School-Wide Strategies for Managing... OFF-TASK / INATTENTION

Students who have chronic difficulties paying attention in class face the risk of poor grades and even school failure. Inattention may be a symptom of an underlying condition such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. However, teachers should not overlook other possible explanations for student off-task behavior. It may be, for example, that a student who does not seem to be paying attention is actually mismatched to instruction (the work is too hard or too easy) or preoccupied by anxious thoughts. Or the student may be off-task because the teacher's lesson was poorly planned or presented in a disorganized manner. It is also important to remember that even children with ADHD are influenced by factors in their classroom setting and that these students' level of attention is at least partly determined by the learning environment. Teachers who focus on making their instruction orderly, predictable, and highly motivating find that they can generally hold the attention of most of their students most of the time. Here are some ideas to consider to boost rates of student attending and on-task behavior:

  • Capture Students' Attention Before Giving Directions (Ford, Olmi, Edwards, & Tingstrom, 2001; Martens & Kelly, 1993). Gain the student's attention before giving directions and use other strategies to ensure the student's full understanding of them. When giving directions to an individual student, call the student by name and establish eye contact before providing the directions. When giving directions to the whole class, use group alerting cues such as 'Eyes and ears on me!' to gain the class's attention. Wait until all students are looking at you and ready to listen before giving directions. When you have finished giving directions to the entire class, privately approach any students who appear to need assistance. Quietly restate the directions to them and have them repeat the directions back to you as a check for understanding.
  • Class Participation: Keep Students Guessing (Heward, 1994). Students attend better during large-group presentations if they cannot predict when they will be required to actively participate. Randomly call on students, occasionally selecting the same student twice in a row or within a short time span. Or pose a question to the class, give students 'wait time' to formulate an answer, and then randomly call on a student.
  • Employ Proximity Control (Ford, Olmi, Edwards, & Tingstrom, 2001; Gettinger & Seibert, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Students typically increase their attention to task and show improved compliance when the teacher is in close physical proximity. During whole-group activities, circulate around the room to keep students focused. To hold an individual student's attention, stand or sit near the student before giving directions or engaging in discussion.
  • Give Clear Directions (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002; Gettinger, 1988). Students will better understand directions when those directions are delivered in a clear manner, expressed in language the student understands, given at a pace that does not overwhelm the student, and posted for later review. When giving multi-step directions orally, write those directions on the board or give to students as a handout to consult as needed. State multi-step directions one direction at a time and confirm that the student is able to comply with each step before giving the next direction.
  • Give Opportunities for Choice (Martens & Kelly, 1993; Powell & Nelson, 1997). Allowing students to exercise some degree of choice in their instructional activities can boost attention span and increase academic engagement. Make a list of 'choice' options that you are comfortable offering students during typical learning activities. During independent seatwork, for example, you might routinely let students choose where they sit, allow them to work alone or in small groups, or give them 2 or 3 different choices of assignment selected to be roughly equivalent in difficulty and learning objectives.
  • Instruct at a Brisk Pace (Carnine, 1976; Gettinger & Seibert, 2002). When students are appropriately matched to instruction, they are likely to show improved on-task behavior when they are taught at a brisk pace rather than a slow one. To achieve a brisk pace of instruction, make sure that you are fully prepared prior to the lesson and that you minimize the time spent on housekeeping items such as collecting homework or on transitions from one learning activity to another.
  • Make the Activity Stimulating (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Students require less conscious effort to remain on-task when they are engaged in high-interest activities. Make instruction more interesting by choosing a specific lesson topic that you know will appeal to students (e.g., sports, fashion). Or help students to see a valuable 'real-word' pay-off for learning the material being taught. Another tactic is to make your method of instruction more stimulating. Students who don't learn well in traditional lecture format may show higher rates of engagement when interacting with peers (cooperative learning) or when allowed the autonomy and self-pacing of computer-delivered instruction.
  • Pay Attention to the On-Task Student (DuPaul & Ervin, 1996; Martens & Meller, 1990). Teachers who selectively give students praise and attention only when those students are on-task are likely to find that these students show improved attention in class as a result. When you have a student who is often off-task, make an effort to identify those infrequent times when the student is appropriately focused on the lesson and immediately give the student positive attention. Examples of teacher attention that students will probably find positive include verbal praise and encouragement, approaching the student to check on how he or she is doing on the assignment, and friendly eye contact.
  • Provide a Quiet Work Area (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Distractible students benefit from a quiet place in the classroom where they can go when they have more difficult assignments to complete. A desk or study carrel in the corner of the room can serve as an appropriate workspace. When introducing these workspaces to students, stress that the quiet locations are intended to help students to concentrate. Never use areas designated for quiet work as punitive 'time-out' spaces, as students will then tend to avoid them.
  • Provide Attention Breaks (DuPaul & Ervin, 1996; Martens & Meller, 1990). If students find it challenging to stay focused on independent work for long periods, allow them brief 'attention breaks'. Contract with students to give them short breaks to engage in a preferred activity each time that they have finished a certain amount of work. For example, a student may be allowed to look at a favorite comic book for 2 minutes each time that he has completed five problems on a math worksheet and checked his answers. Attention breaks can refresh the student –and also make the learning task more reinforcing.
  • Reduce Length of Assignments (DuPaul & Ervin, 1996; U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Students' attention may drift when completing overly long assignments. For new material, trim assignments to the minimum length that you judge will ensure student understanding. When having students practice skills or review previously taught material, break that review into a series of short assignments rather than one long assignment to help to sustain interest and engagement.
  • Schedule Challenging Tasks for Peak Attention Times (Brock, 1998). Many students with limited attention can focus better in the morning, when they are fresh. Schedule those subjects or tasks that the student finds most difficult early in the day. Save easier subjects or tasks for later in the day, when the student's attention may start to wane.
  • Select Activities That Require Active Student Responding (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002; Heward, 1994). When students are actively engaged in an activity, they are more likely to be on-task. Avoid long stretches of instructional time in which students sit passively listening to a speaker. Instead, program your instructional activities so that students must frequently 'show what they know' through some kind of active [visible] response. For example, you might first demonstrate a learning strategy to students and then divide the class into pairs and have students demonstrate the strategy to each other while you observe and evaluate.
  • Transition Quickly (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002; Gettinger, 1988). When students transition quickly between educational activities and avoid instructional 'dead time', their attention is less likely to wander. Train students to transition appropriately by demonstrating how they should prepare for common academic activities, such as group lecture and independent seatwork. Have them practice these transitions, praising the group for timely and correct performance. Provide additional 'coaching' to individual students as needed. During daily instruction, verbally alert students several minutes before a transition to another activity is to occur.
  • Use Advance Organizers (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). One strategy to improve on-task behavior is to give students a quick overview of the activities planned for the instructional period or day. This 'advance organizer' provides students with a mental schedule of the learning activities, how those activities interrelate, important materials needed for specific activities, and the amount of time set aside for each activity. All students benefit when the teacher uses advance organizers. However inattentive students especially benefit from this overview of learning activities, as the advance organizer can prompt, mentally prepare, and focus these students on learning right when they most need it.
  • Use Preferential Seating (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Seating the student near the teacher is one tried-and-true method to increase on-task behavior. Preferential seating simply means that you seat the student in a location where he or she is most likely to stay focused on what you are teaching. Remember that all teachers have an 'action zone', a part of the room where they tend to focus most of their instruction. Once you have analyzed your 'action zone' as a teacher, place the student's seat somewhere within that zone. Of course, the ideal seating location for any particular student will vary, depending on the unique qualities of the target student and of your classroom. When selecting preferential seating, consider whether the student might be self-conscious about sitting right next to the teacher. Also, try to select a seat location that avoids other distractions. For example, you may want to avoid seating the student by a window or next to a talkative classmate.


