In the age of smartphones, social media, and shrinking attention spans, it's harder than ever for teachers to keep young students focused on the task at hand. So what can teachers do to set up a classroom that minimizes distractions and keeps kids working hard on their assignments?
Table or Desk Arrangement
One of the most important decisions you can make when it comes to minimizing distractions is how to set up your students' tables or desks. There are various potential seating organizations you can choose from in your classroom, including rows, groups (or pods), a horseshoe, a circle, or a mix of these. So which one is right for your classroom?
Seating charts are typically selected based on how much you want your students to interact. Rows of tables with all students facing forwards are typically best for classrooms where individual work is the norm, while smaller pod arrangements can help students engage in periodic group work. Arranging students in a horseshoe or circle will facilitate an environment where group work is the primary focus of the classroom.
In terms of minimizing distractions, studies have found that arranging tables into rows is the most effective seating arrangement when it comes to keeping students on task. One study, titled Rows versus Tables II: The Effects of Two Classroom Seating Arrangements on Classroom Disruption Rate, On-task Behaviour and Teacher Behaviour in Three Special School Classes (Wheldall and Lam, 1987), found that students stay focused approximately twice as often when seats are arranged individually, as opposed to when they are organized in groups. Groups can cause students to become distracted and to be distracting to others. Another study titled ''Exploration of Classroom Seating Arrangement and Student Behavior in a Second Grade Classroom'' found that while groups may help students develop socially, they can impede student performance.
One important issue to note: if you do decide to organize your students into pods in order to enable small group activities, remember to arrange the desks or tables so that all students will be able to see the instructional area. Students with their backs to the teacher will naturally be less engaged in the instruction, and more easily distracted.
Once you've decided on an arrangement for your classroom, what are some strategies to organize the students themselves?
One study titled ''Differential Effects of Seating Arrangements on Disruptive Behavior of Fifth Grade Students During Independent Seatwork'' indicated that the occurrence of classroom disruptions happened 2-3 times more frequently when students were allowed to pick their own seats. So letting students sit by their friends might not be the best idea. Instead, random seating assignments, or a seating assignment that plays to the specific characteristics of that particular classroom, might be more effective.
For instance, when assigning seats, you may want to place more easily distracted students in the front row or center of the classroom. It has been shown that students in these seats will receive more teacher attention, which can result in more monitoring and encouragement. A study titled ''Eye Contact and Grade Distribution'' indicates that students in these front and middle seats are likely to achieve better grades because of these factors.
However, you might also consider that there are two primary ways that students become distracted: through auditory means and through visual means. When considering if a student should be placed at the front of the classroom, you might consider if this student is one who is more prone to auditory distractions. If that's the case, you might find that this student is constantly turning in their seat to see what's going on behind them. In this case, seating the student closer to the back could actually help keep them less distracted.
You'll also need to take into account the distracting factors in the physical space of the classroom itself. Doorways leading out to the hallway can be distracting, and so can the view from a window. Easily distracted students might not be ideal candidates for these seats. The same is true for areas of the classroom that get more traffic than others, such as seats near the teacher's desk, the cubbies, or even the pencil sharpener.
Speaking of cubbies, it can be beneficial to use these organizational tools to reduce the school supplies students have access to at any given time. In the hands of some students, these supplies can become distractions from the schoolwork itself. Additionally, increasing order and organization in the classroom can help students maintain focus and limit distractions.
It's also important to consider that classroom decorations such as posters or other eye-catching items can be distracting to some students. Of course, this is not to say that classroom decorations are bad! But it could be better to keep these types of visual aids out of the instruction area, for example on the back wall of the classroom.
Minimizing Distractions for ADHD Students
It can be challenging to get any student focused on their schoolwork, but students with ADHD have a particularly challenging time staying on-task. The U.S. Department of Education specifically recommends some strategies for students with ADHD, including seating the child near the teacher, seating the child near a student role model, and providing low-distraction work areas that are quiet and distraction-free. Tools that can be utilized in the classroom include pointers for personal use, which help the student focus on reading, and egg timers, which help students monitor their own productivity during short assignments.
Other Tips to Prevent Distraction
In addition to all these strategies for setting up the classroom, it's also important to remember that distraction can be prevented through the nature of the class itself. It goes without saying that students who are engaged in learning are less likely to be distracted, so fun and interesting classes can play a role in stopping distraction before it starts!
Another important consideration when preventing distraction is to have classroom rules in place that prevent distracting behavior. For instance, rules that encourage students to listen when the teacher is talking, to avoid distracting others, to use their indoor voices, etc… can help prevent distractions.