Strategies for calm and focused classrooms

The ability to remain focused on a particular activity for a required amount of time is no mean feat. Classrooms especially are busy and noisy environments, which lead to many distractions.

Stuart Shanker (a research professor at York University, Toronto) firmly believes that Canadian children do not know what being calm feels like and I firmly believe the same is true across the globe. He maintained that there is too much stimulation in their daily lives and that children are dealing with an overwhelming amount of stress. He defined stress as “anything that makes the brain burn excess energy”.  Research constantly shows us that when a child’s brain is overloaded, the thinking part shuts down and the primitive brain takes over, moving the child into a more instinctive fight-or-flight mode. The trick is then to be able to calm the child down and get them thinking again. The child has to learn what is causing the stress and how to avoid or deal with it in the future.

Concentration abilities are dependent on one’s alertness levels. Each child functions at a different level of alertness, some children need more sensory input to stay alert and focused, while others need less in order to function optimally in the classroom. The ability to maintain the ‘just right’ alertness level is maintained and monitored by our ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation is the ability to process information from inside and outside the body, and then to control the response in an appropriate way to that information. Self-regulation affects more than one area of functioning at a time – thinking affects emotion and emotion affects our ability to think. Self-regulation is vital for maintaining optimal alertness levels for a given task. Each one goes through peaks and lows in levels of attention, emotion and motivation on a daily basis. Children need to learn, with the help of adults, how to make sure that their engines are running at the right pace.

WAYS TO HELP CHILDREN WITH SELF-REGULATION AND CONCENTRATION

  1. ALLOW FOR MOVEMENT AND MOVEMENT BREAKS

    • Taking a break to hand out or collect books, erase the board, sharpen pencils for the class or to take a message to the office can help children stay alert and focused.
    • Sitting on a move and sit cushion.
    • A quick action dance or stretching exercise is done by the whole class can allow for up to 45 minutes of focused and constructive work by all the children.
  1. ALLOW CHILDREN TO SIP OR CHEW
    Allowing children to sip cold water or chew crunchy foods (nuts, apples, popcorn, carrots, pretzels) when alertness levels are low will help them to ‘wake up’ the brain and be ready to continue with the task at hand. Chewing on chewy food like dried fruit, Fizzer sweets or gum is very calming as the resistive chewing action brings into play proprioception in the mouth and jaw.  For sipping water, sports bottles with spouts allow for increased muscle work around the mouth. Cold water is always more alerting than a warm drink, orange juice is more alerting than a sweet drink. Resistive sucking is a great way to calm the nervous system –  use straws to drink liquids, yoghurts or milkshakes.
  1. HAVE A QUIET CORNER
    This allows for the overwhelmed child to go to a quiet space where he or she can calm their overloaded sensory system. Place soft toys, cushions, headphones and books there.
  1. REMOVE VISUAL DISTRACTIONS
    Clutter in a classroom or on a desk can make it very difficult for a child to remain focused on the task at hand. If the children sit in clusters at their desks, desk partitions can help with keeping the child focused during work time. Sitting at the front of the classroom will also help lessen distractions by other children in the class.
  1. HAVE A BOX OF FIDGET TOYS AVAILABLE FOR CHILDREN TO CHOOSE FROM
    Fidget toys are small objects that can be squeezed, pulled or moved as the child sits and listens at his desk. Examples include stress balls, Theraband, aquarium tubing, stringed beads, bendable toys, Prestik, paper clips, elastic bands, Silly putty, pipe cleaners and plastic bracelets. It is important to set very clear rules as to the use of fidget toys in the classroom. Using a fidget toy can be a great way to redirect a child’s need to move and allow them to be more focused and attentive in the classroom.
  1. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, USE DEEP PRESSURE AND BREATHING ACTIVITIES
    ‘Heavy work’ brings the proprioceptive system into play, and it is the system that without a doubt will calm, organize and alert the whole nervous system in order to focus and pay attention in the classroom. Examples of heavy work activities for the classroom:

    • Wall push-ups
    • Theraband tied to the legs of chairs
    • Weighted vest or blanket
    • Carrying a weighted backpack (e.g. put telephone directories or a brick in the bag)
    • Move a chair to another workstation
    • Move classroom furniture when rearranging seating options
    • Using a slanting board for desk work
    • Chair push-ups
    • Blowing bubbles and balloons
    • Animal walks – crab, bear, wriggle like a snake
    • Pressing hands together

It is a sad reality, but it is vital for children to learn to identify what causes stress and to manage it better, even at a young age. Emotional and behavioural self-regulation leads to improved focus & concentration, a better ability to share & take turns, and the ability to keep calm under pressure and it is a wonderful way to develop independence.

Annabella Sequeira holds a BSc (Occupational Therapy) degree from the University of Cape Town, backed by 22 years experience in both the public and private sectors.  She has extensive practical experience in the area of Sensory Integrative Dysfunction in children and is passionate about empowering others to improve functionality and quality of life.