  • Brock, S.E.(1998, February). Helping the student with ADHD in the classroom Strategies for teachers. Communiqué, 26 (5), 18-20.
  • Carnine, D.W. (1976). Effects of two teacher presentation rates on off-task behavior, answering correctly, and participation. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 9, 199-206.
  • DuPaul, G.J., & Ervin, R.A. (1996). Functional assessment of behaviors related to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Linking assessment to intervention design. Behavior Therapy, 27, 601-622.
  • Ford, A. D., Olmi, D. J., Edwards, R. P., & Tingstrom, D. H. (2001). The sequential introduction of compliance training components with elementary-aged children in general education classroom settings. School Psychology Quarterly, 16, 142-157.
  • Gettinger, M. (1988). Methods of proactive classroom management. School Psychology Review, 17, 227-242.
  • Gettinger, M., & Seibert, J.K. (2002). Best practices in increasing academic learning time. In A. Thomas (Ed.), Best practices in school psychology IV: Volume I (4th ed., pp. 773-787). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Heward, W.L. (1994). Three 'low-tech' strategies for increasing the frequency of active student response during group instruction. In R.Gardner III, D.M.Sainato, J.O.Cooper, T.E.Heron, W.L.Heward, J.Eshleman, & T.A.Grossi (Eds.), Behavior analysis in education: Focus on measurably superior instruction (pp. 283-320). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • Martens, B.K. & Kelly, S.Q. (1993). A behavioral analysis of effective teaching. School Psychology Quarterly, 8, 10-26.
  • Martens, B.K., & Meller, P.J. (1990). The application of behavioral principles to educational settings. In T.B. Gutkin & C.R.Reynolds (Eds.), The handbook of school psychology (2nd ed.) (pp. 612-634). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Powell, S., & Nelson, B. (1997). Effects of choosing academic assignments on a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 181-183.
  • U.S. Department of Education (2004). Teaching children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: Instructional strategies and practices. Retrieved August 20, 2005, from

Jim's Hints

ADHD Inattentive Type Fact Sheet. This handout addresses frequently asked questions about the inattentive type of ADHD. The handout was created by CHADD: Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. (

Children's Health Topics: ADHD. Sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics, this page contains links to ADHD topics such as establishing and evaluating a treatment plan for children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

Teaching Children With ADHD: Instructional Strategies. Published by the U.S. Department of Education, this 22-page booklet has great ideas to manage the academic and behavioral needs of children with attention problems.