Keep Calm and Go On: 18 Great Strategies to Keep Students on Task

Whether you’ve been a teacher for one day or over 30 years, you’re likely all too familiar with how challenging it can be to keep students on task. If you’ve ever had to deal with students talking during lessons, wandering the room, reading a book during instruction, or engaging in other off-task behavior, take some time to read through the tips I’ve put together below for you.

How to Keep Students on Task — 18 Best Strategies for Focusing

I’ve had huge success implementing a few of these tips with some of my students, and I think you could benefit from trying them out as well. You may also want to share this video from a school counselor with your students.

The school counselor in the video highlights some key behaviors and tips for students to help them better maintain their focus, attention, and on-task behaviors.

Best Strategies to Help Students Stay on Task

Here is my top list of 18 best strategies for helping teachers maintain classroom management and students stay focused on the assignment.

  1. Provide Focus Through Student Goal Setting →
  2. Create Awareness with Countdown Timers →
  3. Hold Direction-Focused Conferences →
  4. Include Physical Activity →
  5. Break Tasks into Pieces →
  6. Rate (and Change) Tasks →
  7. Incorporate Printable Checklists →
  8. Provide Only One Task or Assignment at a Time →
  9. Use Preferential Seating →
  10. Use Contrasting Colors to Increase Visual Focus →
  11. Use Natural Sunlight or Lamps Instead of Fluorescent Lighting →
  12. Remove Visual Distractions →
  13. Have “Attention Breaks” →
  14. Explore the Option of Medication →
  15. Set Up a Home Office →
  16. Leverage Interests →
  17. Vary Instructional Strategies →
  18. Set Deadlines →

Read on to take a closer look at each of these great ideas.

1. Provide Focus Through Student Goal Setting

Setting goals with students can be a very powerful motivator to help them focus. Take time to sit down one-on-one with students and review their performance and some of their work samples. Discuss areas for improvement, and work together to set a goal.

Provide Focus Through Student Goal Setting

Have students write their goal somewhere they’ll see it every day so it can help them stay motivated to focus to improve and meet their goal. Be sure to schedule quick check-ins with students to discuss their progress towards meeting their goals and to praise the effort and focus you’ve been observing.

2. Create Awareness with Countdown Timers

Many students get off task and don’t realize how much time they’re taking away from whatever it is they are supposed to be doing. Using a countdown timer is one strategy that can help students gauge the amount of time they have left to complete a task to limit off-task behaviors.

Create Awareness with Countdown Timers

For many students, seeing the visual of a timer counting down in front of them is enough to keep them focused on their work to ensure they finish insufficient time.

3. Hold Direction-Focused Conferences

Direction-focused conferences are a way to give students some personalized attention each day to help keep them on task. A direction-focused conference is a short (1 minute) conversation between you and each student in your class. During the conference, ask each student two questions: “What work have you been completing, and what will you be working on next?”

Hold Direction-Focused Conferences

Giving students the opportunity to articulate these answers can help them refocus when they return to their seats.

4. Include Physical Activity

Sitting in the same spot for an extended amount of time and maintaining focus is hard enough for adults, let alone children. Children also have a shorter attention span and benefit from broken-up instruction. Take time at various times during the day to give students the opportunity to get a little physical activity.

Include Physical Activity

This can be as quick as asking the class to all stand-up and do 10 jumping jacks or putting on a short dance video for everyone to dance to.

5. Break Tasks into Pieces

As we just mentioned, students have a short attention span. This can make it challenging for them to complete longer tasks in one fell swoop. Try breaking tasks into smaller chunks and give students a short break between each task.

Break Tasks into Pieces

For example, if you ask your students to write a story about something and draw a picture to go with their story, consider breaking this task into smaller pieces. You could ask students to write the introduction to their story, then take a quick movement break, then come back and write the middle of their story, followed by another break, and then write the end of the story, take another quick stretch, and then draw the picture to go with the story.

6. Rate (and Change) Tasks

Some children may get off task when they feel overly frustrated with a task or perceive it to be too challenging for them to complete. If you feel this may be the case with one of your students, have a conversation with them and ask them to rate how difficult the task is using a scale of 1 to 10.

Rate (and Change) Tasks

If they communicate that the task is very difficult for them, work with them to brainstorm a list of things you could do to support them with the activity.

7. Incorporate Printable Checklists

Another common reason students get off task is that they simply don’t remember the directions or aren’t clear on what they should do next. Avoid this potential problem by making quick checklists for each task that layouts the various steps that students should complete.

Incorporate Printable Checklists

You can also ask students to turn their checklists in with their finished product to show that they completed each step.

8. Provide Only One Task or Assignment at a Time

Another idea you can try with students who seem overwhelmed by complex assignments or having too many tasks to keep track of is to only assign one task at a time.

Provide Only One Task or Assignment at a Time

Giving students one specific thing to work on will help make it clear what they should be doing. Then, once they have finished that task, you can give them their next assignment.

