on your left hand. Snowman! Cookie! Reindeer! Cookie! Snowman!” You can add as many as you want, though 3 or 4 are usually all they can manage without dissolving into giggles. Finally, add one that will bring the focus to you. “When I say jingle focus on me. Cookie! Reindeer! Snowman! Reindeer! Jingle!” At that point the entire class should be looking at you; quiet and ready to listen to whatever you might say next. It’s a great transition game into a new lesson.

*You can change the words throughout the year to match your content or the holiday season. If kids get good at it, it becomes a nice classroom management tool to add to your collection. When your students are transitioning and you are ready for their attention, you just start calling out “Reindeer! Cookie! Snowman!” and after a few words they will all be quietly playing the game. End with “Jingle” and you’ll have their attention.

Mirror: I like to use this movement break when the energy level is a little too high. To play “mirror,” begin by choosing a leader. It’s best to start with the teacher as the leader while students are learning to play. The idea is that the leader makes slow, fluid movements that the children can copy (a mirror image!) Playing soft, instrumental music helps to set the right mood. Kids love to play this game and it is very calming. After a few moments, the teacher calls a child forward to lead the movements. They learn quickly that sharp, sudden movements can’t be copied in “mirror style.” You can keep it as a whole group activity (and let kids take turns leading) or you can turn it into a partner activity with the children taking turns as the “leader” and “mirror.”

Shape Shifters: This is a fun exercise that I learned from my friend, Jeff Jordan. (He also is the drama teacher at a local arts integrated school.) Jeff draws a simple shape on a piece of white paper (such as a square, an arrow, a squiggle, a letter, etc.) and then the class has to arrange themselves in that shape (standing up in a furniture-free area) in complete silence! They can gesture but they can’t talk. It’s always entertaining to watch them figure it out. When he sees that they have achieved the shape, he motions for them to gather back around him so he can show them the next shape. You can select the shapes depending on the grade level you teach. Kindergarteners would need very simple shapes such as a circle, a square, a straight line with a dot on top, etc. Older kids can do much more complex kinds of shapes.

I hope these ideas help you increase the “focus” in your classroom. Tomorrow I’ll share a few more ideas for dealing with holiday energy!


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  1. This fit SO well with my book chat with young teachers this afternoon. Thanks!

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