In this issue of SENCO Week, Linda Evans suggests some ways of helping pupils to concentrate, and also how to develop memory skills, with advice for SENCOs and teachers

Getting children to sit still and pay attention is an important component of establishing an effective learning environment, but for children with SEN, this can be a particular issue.

Support for SENCOs

Many referrals you receive from colleagues will stem from pupils being unable to ‘sit still and listen’. A fidgety child can disrupt the class, distract the teacher and seriously undermine other pupils’ learning opportunities as well as their own. If you can provide help in the initial stages, you may be able to prevent the situation from getting worse and having a negative impact on all concerned.

Identifying the underlying causes of poor attention skills can help. Consider whether the child may have:

  • hearing loss
  • receptive language problems
  • ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)
  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
  • autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • emotional problems (with younger children this can stem from something as common as having a new baby).

Whatever the reason for inattentiveness, however, there are some generic approaches that can help to address the problem, and these are listed below (see Support for teachers below). Helping children to develop better visual and auditory memory can also play an important part in any intervention programme – and you can enlist the help of parents and other family members in this; they usually love playing the games and are appreciative of being told about effective ways of supporting their children. A workshop session can be an enjoyable way of sharing ideas with families; back this up with an aide-memoire sheet to take away.

Activites to help develop memory

  • Kim’s game Place 4, 5 or 6 items on a tray and remove one at a time while the child closes their eyes. They must then tell you what is missing. Increase the number of items as appropriate.
  • Matching pairs Place picture, letter or number cards face down on the table − children must take turns to turn over two at a time and collect matching pairs.
  • Look at a picture for 30 seconds (or longer) and then describe what was on it/answer questions about it.
  • Play ‘I went to market and I bought/ I packed my suitcase and put in…’ etc.
  • Repeat nursery rhymes, poems, songs, drum beats, number sequences.
  • Arrange coloured counters, toy cars, beads in a certain order or pattern; cover with cloth and ask child to duplicate the formation.
  • Practise a simple dance sequence or action rhyme.

Support for teachers

If sitting still is a problem in itself for some pupils. Try to consider the following first.

  • Comfort – sitting on the carpet for long periods of time is not always conducive to paying attention. Check the size and height of chairs. Allow children to visit the toilet.
  • Crowding – also pertinent to ‘carpet time’, especially for children with ASD who need their own space.
  • Giving a cushion to ‘anchor’ a child to one spot.
  • Providing some sort of ‘stress reliever’ for the child to hold

Then, to further develop good attention skills, try the following.

  • Make it explicit what ‘good listening’ really is.
  • Minimise distractions – place the child where they can’t see through a window or an open door.
  • Allow/encourage your pupils to drink water
  • Give praise for attentive looking and listening
  • Keep instructions short and avoiding talking for long periods
  • Use visual back up
  • Vary activities
  • Give notice before asking a question, such as ‘listen carefully now because I’m going to ask a question and I may be asking you to give me an answer’
  • Provide targets for attention spans; use a timer and reward the child if he has paid attention until the sand runs out/bell rings etc. Increase the time little by little.

There are various resources on the market for helping to develop good listening skills, including software programmes. Take a look at ‘Listen Up’ books and CDs and ‘Eye Track’ from Semerc.

Encouraging and helping children to remember their routines and what they have learned is also important.

1) Use visual aids for instructions as much as possible and fit in regular practice. For setting out maths work, for example, display a good, large-format model on the wall.

2) Remembering what has been learned relies on the child properly understanding in the first place – check on this whenever possible, relating new material to what is already known/experienced. Revisit new subject areas soon after they are introduced and continue to remind children of the main points. VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) learning will always have more ‘staying power’ − see it, hear it, do it/try it out/make it.

3) For factual information that needs to be reproduced for tests and exams, use mind maps, key words, spidergrams, and diagrams to aid visual memory – with the addition of colour to encourage links. Use recorded sequences and talking books, for example, to aid auditory memory.

4) Also use mnemonics – little rhymes to help children to recall related facts e.g. for remembering Henry VIII’s Wives:

Aragon Boleyn Seymour Cleaves Howard Parr
Angry bull sees cow hurtle past

(Get childen to visualise this as a cartoon)

and this was their fate:

Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2009

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.