Processing information efficiently requires students to maintain focus for appropriate periods of time. Processing success is determined, in part, by a student’s ability to sustain the level of attention that is right for each task. Focal maintenance helps students match their attention span to the amount of time needed to process specific information or accomplish a given task. Students with strong focal maintenance are able to concentrate for as long as necessary. They are also able to monitor and control their focus, so they can adjust their concentration as demands change, e.g., when changing from one topic to another, transitioning from group work to individual work, etc.
Here are some strategies for improving focal maintenance.
- Make explicit statements to cue students about upcoming task changes that will require a shift in focus, for example, “You’ll need to concentrate really hard for the next 5 minutes, then you’ll get a break,” or “In 10 minutes it will be time to put your social studies away, and get out your math books.” Keep a schedule of activities on the board for students reference.
- Provide opportunities for students to estimate the amount of focused time they will need in order to do a task adequately. Provide them with a task analysis template (e.g. a blank timeline or graphic web) that they can individualize to the task, recording their estimation of the time they will need to focus in order to complete the task.
- Encourage students to plan back-up strategies when the duration of a task does not match the time they estimated for completion, e.g., they might ask to do some problems in class, and to finish the remaining problems at home.
- Encourage students to self-monitor, to think about how well they are doing during and just after a task. Techniques for self-monitoring may include stopping to summarize after each paragraph during reading, or stopping to check calculations after each line during math. Teach students to complete the most difficult parts of a task when they are in focus, take a break, and then begin again.
- To help students to prioritize information, have the class focus on important information and tasks for longer periods of time, and spend less time on easier or less important information.
- Let students use computer software or games to extend focal maintenance in areas of high interest. Follow up these activities by asking students to spend the same amount of focused time on more academic tasks in class.