How to Combat the “Hey Look! A Squirrel!” Syndrome

If creating fascinating lesson plans and delivering them to a highly engaged group of kids was what teaching was really like, teaching would be a whole lot easier than it actually is.

We all see students in television shows and movies sitting in neat little rows, listening attentively to the teacher, and answering questions. But somehow, the directors always fail to capture the huge distractions teachers deal with on a daily basis.

Many people actually think these fictional classrooms resemble something close to the reality. Any teacher with more than a day of experience can assure you this is hardly the case.

The hardest part of teaching isn’t designing lesson plans, making calls home, or even the never-ending grading that has to be done. Completing preparation before class only to have an activity fail because so many of the students in class were distracted is commonplace.

What many people refer to as the  “Hey Look A Squirrel” syndrome is a legitimate challenge all teachers face on a regular basis, and the problem seems to be getting worse each year.

Studies have shown that young children ages 4 to 9 have an attention span of only 8-27 minutes, ages 10-13 of only 20-39 minutes, and ages 14-18 of only 28-54 minutes. And since children in the United States attend school anywhere between 6-7 hours each day, it’s only logical that they get continuously distracted.  Distracted learning isn’t effective.

While many people claim they can multitask while learning new information, such as listening to music or scrolling social media, the data shows that learning and performance decreases significantly with each distraction.

Whether it’s a classmate throwing paper balls, another making random loud noises, or the temptation of a cell phone within hand’s reach, students encounter distraction after distraction in class while teachers struggle to focus their attention on the materials.

The good news is that there are ways to limit the distractions in both traditional and virtual classrooms so students are able to focus more of their attention on learning.

In a traditional classroom, teachers can:

  • Communicate the learning targets before each class
  • Have clear and consistent behavior expectations
  • Provide several, short activities to complete in class
  • Encourage talking during group work
  • Use student interests to teach new skills

In a virtual classroom, teachers can:

  • Create multimedia presentations
  • Utilize a variety of digital learning tools
  • Use small group learning so all students can participate
  • Customize small group rooms for focused projects and discussions
  • Provide digital assessments like polls and quizzes
  • Differentiate lessons based on interests

While distractions in traditional and virtual classrooms will never go away, there are steps you can take to focus your students’ attention on the learning materials and lessen the effects of the “Hey, look! A Squirrel!” moments that take place.