Pay Attention! Real-life, brain-friendly strategies for success

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What does paying attention look like?

Welcome to the EFP. I’m your host, Sarah Kesty, and today we’re talking about attention. Not the kind that comes naturally or you want to give freely, but the kind we ask kids to pay. Today I’m going to teach you quick strategies to improve your child’s attention and improve your understanding of your child’s brain!

I want to begin by telling you about a few students I’ve had. I’ll start with Ian (and by the way, I always change student names to keep them private). Ian was probably the first kid you’d notice in his classroom because he was the one in constant motion. There are lots of metaphors out there for kids like Ian, some of which are helpful, some of which are not, but Ian and I agreed that his motor ran really quickly. (I borrowed this from therapists whose work I had read). Ian needed to move his body. That was his primary focus, so that’s where his attention went. Even when he instructed his own brain to “pay attention,” his attention would eventually shift back to his need to move. When your regulatory system needs something, it will persist until the need is met. This served us well in terms of human history, as we were driven to do things like eat and seek shelter from extreme temperatures. When I began to work with Ian, he explained that he was motivated and did try…it was just that if he stopped moving, he had to use all of his focus to keep thinking “stop moving.” Staying still stole his brain. And here’s where we can decide which path to take to improve his attention: continue to push him to conform and be still with his body OR help him strategize the struggle. You know which one we chose!

Ian didn’t need to stop moving. He needed to find ways to get his movement needs met while blending into the classroom. For him, sometimes that meant having something to hold in his hand and move around while he listened to his teacher. Sometimes it meant asking for a break to go outside and move in bigger ways before coming back in to “pay attention.” And sometimes it meant he needed to stand up during a lesson—a solution his teacher was reluctant to accept, until we agreed Ian would stand in a taped-out square in the back of the room. It took some thought massage, but his teacher finally agreed that having Ian stand meant Ian was able to learn and not bother others—much better than all the arguing with him about just sitting still. Strategizing the struggle solved Ian’s immediate issue—his need to move—and showed the adults around him that he didn’t have a problem “paying attention.” He had difficulty paying attention in the limited ways presented to him.

Another student I was lucky to coach was Aleah. She was a student whose chill approach meant that she often blended in very, very well—and her struggle stayed well hidden. Aleah was quiet and compliant. She did about a third of her work in class and didn’t meet the academic benchmarks like her peers, but she was so sweet and good at playing school that she was socially promoted from grade to grade. And this is not to slam her teachers. Every year her teachers would ask for a student study team meeting (your district may call it something else; basically, it’s a meeting with school staff and parents to explore support options for kids, including special education). But, teachers were usually met with resistance from the school system, often along the lines of “she probably won’t qualify for special ed, so don’t waste your time.” Helping students succeed is never a waste of time, so I was really excited when Aleah’s parents reached out to me for support! Aleah was also struggling with “paying attention” but her struggle looked much different from Ian’s. Aleah was going within her own head, to find greater stimulation from her own thoughts and imagination than what was happening in class. There were also moments when, as Aleah described it, her brain would “put itself on a break,” and she would stare into space. Aleah needed to strategize the struggle too!

For Aleah, we first had to establish ways for her to attend to her system—that is, to recognize when she was running low on focus juice and starting to stare or wander in her mind. She was okay with having a secret system where her teacher would walk near her desk or even gently touch her shoulder to bring her back to learning. *Note: I never, ever recommend calling the student out, shaming, or embarrassing them. They need a cue, not a bully* When her teacher prompted her (on the sly, remember), she would circle on a pre-made sticky note what the lesson was, how her body felt, and what she was doing when her brain fell out of the lesson. This was in an effort to  increase her self-awareness, not get her in trouble. It helped create a set of data that she could look back on to see if she could find any patterns. It empowered her to own her struggle. Aleah decided that her brain wandered or took a break when it was asked to sit and listen for too long. She also realized that she did better with teachers who moved around, varied their voices, or gave quick breaks for students to talk about their learning. Aleah was able to use a little timer in her pocket that would vibrate every 5 minutes. This was her cue to check where her attention was. If she was off track, it gave her a chance to get back on track. If she was on track, she got to mark that on her sticky note—so she could celebrate at the end of the week!

