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Teaching Students to Pay Attention: There are Self-Monitoring Apps for That!

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It was a frustrated seventh grader who finally clued me in. “I hear you,” he sniffled, “but you don’t get it. I never learned how to pay attention.” I was co-teacher in his math class, and had been gently (and probably too persistently) reminding him to attend to his teacher, then his peers, then his notes, then his teacher again —asking for his brief attention on me each time I reminded him.

How do we learn the soft skills of success? Who is it that unlocks the multiple levels of metacognition so we can learn to pay attention, listen while taking notes or calm down when we get uncontrollable giggles? Some students seem to be born with these skills; others pick them up by osmosis. But, if you’re like me, your classroom has at least a handful of students whose biggest impediments are not academic skills but the prerequisite skills for “Studenting.”

“Attention” and its various applications seems to top the list of skill deficits holding my students back. Students are distracted by sights, sounds or even their own thoughts. Their brains seem to fade for periods of time, their faces stalled and staring while they “space out.” From the outside, this can look like a choice and cause endless teacher frustration. But, what if I saw a lack of attention as a skill deficit rather than a behavior? If I adjust to see students as lacking skills rather than making bad choices, how would my approach change?

As it turns out, teaching “studenting” (more formally known as “executive functioning”) is harder than it seems. I naturally just knew how to ignore certain things, pay special attention to others and monitor my focus to make adjustments along the way. Delineating these skills into steps or patterns of thought was tough, and what I thought of may not at all match the thoughts or needs of my students.

What did work, however, was to first sell students on the need for improvements (“Hey! Wouldn’t it be nice to not be in trouble all the time?”) then hit them where they already live: in their iPads and phones.


The first group of apps my students and I explored helped students manage their independent work time. The free Focus Keeper app was designed to support the Pomodoro Method, which separates focused work time into twenty-or-so minute periods, with short breaks in between.

After a few rounds of focus time and breaks, the user is prompted to take a longer break. The app can run in the background while students continue to work on their devices, but it will make a clock ticking sound if you don’t adjust the settings. (Leave the sound low, if possible, so students can hear the quick bell to indicate break time). My students were initially excited to be allowed to take breaks, and they eagerly jumped into using Focus Keeper.

My first rookie move was illuminated 23, 24.5, 26, 22 minutes later, when each of their timers alerted them to take breaks — at different times. Needless to say, we moved to a single class timer after that! The app counts down the time and shows a visual of the time decreasing, which one student said helped him realize what twenty minutes felt like.

One uber-pragmatic student, however, wondered aloud why a teacher would allow students time “off” a task and chose not to take the breaks at first. After a few days and some reflection, he conceded that breaks helped him feel less tired. “It doesn’t make sense at first, but it’s true,” he said, “I get more done when I give myself break time.”

Another group of apps fell into the “brain training” category. These free apps claim to boost memory and other brain functions; they’re game-based, and most of them track progress over time, motivating students to beat their old scores. The idea is that if a student can practice focus using an app, he or she will be able to extend that improvement to other areas of life. These brain training apps also attempt to improve working memory, which is tied closely to successful attention in class. There are countless apps in the brain training category, so choosing them was my first hurdle. And ok, ok, I kind of got lost playing the games in the apps. I allowed my students to choose from a list of apps I had checked out ahead of time (and made sure were able to get past the district’s download restrictions). Here are their top choices:

  • Numbers Flow is an app for Apple devices that asks users to tap numbers scattered across the screen in ascending order. The students enjoyed beating their own scores and excelling at something challenging.
  • Peak, Elevate, and Fit Brains Trainer allow students to choose their goal areas for growth, with options like problem solving, memory, and attention. Elevate even has a baseline assessment to personalize student games. I found these apps to be most appealing to students who truly want to improve in their areas of deficit. Students who were looking for more fun were likely to desert the apps when they required students engage with their deficit skills. I could almost always tell which type of game certain students were on when they started arguing with their iPads. Each of these apps is available for Android or Apple, all with free versions or the option to upgrade for a fee.

While I am thrilled with the excitement and growth mindsets of students seeing themselves as capable of improving, a question still lingers: will these apps be effective in supporting and improving student attention all year? Brain research shows that new, novel experiences command more attention and provide the brain with the chemicals matching higher levels of stimulation. Are these apps helping extend my students’ attention spans, or am I capitalizing on the flood of neurotransmitters that exciting things bring?


Maybe these questions point us to something else we’ve missed when demanding students pay attention: technology, and its high levels of stimulation, may be a teacher’s best tool in harnessing and maintaining student attention.

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