Do you know what it looks like when your child has completely tuned you out? I do. Dead stare straight ahead, barely blinking, barely even breathing. Sometimes I throw soft objects at them to get their attention. Sometimes they just flat refuse to do their school work. This is the moment that I am forced to choose between being the bigger person, and entering into an epic power struggle to attempt to regain control. I usually choose the high road. This means I have to acknowledge that what we are doing is just not working.
One of the first things I do when getting to know my students is to watch facial expressions and body language while they are working. I want to get to know their signs that tell me when they are losing focus or interest. There might be subtle changes in posture, tensing of facial muscles, staring off into space, or verbal expressions of frustration. When I see these signs, I determine whether they need assistance or a complete shift in activity. Every student has different cues, different needs when they get to this point, and varying abilities to rein it back in.
Exhaustion and/or boredom can set in pretty quickly, especially if it’s a subject in which they don’t have a high level of interest. Check the time, how long have they been working one activity? It may be that the student just needs a break. In this case I have them grab a snack, walk around, or burn off some excess energy outside. It may be that they have spent enough time on this activity for the day.
If you find that instead of returning to the activity, you need to take a longer break, make sure you talk this through with your student. Let them know that it’s ok to put a task aside for another time, but that you aren’t leaving it altogether. When you pick it back up, talk about how you can work through the frustration, distractions, etc. Make a plan to successfully finish the activity.
Sometimes a simple change of subjects or activities is all that is needed to recapture the student’s attention. It is for this reason that I usually schedule favored subjects in between the less-liked ones. Sometimes a simple change like reading aloud, or drawing what they learned instead of writing can accomplish the same goal, but with less resistance. It’s ok to cut one subject short and move on, as long as you have a plan for finishing. Sometimes students can get so frustrated and emotional about what they are doing there simply is no way to continue. That’s ok. Take a deep breath and decide together what to do. Giving the student options allows them an amount of control and can help restore peace to the classroom.
During this process it is valuable to help the student learn to identify when they are not focused, getting frustrated, or need to take a break. This self-awareness will go a long way. When your student identifies that they need to shift focus to another subject or take a break, honor that! Sometimes we need to help them push through some frustration so it’s good to check on why they want to put it aside. Knowing your student is key in making the right decision here.