Assistive Technology Supports for Attention and Focus

By Guest Blogger Cassie Frost

Introduction

Tips for improving concentration: 

  1. Make a list of tasks. 
  2. Take on one task at a time. 
  3. Take On Me was a fun song. 
  4. I found the video. 

Does this sound like you? Or someone you know? Or a learner in your classroom? There may be some challenges with executive functioning which controls attention and focus. What is executive functioning? Let’s dive in:

Executive Functioning

According to an article found on the ASHA website

“Executive functioning- as related to schools- includes all self-management skills students need to succeed in a classroom.  More specifically, it involves the ability to make goals, plan steps required to achieve those goals, and then execute the plans.  For example, attention, focus, planning, organization, working memory, recall, self-regulating emotions, and self monitoring all fall under the umbrella of executive functions”

(Jupiter, 2017).

In order to understand executive functioning and how it affects both kids and adults, we can also use the following definition:

“Executive Functioning is how you get yourself together to do the things you need to do- including learning”

– Frost

Executive functioning includes working memory (memory/processing speed), inhibitory control (attention), and cognitive flexibility (processing/switching).  These each on their own and when interacting with each other can cause delays or challenges in attention, time management, organization, memory, and all other core skills that are required for a student to participate successfully in their school day. 

The 8 areas of executive functioning in the brain: inhibition, shift, external control, initiation, working memory, planning and organizing, task monitoring, and self-monitoring
What is executive functioning?

How Executive Functioning Relates to Attention and Focus

Every area of executive function has a root in attention.  Without successfully being able to attend to the world around them, a student will be unable to remember what they experienced, they will struggle with organizing their environment, and time is unable to be accurately monitored.

Thus, the first step of evaluating and improving executive functioning skills is to look at a student’s ability to attend.

Attention is hierarchical- meaning you must successfully attain one level before attaining the next. 

  • Focused attention- focus on one stimuli (typically developed as an infant).
  • Sustained attention-vigilance & persistence (think about toddlers watching commercials).
  • Selective attention- freedom from distractibility (able to stay focused when other things are going on).
  • Alternating attention- mental flexibility (being able to switch between tasks with significant ease).
  • Divided attention- multitasking (being able to switch between tasks rapidly so as to appear you are paying attention to multiple tasks at the same time).
The five types of attention: Focused, Sustained, Selective, Alternating, and Multitasking
The 5 types of attention

Many students struggle with success in the area of sustained attention, especially as many things battle for their focus at one time.  Marketing agents know this- this is why commercials are short, TikTok is successful, etc.  If a child has not had significant practice in sustaining attention for short periods, gradually extending to longer intervals, they are not going to develop this skill- meaning they then cannot be expected to be successful with selective, alternating, or divided attention.

This is important in classrooms, because as students move into later elementary school, the classroom set up and instructional methods used assume students are able to sustain attention for increasingly long periods of time, ignore distractions from the hallway or their peers, and switch quickly between tasks.  

A good example is note-taking.  In a typical note-taking exercise, students are expected to listen to a teacher while writing down notes about what the teacher is saying for 20-30 minutes.  This assumes that the student has alternating or divided attention.  To listen, pause, write, and return to listening requires multiple shifts in focus and attention.  However, if a student is still struggling with sustained attention or selective attention, it is unreasonable to expect that they can complete this task successfully. 

How Assistive Technology AND Strategies can Help

Assistive technology AND strategies can provide a way for students who struggle with executive functioning to be more successful in getting themselves together to do the things they need to do.

Supports for executive functioning can be provided at the environmental, systematic, instructional, and individual levels.  

These supports can be thought of as a pyramid with environmental supports being the foundation that will help the most and moving up to individual supports that are specific to each individual.

Environmental supports may include things such as a classroom design, windows, and the number of people in a room.  These supports often benefit everyone in this environment in the areas of attention and organization.  However, it is important to note that this may often be one of the most difficult things to change. 

Examples of environmental supports for executive functioning may include:

  • Closing window shades or blinds
  • Limiting distracting visuals at the front of a classroom
  • Closing the classroom door to limit environmental noise
  • Using a white-noise machine 
  • Arranging desks to limit distractions
  • Organizing classroom materials so they are easily located and obtained

Systematic supports may include routines, patterns, schedules, and bells. Changes to systems may support more than one student when they are in place.  Systems provide routine and lesson the load on the executive function system. Sudden change in systems may be inevitable (think fire drills, illness, etc), but with a system of front-loading these changes can be supported.

Examples of systematic supports for executive functioning may include:

  • Visual schedules
  • Routines for common activities such as turning in papers or lining up
  • Consistent locations in the classroom for specific tasks
  • Visual and auditory cues for transitions
  • Calendars and timers

Instructional supports may include cuing phrases, lesson design, and task breakdown.  Instructional supports can be used for all students or they may be added for groups of students.  Instructional supports in the area of executive functioning often is known as “classroom management”, “behavior management”, or “lesson plans”.  

Examples of instructional supports for executive functioning may include:

  • Breaking down long term projects into steps
  • Modeling the steps of a task
  • Visually showing the time available to complete a task
  • Color coding classroom materials
  • Providing a daily agenda or outline

Individual supports may include accommodations, assistive technology, alternative locations, and individual schedules.  Individual supports can be for single students or for groups and must be considerate of the environment and systems the individual is working within. 

Individual supports or assistive technology is incredibly important for individuals who struggle with attention and focus as they are tools and strategies that can be used across environments and throughout a child’s lifespan. 

Examples of individual supports for executive functioning may include:

  • Color coded materials
  • Visual timers
  • Personal schedules
  • Organizational system
  • Note taking tools
  • Calendars
Graphic representing the four types of assistive technology supports for attention and focus: environmental, systemic, instructional and individual
AT Supports for attention and focus

Executive Functioning Supports Can Include Both Low and High Tech Options

Low tech tools:

  • Post it notes
  • Fidgets
  • Highlighters
  • List-based papers (i.e. grocery, task)

High tech tools:

  • iOS/iPad/iPhone 
    • Camera (built in)
    • Hearing (built in) to provide background sound
    • Clock/Timer (built in)
    • Focus (built in)
    • Apps-
      • Countdown (free- shows countdown to dates/times- great for due dates)
      • 360 Thinking ($2.99- Time tracker)
      • Choiceworks ($14.99- visual calendar, to do lists, and more)
      • Forest ($3.99 Stop procrastination and mindless scrolling with Forest. The app shows a tree growing.  If you successfully stay away from your device until the timer is up, you get to keep your tree in a virtual forest)
  • Chrome Extensions
    • Tab Cloud – group tabs and re-open them all together
    • Momenetum– Create a custom page that opens each time a new tab is opened, includes a to-do list, a daily focus, and links
    • Forest– Set allowed websites or blocked websites and then start a timer- the extension shows a tree growing.  If you successfully stay away from blocked sites until the timer is up, you get to keep your tree in a virtual forest.
    • MoveIt– set regular intervals for the extension to remind you to get up and move
    • Tab Snooze– set timers
    • Focus/To Do: Pomodoro Timer & To-Do Lists– set custom timers to complete tasks, reminders to move.

About our Guest Author, Cassie Frost

Cassie Frost is an special education consultant with a background in emotional and behavioral disabilities and assistive technology.  Her passion is helping all students reach their goals and develop a passion for learning.  She believes that every child deserves to feel included, valued, and to have the tools they need to not just get through the day, but to thrive.  You can learn more about Cassie and executive functioning on her website (www.disruptive-teaching.com) and connect with her on Twitter (@cfrost_disteach) or Instagram (@disruptiveteaching)

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