All Articles Education Teaching resilience: Attention

Teaching resilience: Attention

11 min read


“Squirrel!” In addition to its other endearing qualities, Pixar’s 2009 animated feature “Up introduced the world to Dug, a golden retriever with definite attention challenges. Dug sparks several comedic moments with a cry of “squirrel!” before dashing off-screen to give chase.

Resilience requires the ability to imagine what the future can be, and the discipline to reflect on what has been in order to determine a way forward. It has a future component and a past component. As Dug suggests, via his non-example, it also has a present component: attention. And we can equip students to focus, to direct their mental energies toward the task at hand.


Attention is a cognitive flashlight, revealing whatever is within one’s mental field of vision. But unlike a flashlight, attention possesses two-way directionality; we can attend to the outer world or our own inner worlds, making one or the other “out of sight,” at least for the moment.

Noise, whether from within or without, can short-circuit our attention, causing us to miss something important or to lose efficiency in completing a task. Such interference also affects learning. “We learn best,” explains Daniel Goleman, “with focused attention. As we focus on what we are learning, the brain maps that information on what we already know, making new neural connections.”1 Goleman goes on to explain that when our mind wanders, when it directs its selective attention beam away from the ideas or task at hand, brain circuits that produce “chatter” immediately become active. Our brains can chatter themselves out of learning. “The more we zone out,” continues Goleman, “…the more holes” we end up with in our “web of understanding.”2

How can we keep students’ attention from zoning out?

Think only about the next step

Attention strays when it’s overwhelmed. Like a creek bed, attention can direct its rush of energy along a specified course until water exceeds its banks. Students, who otherwise are capable of learning and achieving, can lose attentional control when a task seems overwhelming.

To keep students from redirecting their attention, help them see just the next step. Many teachers and parents recognize that some students benefit from considering one item at a time. For example, some students work more effectively when only one math equation is visible at a time, rather than an entire page of problems filling the student’s vision and consciousness. However, even students who do not struggle with such visual overload can grapple with process overload.

Their mental conversations may unfold like this: “I know how to do this. I need to complete six steps to reach an acceptable conclusion. Six steps? Wow, the end is a long way off. Squirrel!” From there, something external — the clouds outside the window — or internal (“I’m so stupid. I’ll never get this!”) produces noise and hijacks attention.

When working with a student whose attention has been pushed off-course, it’s beneficial to help the student re-focus, but only on the next step. “Okay, try thinking just about the next step. What is it? Good! Now, let’s do just that.” Such an approach sets boundaries that can corral attention and promote progress. Once the “next step” is completed, attention can move to the step that follows.

A Saturday morning run recently reminded me of how effective this approach can be. I had two goals: one was to run a certain distance, and the other was to run a certain number of miles at a faster pace. Every time I thought about those faster miles, I became overwhelmed. “I can’t do this,” I argued. “Maybe I should just try doing half of what I planned.” I caught myself; self-defeating thoughts threatened to reduce my effort and redirect my action. “Okay,” I told myself, “just hit the next split.” I focused on the next quarter mile. Then the next one. And the one after that. I finished the run, having accomplished both goals.

The same approach works with students. “Come on! Let’s just hit the next split!”

Advertise progress

Motivation plays a role in directing and sustaining attention, and the brain is motivated by progress. Researchers often refer to this as the “gamer effect,” gamer being the player of video games. When you play a video game and reach the end of a challenge, you move on to the next level. You always know where you are in relation to the game’s ultimate challenge and conclusion. You can “see” progress.

Would it be possible to help students see their own progress? What if you have a series of skills that ultimately enable students to complete some task or reach some answer — could you provide them with a chart that shows the progression? Could they check off “levels” as they master the sub-skills? Think, “How can I represent the learning in a way that students will be able to see progress?”

This sensation ignites activity in the brain’s basal structures, neural regions associated with pleasure and reward. Such “active learning,” claims biologist James Zull, makes learning “pleasurable and effective for developing concepts and applications.”3

Bringing past, present and future together

Equipping students to be resilient begins with the future. Consider the following interaction:

Teacher: How’s your report coming?

Student: I haven’t really started yet. I mean, I have done some research, but I haven’t started writing anything.

Teacher: Okay. Who is the subject of your report?

Student: I thought I’d write about Reverend Robert Graetz.

Teacher: Tell me a bit about him.

Student: Well, he was Rosa Parks’ neighbor. He led a church and supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Teacher: Sounds like an interesting individual. You’ve already discovered some great details about him. I want you to imagine the smartest person you know. Do you have that person in mind?

Student: Yeah, I guess that would be my aunt. She teaches at the university.

Teacher: Great! Now, I want you to imagine that your aunt just read your report on Robert Graetz. She sets it down, looks at you, and tells you what she found most memorable about Robert Graetz. What does she say?

Student: Um, I guess she says something like, “Wow, what a courageous individual!”

