The "Off Task" Learner

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*Recommended Reading: Gaining Learner Attention

To all the educators: raise your hand if you could use some help dealing with “Daydreaming David”, “Out -of -seat Olive”, or “Fidgeting Franklin”? Oh my, that’s a lot of hands in the air.

I go into classrooms fairly regularly as part of my job, and I also collaborate and discuss treatment plans with educators. One pet peeve I have is when educators use vague or subjective language when describing the progress of my client. For example, “Today was rough”, “She had a defiant look about her”, or the dreaded: “He was SO off task all week”.

Can you define “off task”? What does that mean? The problem with terminology like this is while you absolutely know what you mean when you use it, the person you are speaking to may not. Across my clients, many of them struggle with on task behavior at school. I can also tell you that across my clients, being “off task” can look completely different from one individual to the next.

This is a term that does not have just one meaning. In order to select and implement an intervention, it is critical to first define the target behavior. My suggestion is to focus on what the learner should be doing, instead of what they are not doing. For example: “When the teacher presents a demand, Felicia will independently respond to/complete the demand within 10 seconds”. So step 1 is to clearly define the target behavior well enough that anyone could observe in your classroom and measure each occurrence of Felicia being “off task”.

Focusing on what the learner SHOULD be doing will also help you to really narrow down how to help the learner stay focused on a specific task. Which also happens to be step 2: determine when the target behavior is most, and least likely to occur. In other words, when is Felicia off task?  You may be thinking, “well….she’s off task all the time”. I can almost guarantee you that isn’t true. Most learners have no problem attending or staying on task at recess, during free play, or while eating in the cafeteria. Further close observation will often reveal variations in attending depending on:
  • The teacher
  • The classroom
  • Which peers are present
  • Time of day
  • Subject matter (math, writing, etc.)

What you are looking for are patterns of behaviors to reveal what settings or stimuli tend to make it the most difficult for this learner to remain on task.

Finally, step 3 is to set the learner up for success based on the information you have gathered. This is where the individualized intervention should be created. Emphasis on “individualized”. Something I see far too much of in schools, is pulling from a few methods and expecting them to work for all learners. Such as moving the learners seat closer to the teacher. I have some clients where it wouldn’t matter if they sat on the roof of the school building, in the teacher’s lap, or on a throne, they would be just as inattentive in each location.

Since I can’t suggest individualized interventions (since I don’t know all of your learners), here are some helpful recommendations to help you create your interventions. Good luck educators!

  •          The first changes should always be to the environment – Always assume the environment is "wrong" before assuming the learner is "wrong".  Modifying the environment could mean adding in play breaks after their least preferred subjects, pairing the learner with a high performing student as a peer assistant, or placing highly preferred/highly distractible items inside cabinets or high up on shelves.
  •  Are your expectations clearly established? – Are you sure the learner knows what you expect? Do they understand what “pay attention” means? What about “neat work”? Or “quiet work”? Does no talking mean no humming? Does sit still mean no finger tapping? Make your expectations crystal clear.
  •      Is the available reinforcement clearly established? – What can the student earn for their hard work of staying attentive? What do they earn if their work is submitted on time, but messy? Or if their work is submitted on time, but incorrect? Can they lose their reward once it has been earned? All of this must be made crystal clear.
  •  Does the learner have a true skill deficit? – Lack of focus/attending can often stem from a learning deficit. I am not a math person, so if you sat me down to do some Calculus problems I would check out on you so fast! Have you evaluated if the work you are presenting is at the learner’s current ability?
  •  Try breaking the task down into small chunks – I do this one all the time. There is usually no reason why the work in the classroom can’t be divided up across the day, or even across multiple days. Also, frequent opportunities to complete a demand = frequent opportunities to contact reinforcement. It’s a win-win.
  •  Make timely, focused work completion exciting! – Applause is free, and I use it often. There is also specific praise (“Jonathan I just LOVE your neat handwriting! Keep it up), high fives, “call outs” (“Class, I see that Grace and Tia are working with quiet feet. You girls are rock stars”), and class wide reward systems. For many of my clients who struggle with staying on task I also like the “Beat the Timer” game. If the learner completes the task before the timer goes off they get a special prize.

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