Attention in the Classroom

What’s the difference between students who do well in the classroom and those who don’t?

In many cases, attention is the underlying difference between classroom success and failure. Students with strong attention skills do markedly better than those with weak attention skills.

Most educators know that attention is important to learning. The student who is not paying attention is not going to learn. However, attention is even more important than just paying attention in class.

Attention is foundational to the three core Executive Functions: Self-Control, Working Memory, and Cognitive Flexibility. Many students struggle with paying attention in class because of weak executive function skills. This includes students with different diagnoses,  under-resourced home lives, and life stresses (e.g. parental divorce).

How is attention involved in each of the Executive Functions?


Attention plays a crucial part in self-monitoring, which is needed to inhibit immediate wants in favor of longer-term rewards. If students cannot be aware of their immediate wants, they cannot even make the decision of what to do about them. For example, self-monitoring (attention) is needed to not blurt out what first comes to mind (which might be hurtful to others or embarrassing to the student saying it), to not jump to a conclusion before getting all the facts, or to not give the first answer that occurs to the student when they could give a better response if they took a little more time.

When students can give more attention to what they are feeling and thinking, they can show more self-control that improves classroom readiness as well as success in life. In fact, children with greater self-control grew up to have better physical and mental health, earn more, and be more law-abiding as adults 30 years later than were those with worse self-control as children Moffitt et al. (2011).

Working Memory

Attention is needed to successfully bring information into working memory, where it can be manipulated and used for solving problems. For example, with an order of operation problem, students need to call up the rules and attend to the different parts of the problem to apply the rules correctly and solve it. Working memory is also important for translating instructions into action plans and any type of reasoning.

In addition, working memory supports self-control. For example, a student needs to keep his goals in working memory (e.g., get better marks in student citizenship) so that he applies self-control appropriately and waits his turn to answer the question. Self-control also supports working memory, because students need to inhibit internal and external distractions to stay focused on a goal.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility requires attentional focus and redirection to quickly shift tasks and goals. For example, if a student has an argument on the playground with a friend, she may be upset when returning to the classroom after recess. She uses cognitive flexibility to attend to her emotions and consciously redirect her attention back to the material being covered in the classroom.

Improving Attention Skills

Improving attention is one of the best ways to improve Executive Function. When students have better attention skills, they have improved classroom readiness and perform better in school. Meditation is one way to improve attention and executive function. A school in Baltimore is having great success with Mindful Moments to help children be more focused and reduce conflict.

BrainLeap’s attention training games also provide a fun way for students to build attention skills. In just 20 minutes per day, 3-5 times per week, students can see significant improvements in attention skills. You can learn more about the attention training games.