When it comes to raising or teaching a special needs child, getting them to focus in the classroom can always be tough. Often, they are overwhelmed either by the material, the way it’s being presented, or some other sensory input that is causing problems.
The good thing, however, is that there are actually science-back strategies when it comes to helping improve focus in the classroom. We’ll dive into each one individually and how to best implement them.
Remember, these can be used outside of the classroom as well, for things like preparing for car trips or when it’s time to do homework.
Exercise is a great thing to add to anyone’s daily routine, but it seems to have an increased positive affect for those with autism. A meta-analysis that looked at 16 different studies found that there were “robust benefits of physical exercise on the patients’ motor and social functioning.”
This meta-analysis saw an overall 35% improvement in stereotypical ASD symptoms as a result of exercise. Another individual study saw similar effects.
Looking at more classroom specific behavior, one study found that children had a decrease in off-task behavior, elopement, and aggression. What’s particularly interesting about this study is that they specifically noted that it wasn’t because the exercise tired the children out, because, at the same time their stereotypical ASD symptoms decreased, the students had an increase in on-task behavior, academic responding, and appropriate motor behavior.
What is really interesting about looking at the studies of exercise and autism is that only specific types of exercise seem to help. There are three different studies that all found that the more vigorous the exercise, the better effects there were. It turned out that mild exercise, such as simply playing with a ball, didn’t have positive affects.
The exercise most looked at in the studies was jogging for 15 minutes. However, children playing basketball or tag at recess could have a similar effect. We’d recommend experimenting with easier exercises to pull off in smaller places. Perhaps before class, all the children do jumping jacks.
Another interesting finding was that individual programs have a bigger impact than group programs. So if the child is working out one-on-one with a teacher or parent, you’ll see a bigger improvement than if they were in a larger class.
2. Deep Touch Pressure
Deep touch pressure is the term used to describe gentle pressure distributed on the body. You could have experienced it before with heavy blankets, hugs, or massages.
Deep touch pressure has been shown to reduce activity in the nervous system, which helps give a feeling of calm.
Serotonin is important for:
- Mood regulation
- Brain development
- Sensory processing
All of the things serotonin helps out with are important for good in class behavior.
A couple of studies have looked at how children perform when using deep touch pressure in the classroom through weighted vests and found that it had a positive effect on on-task behavior, specifically for children with autism.
Another study, while not specific to autism, but highly related, found that children with ADHD improved their in-seat behavior when wearing weighted vests.
3. Fidget Toys
Fidget toys have become very popular lately and for a good reason. While the science behind them is still early, some studies show that children who used stress-balls during class were less distracted. And those with ADHD showed the biggest improvement with an increase of 27% in writing scores.
Other early work has shown that using something that allows for mindless fidgeting, like a fidget toy or stress-ball, improve people’s ability in completing their primary task.
While none of these studies show specifically that children with autism improve focus by use of a fidget toy, it’s pretty easy to look at them and see how they could help. Especially with all the antidotal stories backing them up.
The idea behind it is that if left to fidgeting on their own, children will become distracted due to the fidgeting, whether it’s with their hands and feet. If you give their hands or feet something that allows for mindless fidgeting, it opens up their ability to focus.
The best part about all three of these strategies is that they can be used in combination in the classroom. You can have children exercise intensely for 15 minutes, whether at P.E. or recess, then come into the classroom and have a short transition period of using a weighted blanket to calm down.
Then, to take advantage of deep touch pressure while at their desks, they can use either a weighted lap pad or a weighted vest to help them focus there while giving them fidget toys for some mindless fidgeting.
The combination could have drastic effects on the children’s performance in the classroom.