Strategies for changing or maintaining the students’ level of alertness and attentiveness

There will be times when your students are starting to drift off or glaze over but you need their attention for a few more minutes before the bell rings. Or they come in all wound up and you need them to settle down and focus. Attending to the varied needs of their bodies can help increase attention and engagement, get things started, and keep things moving. Here are suggestions contributed by classroom teachers, parents, occupational therapists, physical therapists, kinesiologists, special education teachers, workshop participants, and Web site visitors, whose experience includes accommodating the needs of non-traditional learners.

Changing the visual field

  • Moving and relating to students from a different part of the room
  • Having them change seats, or having them move to a different part of the room
  • Accommodating lighting needs and preferences (bright and dim light
  • spaces available in the room)
  • Providing full-spectrum lighting when possible
  • Providing colored acetate (full sheets, folder-weight pages with small windows cut out, or bookmarks with a strip of acetate to isolate one line at a time) to reduce glare or stark contrast of black ink on white paper

Changing the auditory field

  • Listening to music, varying types of music available (appropriate lyrics and sound levels for “public” music)
  • Respecting and accommodating the need for quiet (headphones, earplugs)
  • Providing silence, sound block, white noise
  • Varying auditory input to gain attention (chimes, bells, tone of voice)
  • Moving to (and speaking from) a different part of room


  • Tactile anchors
    • Beanbag, gel ball, stress ball, string, clay
    • Pipe cleaners, clothespin, paper clips
    • Velcro (separated) glued to underside of desk or seat, side of desk, top of desk, inside of desk
    • Variety of different-sized pens, pencils, and markers (fatter, thinner)
      • Grippers to slide on pencils or pens
      • Foam curlers (removed from plastic curler and placed on pencil for “squishy” grip, silencer if tapping)
  • Providing weight on the student’s bod
    • Weighted vest or blanket; sack of beans on lap
    • Rice-filled sock on lap or around neck
    • Afghan or comforter (unweighted)
  • Providing alternate seating
    • Seat with arms
    • Beanbag chair
    • Cushion, “egg carton” foam
    • Chair with arms; chair attached to desk
  • Large headphones (whether used to listen to music or unconnected to a device) for pressure


  • Stretching, rocking, leaving seat
  • Talking, changing affiliation (Note: Even if they aren’t talking about the content you’ve assigned, the movement can help maintain alertness and retention of material.)
  • Alternative types of chairs, seating, or cushions to allow for movement
    • Rocking chair, chair with wheels
    • Air-filled “fidget” cushion
    • Exercise ball (with or without “feet”) used as a chair
    • Space to work on the floor
    • Space to work standing up or kneeling on chair, stand-up desks
  • Tennis balls on feet of chairs (prevent scraping, may reduce the likelihood of slipping if chair is tilted, depending on surface). Some teacher report certain students’ preference for using tennis balls on only two of the chair’s feet (diagonal) to provide gentle rocking
  • Tactile anchor or activity: Taking notes, writing
  • Drawing, doodling
  • Playing with string, bean bag or other fidget toy; knitting, etc.
  • Tapping: on leg, sponge, mouse pad (or with pencil that has felt taped to the top to cushion the sound, or with pipe cleaners)
  • Rubber band, exercise band or bungee cord around legs of chair (resistance)
  • Styrofoam “pool noodles” cut to about 2 feet in length for students to roll under their feet.

Putting Something in Your Mouth

  • Chewing Gum (Teach them how! Conditional on defined behavior, maintenance of environment, and proper disposal)
  • Straws, other oral-motor stimulators
  • Rubber surgical tubing
  • Sucking thick liquid through straw
  • Hydrating (drinking water)
  • Food
    • Crunchy—carrots, celery, pretzels
    • Chewy
    • Intense—peppermint or lemon drops may improve performance on tests or activities for some kids (watch for food allergies)

Making these Resources and Strategies Work!

  • Choose options you can live with and those your students can handle.
  • Introduce new options one or two at a time.
  • Remember that different classes and different individuals may do better with different options.
  • Be cautious about possible sensitivies or allergies to certain food or products (latex, for example).
  • Let parents and administration know what you’re doing and why. (If you’re a parent, let the teacher and other school staff know what you have found to work best for your child.) There is plenty of research to back up these strategies. Also, collecting data to show improved behavior or performance, and having more kids on task will work on your behalf.
  • Look for results: In many cases, accommodating students’ learning preference will improve their performance and behavior. If the quality of work or behavior declines, remember the phrase, “This isn’t working.” Withdraw the stimulus for the time being and look for something else (or try again at another time). This tends to work best when we can continue to make access to these privileges contingent on cooperative, non-disruptive participation by the students.
  • Stay positive and flexible! We are all different in the way we learn best.

Many of these suggestions have come from various occupational therapists, physical therapists, kinesiologists, and special education teachers, among others focusing on the needs of non-traditional learners, as well as contributions from workshop participants and web site visitors. With particular thanks to Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger and their book, How Does Your Engine Run? (Albuquerque, NM: Therapyworks, 1994) for their organization of these suggestions into the five categories listed above. See pages 117-118 for resources and information.

© 2016, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Related handouts:

Stress and the Brain
Stressful or Painful School Experiences that can affect learning and behavior in negative ways.
The “Ideal” Student: Kids for whom traditional classrooms are ideally suited (and why so many non-traditional learners struggle in these instructional environments).
Ways to Reach More Students
ADHD Look-Alike Conditions
TDAH (ADHD Look-Alike Conditions in French)
Multiple Intelligences
Working With Different Sensory/Modality Strengths and Limitations
Water and the Body
Should Classrooms Ban Water Bottles?
Survey: Is Your School (or Classroom) an Emotionally Safe Place?
Non-supportive patterns to avoid
Industrial Age Classrooms vs. Information Age Classrooms
Personality Types and Myers-Briggs Scales

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