The ability to learn relates directly to paying attention and focus. So what is the distinction between these two cognitive skills? Attention is a natural function of the body because individuals are constantly in a state of paying attention to different aspects of the environment.”  Mankind has survived due to the ability to shift attention to promote safety, so by its nature, attention is fleeting.  According to social psychologist, Robert Cialdini, “Research on cognitive functioning shows that when attention is paid to something, the price is attention lost to something else.  . . the human mind appears to be able to hold onto one thing in conscious awareness at a time.”

So before any learning occurs, the teacher must create a suitable environment limiting the number of distractions.  While much is beyond the teacher’s control, like loud traffic or construction noises near the school, some sound proofing is possible. “The evidence is clear that disrupting noise still gets in, reducing the ability to learn.” And aside from audible distractions, visible stimuli can also hinder learning. Although many elementary level teachers take time to decorate their classrooms with attractive posters and artwork, these well-intentioned displays  can also “reduce test scores of young children learning science.”  

Therefore, before teaching content, the teacher should help students with the cognitive skills of paying attention.  In the classroom setting, teachers may be able to control some environmental factors: Seating arrangements, noise reduction materials, calming wall colors, and even tone of voice.  Paying attention is the first step to a positive learning environment. Once this occurs, the next step is practice in  focused attention. “Focus requires paying attention to something for an extended period of time while tuning out other stimuli. It is an act of will rather than reflex and a skill that is learned and improved with practice rather than innate.”

Teachers can find available valuable resources to help students learn focused or sustained attention. The list below offers a few suggestions: 

Unfortunately, this academic year poses unique challenges.  When students are “Zooming” or sitting in front of a screen, the teacher has little or no control over the home environment. How effective is group screen learning?  The best the teacher can do is advise the parents to provide a quiet, calm area.  Adults at home with the students need to prioritize students’ ability to learn.  Designate a quiet space with no outside interference that can include siblings, television, and other media.  And try to provide opportunities when the computer or tablet is off to learn  how to pay attention.  

Laura Maniglia