Teaching tip: Students who need extra attention

It has been said that we now live in an “attention economy,” where attention is one of the most valuable things we have. This is certainly true in teaching and learning. What we attend to while we teach makes all the difference. What students attend to makes all the difference.

As the school year gets rolling and the beginning of the year jitters wear off, some students undoubtedly begin to beg extra attention. I’ve found it’s important to recognize these students and set some parameters around how to handle their needs so that the attention we give them is useful, has a positive impact on them, and does not allow the rest of the class to get derailed.

Sometimes, this demand for extra attention is the first sign of more challenging behavior to come. Other times, it’s a test to see if we are paying attention. Finally, it can be a cry for help—an easily fixable one or a more serious one. The important thing is to be conscious about what approach we want to try with this student, so that we don’t end up responding to pleas for attention in unproductive ways (like arguing with a student during class).

A few tips for channelling our attention on individual students productively:

1. Get more information. First, talk to the student one on one (after class, at another point during the day, or even during class), but in a non-public way. Tell him or her what you notice in an even, non-judgmental, but curious tone. For example, “I notice that when it’s time to begin independent work, you often begin a conversation with the student next to you.” See what the student says.

Let’s call the imaginary student Julie. She might tell you that the problem is that she can’t see the board. It’s amazing, but kids don’t always think to tell us important facts like this! That is an easily fixable problem, and she’ll be glad you took the time to ask and address it quickly.

Other times, the problem is more complicated. “I don’t like to write,” she may respond, for example. In this case, have a conversation with Julie and try to identify at least something to try immediately. However, don’t stop there. Talk to other teachers about what they notice, including teachers from past years.

Engaging with the student’s parent is very important, too. The first contact is the beginning of a year-long collaboration, so it’s crucial to set a positive tone. This must not seem like a “call-home-as-punishment.” I like to present what I notice in a non-evaluative tone. Then I say something like, “I’m interested in working with Julie on this issue in the coming weeks. Is this something that’s come up before?” or “Do you have any ideas about what might help me work with her on this?” Sometimes these conversations lead to essential information. Perhaps Julie had an IEP all through elementary school and was declassified before middle school, but still has some trouble in a known area. Other times, parents share their own concerns about their student, but often have some good tips and are able to reinforce messages to the child at home.

2. Decide how to give extra attention during class. If the problem does not have a quick solution, it’s likely that the student will require extra attention of one kind or another for a period of time or even the whole year. Sometimes, this can be a difficult truth to accept, when we have so many responsibilities—but it won’t change by ignoring it or becoming reactive. I like to think about a few ways to give that attention during class that will not detract much from the rest of the class. A quick daily check-in at the beginning of class, as simple as asking, “How are you doing today?,” can go a long way for certain students. Giving the student a classroom job (e.g., passing out post-it notes) or special role can also go a long way and create a daily opportunity to praise the student for fulfilling that role. Writing the student a quick note (whether it’s praise, redirection, or something else) on a post-it and placing it on his or her desk during class can be great. This doesn’t mean the student never begs your attention at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate way, but it certainly lessens the need and chances of this.

3. Decide on a way to give extra attention outside of class. For some students, extra attention in class will not be enough—at least for a while. It’s worth recognizing this reality when it becomes apparent and taking some measures to answer the need. This shows the student you are paying attention, you care, and you’re committed to working with them. There are many ways to give extra attention outside of class. Here are a few ideas:

  • Write the student a note about something interesting or positive they did in your class.
  • Write the student’s parent a note about something noteworthy or positive they did in your class.
  • Invite the student to eat lunch with you one day.
  • Find out what the student is interested in and bring in a book or other resource related to this interest.
  • Connect the student with another adult in the building or elsewhere who can offer the student something related to his specific interest.
  • Ask the student to stay after class, after school, or come early to help you organize an upcoming activity for class (e.g., label materials, etc.).
  • Continue to have one on one conversations with the student about his or her progress in the area that needs improvement.
  • Continue conversations with other teachers about what they are discovering about working with the student.

Sometimes just one of these things—done one time—will make the difference for a student in my class and solve a problem easily. Other times, no one thing will do the trick, but we have to keep on working with all our students, even when they seem to need more from us than we can give. It’s worth taking some time to make a plan for how we will intentionally apply extra attention to students who need it most. This makes it easier to set boundaries, so that when attention-getting behaviors present themselves in the classroom, we know how to receive the message the student is sending, but we are the ones in control of our attention—one of our most valuable teaching tools.


[image credit: indstate.edu]

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