Teacher: Excellent! So your writing really drew her attention to this man’s courage. What events in Graetz’s life did you write about that made your aunt think he was courageous?

The discussion continues with the student sharing a few of the events and the teacher helping the student refine a vision for the work to be written.

Note the redirect here. At the beginning of the discussion, the student is lost, possibly overwhelmed, and likely spending mental energies on something other than writing. The teacher, after getting an awareness of the student’s work so far, changes the direction of the student’s thinking. She doesn’t suggest the student “think harder” or say something like, “I can’t believe this is all you’ve gotten done!” Instead, she reorients the conversation. “Imagine the future,” she suggests, and the student begins developing a vision for the writing — not just identifying who he wants to write about, but focusing on what to include and even how to structure the work. A glimpse at a possible future helps the student find resilience and return to the work with a purpose and plan.

A later conversation may find the student bogged down and floundering. The interaction may unfold like this:

Teacher: Tell me about your writing so far.

Student: I’m frustrated. I’ve got many isolated facts about Robert Graetz, but putting them into paragraphs — it’s just not happening. Everything I write sounds choppy.

Teacher: Okay, explain how you’ve been working on this.

Student: Like I said, I’ve got a bunch of facts. I know I want to tell my reader that Graetz was a brave man, but I can only say that so many times before it sounds redundant.

Teacher: Tell me about the facts you have.

Student: Well, here’s one. Because he supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his house was bombed three times.

Teacher: Okay, that’s a good fact. Tell me about the bombings.

Student: That’s all I have. Three times people who didn’t agree with him tried to bomb his house.

Teacher: So, you’ve got facts but not much context or detail for each one, right?

Student: Yeah, I guess.

Teacher: Okay, that doesn’t seem to be working. Let’s figure out how we can change your approach so that your writing communicates what you want it to. Let’s begin with the facts. How could we find out more about the context of each one? If you were trying to tell me a story about Graetz’s house being bombed, what would you, as the storyteller, need to know?

Student: I guess I’d need to have something like a beginning, middle, and end. Sort of like I was writing a small story.

Teacher: That sounds good! So, if the fact that his house was bombed three times and he still worked for civil rights — if that shows your reader that he was courageous, we should tell those “small stories.” How can we find the information we need?

Student: We could go back and see what our sources tell us about each of those bombings and try to come up with a beginning, middle, and end for each one.

Teacher: That sounds like a great plan! Now…

While a glimpse of the future sparked initial effort, at this point the student needs to reflect on the past in order to figure out a way forward. The teacher, recognizing this, guides the student to think about how he has been working in order to think about a better way to proceed. Again, with the teacher’s guidance, the student finds resilience, emerges from self-defeating thoughts, and resumes moving forward.

Let’s pick the conversation back up:

Teacher: That sounds like a great plan! Now, how will you go about coming up with that beginning, middle and end?

Student: I guess I’ll just go back to my sources and see if they tell me anything else.

Teacher: Okay, let’s go back to the sources, but let’s focus on one bombing for now. Is there one that you can recall any details about?

Student: One of the bombs didn’t go off, but it was the biggest.

Teacher: Okay, let’s start with that one. Find a beginning, middle, and end for the big bomb that didn’t go off. Don’t write anything that is untrue, but tell your readers the story and show them Robert Graetz being courageous. Focus on that one “small story” and write it. I’ll check back with you to see how we can keep this moving. You’ve got a fascinating subject, and I think we’ve got a plan for how to show your readers his courage. Let’s see what happens when you tell that one story.

The teacher brings the focus back to the present, guiding the student to recognize what the next step is and encouraging attention on just that step. The student can take the immediate action needed to make the imagined ending — the aunt responding to the writing — a reality without being overwhelmed by the entire process.

Now, let’s imagine for a moment. Interactions, such as this, happen again and again in a student’s school experiences. Eventually, teachers start guiding with questions such as, “What did you do the last time you had difficulty getting started on a challenging task?” and “In the past, how have you approached something that required several steps?” Eventually, students begin to absorb this future-past-present flow of thinking and become equipped as their own resilience-finding beings. They become self-resilient.

Imagine. Reflect. Attend. Grit sparks from a bit of time travel; resilience requires creativity, practicality, and strategy. It’s more complex than looking in the mirror and saying, “I can do this,” but it is a thought process that can be learned.

It may be the most valuable thing we can help students master.

Kevin D. Washburn (@kdwashburn) is the executive director of Clerestory Learning, author of instructional-design model Architecture of Learning and instructional-writing program Writer’s Stylus, and co-author of an instructional-reading program used by schools nationwide. He is the author of “The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain” and is a member of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society. Washburn has taught in classrooms from third grade through graduate school.


  1. Goleman, D., Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 16.
  2. Ibid., 17.
  3. Zull, J.E., The Art of Changing the Brain: Exploring the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2002), 63.