Strategies for Getting Students Back on Track

Daphne Heflin
Daphne Heflin
Elementary school principal; Ed.S. in Educational Leadership and Administration
Teacher helping a young boy at his desk writing in a notebook.

In Educational Leadership’s “What Brain Research Says About Paying Attention,” Sylwester and Cho posted, “An effective attentional system must be able to (1) quickly identify and focus on the most important item in a complex environment; (2) sustain attention on its focus while monitoring related information and ignoring other stimuli; (3) access memories that aren’t currently active, but that could be relevant to the current focus; and (4) shift attention quickly when important new information arrives.”

Educators are continually working to manage all students’ attentional systems in their classrooms, so each can work in an environment conducive to learning and grow academically. Given the components of an effective brain-based system for paying attention, the task is no small feat.

We, adults, have engaged in experiences in which we get off track; we occasionally struggle to pay attention, focus, recall, or connect. Students struggle from time to time with getting off track too. The problem with getting off track is that learning is negatively affected. However, there are strategies useful in getting students back on track or bringing them back to attention.

How and Why Do Students Get Off Track

Students get off track for various reasons. When talking about a student’s inability to pay attention, we tend to immediately think the child may have diagnosable issues like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. However, for many students, getting off track results from environmental, emotional, or physical problems that are momentary or short-lived.

Examples of environmental issues that may contribute to disruptions in a student’s ability to pay attention include low lighting, environmental noises and activity, and uncomfortable temperatures. Emotional issues having undesirable effects might include fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, grief, sadness, boredom, and the like. Finally, short-lived physical issues that impact students’ abilities to pay attention include hunger, ill-fitting clothes, body aches, thirst, and others.

How Does it Affect Classroom Learning?

  1. Young in “Encouragement in the Classroom” explains that, “students learn better when they view the learning environment as positive and supportive.” The learning environment changes from a secure place with positive collaboration, support, and unhindered instruction when students become inattentive, disruptive, and behaviorally challenged. Students who get off track may display disruptive behaviors, attention-seeking or power-seeking behaviors, or become silent, anti-social, uncooperative, or defiant. Behaviors like these disturb the focus and attention of the teacher and other students. Such behaviors, upon escalation, threaten the emotional security of others, which adversely impacts learning.

Strategies for Getting Back on Track

Since our purpose is educating students, we cannot afford hindrances in their learning; therefore, we must employ strategies to get students back on track. Narrating the positive, taking brain breaks, assigning roles or delegating responsibilities, conducting one-on-one conversations, and modeling self-regulating strategies are among some of the ideas educators can use to get students back on track.

Narrating the positive means a teacher visually and verbally recognizes the positive actions and responses of students. Often, this is a signal to off-task students and a reminder of what they should be doing. For example, if students should be sitting but three (Joe, Jane, Smitty) are standing, the teacher can notice and verbally say, “Thank you, Sarah and Mark, for sitting and waiting on my next direction.” Joe, Jane, and Smitty hear that the expectation most appreciated is for students to be sitting, and they hear that Sarah and Mark are modeling the desired behavior.

Brain breaks are brief periods in which students can stand and physically move for a given period or number of repetitions. For example, after 15 minutes of academic work, the teacher allows students to dance free-style for 2 minutes or to do 20 jumping jacks.

For students who need power and attention, teachers can delegate specific responsibilities ahead of class time. For example, if Adam regularly disrupts class because he wants to be in charge, the teacher can give him the role of table leader who passes out learning materials.

One-on-one conversations are practical and most effective when they are intentionally crafted and timed. They are emotionally satisfying when supportive. Even when a conversation requires a student’s correction, the ultimate message should convey that the other person matters.

Finally, self-regulating strategies include recognizing when one is off task and taking action to get back on track. For example, when a child loses his/her place in a study guide, he/she recognizes he/she is off track then responds by raising a hand and asking for help. Self-regulating strategies must be modeled and practiced before they become automatic. Automaticity is vital in decreasing disruptions when self-regulating to get back on track.

Getting off track is something we all experience, but it’s something that doesn’t have to impact learning negatively. It is something that we cannot allow to change learning environments and outcomes. Learning is a precious outcome for our most valuable commodities, our children. They deserved to learn unhindered.

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