How to Train Students to Use Their Prefrontal Cortex to Pay Better Attention

So you want your kids and students to pay better attention? Start with the prefrontal cortex.

What is the Prefrontal Cortex?

Aptly named, the prefrontal cortex is a small portion of the frontal lobe, located at the forward-most part of the skull. It’s responsible for complex, high-functioning behaviors – like planning, decision-making, and personality expression – and it’s one of the last parts of the brain to develop in children and young adults.

Most of the development of the prefrontal cortex occurs due to natural physical growth and everyday experiences typical to the life of a child and adolescent. That being said, since kids learn just as much through observation and mimicry as they do through specific instruction, the best way to train your students to use their prefrontal cortices is to pay close attention to your own complex reasoning skills.

Use YOUR Prefrontal Cortex!

That’s right; the best way you can train your students to pay more attention and plan better is to use your own prefrontal cortex to intentionally demonstrate what paying attention and planning look like. In a study on observational learning of novel hand movements, researchers confirmed that the prefrontal cortex is heavily involved in the observational practice of the tested hand movements, or learning the studied movements in the absence of actual motor execution. This means that on a physical level, young children and students are integrating information subconsciously then using the prefrontal cortex to determine when, where, and how it is appropriate to apply these observed behaviors.

The same can be said for nonphysical skills, such as planning, decision-making, and paying better attention in class. Certain activities facilitate the development of what is called executive functioning, characterized by a set of cognitive skills necessary to control behavior, delay gratification, exhibit reasoning, and other behaviors, all of which are controlled by the prefrontal cortex.

Here are a few ways to promote executive functioning in your students and develop their prefrontal cortices to improve attention span, listening skills, and other classroom-friendly traits.

Promote Active Listening – Active listening is more than passively hearing what someone has to say. It involves mindfully comprehending language with the ability to repeat and rephrase what has just been said. By consciously demonstrating active listening when students are speaking to you, you encourage this same behavior in them. Emphasizing listening in the classroom is also proven to help improve students’ language skills even more than testing specific vocabulary terms.

Take Time to Review Before Teaching Something New – Children crave familiarity, so taking a few moments to review previous lessons, activities, or relevant classroom memories are effective ways to grab your class’ attention before diving into a new topic. To further encourage independent thinking, have your students form small groups to conduct their own review sessions before a new lesson begins. Activities like these introduce young students to the memory skills necessary to study using methods like retrieval learning.

Set a Clear Classroom Routine – Routines create a structure that allows children to develop planning skills. Post a classroom schedule in a prominent place in the classroom to provide your class with an outline of what they can expect to occur throughout the day. The most effective routines incorporate basic activities of daily life, as well as classroom and learning activities.

Creating an environment with the right balance of structure and exploration is key to promoting prefrontal cortex development. When children have an aptly defined set of daily expectations, they learn how to cultivate their attention spans to complete tasks and take appropriate breaks for rest and play.

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