Both of these students struggled to “pay attention” in different ways. But the one thing they have in common with all kids who struggle to pay attention is that their challenges came from adults expecting them to just “pay attention” without working with their brains. The first step to improving your child’s attention is to challenge your own assumptions about attentionTake some time to reflect on these ideas:

What does paying attention look like to you?

How can you tell someone is paying attention to you?

Are there times you struggle to pay attention? What do you do to get back on track?

How do you avoid things that are hard to pay attention to?

Does paying attention look different in different places? When you’re emotionally involved or upset?

Likely you’re picking up on my point by now. It’s another chapter in the book of “Adults Expecting Kids to Do Better Than We Actually Do.” Because I can answer those questions and realize that my “paying attention” in the classical sense could use some work. For example, I know that time-period books or fantasy movies are just not interesting to me, which makes them hard for me to pay attention to. So, what do I do? I avoid them. Yet, we expect our kids to stay engaged with every topic, every teaching style, no matter what. I also know I struggle to pay attention when I’m upset and thinking about something else. Or if I’m super tired—my brain starts to remind me of Ian’s, and I realize that my thoughts are repeating, “don’t fall asleep” instead of actually listening or attending.

So, what can we do to help our kids who will still be expected to “pay attention” in old school ways?

This week, I’m challenging you to help your child befriend their brains. Gently prompt your child to reflect when he is hyper focused or when he’s struggling to attend. See if you can work together to track trends and recognize needs. If your child needs to move like Ian, help him find ways to do so that blend in in class. If your child runs low on focus juice like Aleah, see what she can do to track her focus and boost herself when she needs to. Getting your child on board as their own brain detective helps you find solutions that will actually work and helps remind your child that there are so many ways to strategize the struggle without ever giving up! I’ll have some prompt questions for you to get the conversation going linked at

Before we go into this week’s pep talk, I want to share one more student story with you…brought to you by every well-intended-but-off-base family member ever. And it starts with something like this, “Your kid doesn’t have a problem paying attention. I’ve seen him so focused on his {video game, YouTube channel, Social Media}. He just needs to try harder.” Ahem. Your family member is noticing a moment of intense focus—proving your child indeed has the ability to “pay attention.” But words like these fail to acknowledge that the ability to focus comes from brain chemicals, which are known to be produced in much higher quantities when something is highly stimulating, like a video game. Think about our own lives, you may space out at a long meeting but 15 minutes later come alive again, with great focus, at happy hour with a friend. If someone has “attention problems,” it usually indicates that it’s difficult to regulate their own attention—it doesn’t mean they never pay attention. Just like those of us who don’t identify with having attention problems are not always “paying attention” in the same ways in all settings. Okay, off the soapbox.

Time for this week’s pep talk.

 Hey Kid,

Hope you’re having a great week so far. I just talked to your grown up about attention. Like paying attention. Ugh. I know. I bet people say that to you all the time. But has anyone shown you any strategies on how to pay attention? It’s so tricky, especially in school, where things can get boring and you’re not allowed to move, right?

Well, your grown up is thinking differently now and may be asking you some questions about how your brain and body pay attention. This week, I want you to see if you can find a couple times in class or in life where paying attention is really easy…and then some times that are really tricky. What do you notice about the easy times? Is your body moving or still—or maybe that doesn’t make a big difference. Maybe it’s easier to pay attention when your teacher switches things up and you get to watch a video, take notes, and do partner work. Or, maybe it’s easier when it’s something interesting to your brain? Be detective this week!

Paying attention is one of those old school expectations that adults still have. They usually expect you to sit still, for a long time, and not talk. I know this is hard. Truth is, it’s hard for your teachers to do too. But, if you know what they expect, then you can start thinking of ways to make this work for you—like ways to move so your body feels fresh still or ways to keep your brain “on,” like drawing while you listen. You’re the best detective for this job! And once you figure it out, chances are you’ll be teaching your teachers how to be better for all students!

We’ll talk more about attention in other shows too. But for now, remember to keep track of your own attention this week. And share what you notice with your grown up.

You truly have all my love! Have a great week!