9. Use Preferential Seating

The preferential seat is a well-trusted method used by many teachers to keep specific students on task. With a preferential seat, you make very strategic decisions about where to seat each child.

Use Preferential Seating

Place students that you know have more difficulty staying on task closest to you. This will allow you to more closely monitor their behaviors, and they’ll be more likely to be on task knowing that you are so close by.

10. Use Contrasting Colors to Increase Visual Focus

Another reason some students may have trouble focusing is if they are having a hard time seeing or reading the information on the board or smartboard in the classroom.

Use Contrasting Colors to Increase Visual Focus

Using contrasting colors to increase students’ ability to focus on the words or visuals that are important to their learning. Here are the best colors to use in your learning environment.

11. Use Natural Sunlight or Lamps Instead of Fluorescent Lighting

Many classrooms have fluorescent lighting, which can be hard on the eyes. Consider keeping your overhead lights off and opening the blinds or purchasing lights with softer, more natural light to use in the classroom. These lights will be much easier on the eyes and may help increase students’ focus. Find some harmless lamps for your classroom in this article.

Use Natural Sunlight or Lamps Instead of Fluorescent Lighting

As a benefit, you may also notice that you feel better at the end of each day without sitting under the fluorescent lights all day.

12. Remove Visual Distractions

An overload of visual stimulus can overwhelm students and make it very challenging for them to focus on just one thing, such as their work. Evaluate your classroom and considering paring down your decorations and posters so as not to overwhelm your students.

Remove Visual Distractions

Also, consider how visually distracting the directions you post or the worksheets you share with your students may be.

13. Have “Attention Breaks”

An attention break is an opportunity for students to determine whether they were focused on their work at a given time. Before conducting attention breaks, teach your students what paying attention is and what they should be doing if they are truly paying attention. Give a few examples and have students act out examples and non-examples of paying attention. Then, throughout the day, set timers to go off at different times and have students indicate whether they were or were not paying attention when the timer went off.

Have "Attention Breaks"

This can help students become more self-aware and also help them gain a better understanding of what paying attention means.

14. Explore the Option of Medication

If you have tried several of the strategies listed here and still have major concerns about a particular student’s ability to pay attention, ask their parent to come in for a conference. Discuss your concerns and get the parent’s opinions about the behaviors and what they are seeing at home.

Explore the Option of Medication

If you can’t brainstorm additional ideas to try, consider recommending that the parent set up an appointment with their child’s pediatrician to explore the next steps.

15. Set Up a Home Office (For Doing Home Tasks)

If parents have shared that they are also having trouble keeping their child on the task at home when completing homework or other assignments, suggest that they set up a home office space. Giving students a dedicated space where they can focus away from siblings or other distractions can help increase their focus.

Set Up a Home Office (For Doing Home Tasks)

If parents don’t have a separate room they can use as an office, suggest purchasing a study carrel or even just a tri-fold board that can be set up in front of students to block out other distractions while they work.

16. Leverage Interests

Find out about what interests your students and use their interests to help keep them on task. For example, if one of your students who has a particularly challenging time staying focused and on task loves dinosaurs, find ways to work dinosaurs into your lessons.

Leverage Interests

This may include reading books about dinosaurs in reading, making up math word problems about dinosaurs, giving dinosaur stickers out to students who are working, or anything else you could think of that has to do with dinosaurs.

17. Vary Instructional Strategies

Students have different learning styles. Some may be visual learners, others are auditory learners, while still others may be kinesthetic learns. A child’s learning style impacts which types of tasks will deliver the greatest educational benefits.

Vary Instructional Strategies

It is important to vary your instructional strategies and work to meet the different learning styles of your students through the different lessons you teach.

18. Set Deadlines

Finally, set deadlines for when work needs to be completed and turned in. When students have a deadline to work towards, it is more concrete for them than saying something like, “finish this as soon as you can.”

Set Deadlines

Your deadline may be in the next 20 minutes, by the end of the day, or by the end of the week depending on the task, but having something concrete and communicating it to students is important.

Staying on Task Worksheets

Staying on task and maintaining focus through instruction and classwork does not come naturally to many students. In fact, you’ll need to work with your students to teach them this skill, the same as you would need to work with them to teach them to add, subtract, read, or write. Incorporating some lessons and worksheets that specifically focus on the skill of staying on task can help students improve their ability to focus and pay attention. Below are a few great places to find some staying on task worksheets to use with your students:

Wrap Up

Keeping students on task is a problem nearly all educators face. Every child is different, and some strategies will work better with different students. Take some time to experiment with your students using some of the ideas from this post. Come back and share your successes in a comment; I’d love to hear about what worked with your class!

Last Updated on April 15, 2021 by Emily

Emily/ author of the article

Emily is an active mother of two and a dedicated elementary school teacher. She believes the latest technology has made a huge impact on the quality of early learning and has worked hard to upgrade her classroom and her own children’s learning experience through technology.
She created this blog to make it easier for other teachers to take advantage of some of the best devices out there to upgrade their classrooms without having to do the research themselves. She loves to hear your tech-based problems and share her extensive experience :)

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