Improve Student Focus and Behavior: How to Confront Emotional Learning Loss

As we wrap up another school year, it is important to know what mindsets we walk into the classroom with that contribute to student focus.  

After two and a half years of unpredictability in K-12 education, we have learned that building strong, healthy relationships is the key to a successful classroom. It increases students’ ability to focus, and it is an effective way to manage unwanted behaviors. This may not be a surprise to many, but it remains a relevant topic and a crucial point to reiterate; to truly and positively impact students, connections are vital. Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” It is time to get out of survival mode and shift to a thriving mindset. 

School district leaders, administrators, and classroom educators are taking on the mammoth task of addressing the ‘learning loss’ that occurred during the pandemic. However, this loss does not just factor in reading and math levels, emotional and mental skillsets also must be taken into consideration. 

Classroom teachers often experience unwanted and disruptive student behaviors, which can be a result of or contribute to an overall lack of focus. Educators will face challenges in building a bridge between learning loss, recovery, and retention if the emotional and mental impacts of the pandemic are not acknowledged and addressed. 

Building wholehearted relationships between teacher and student mends the mental and emotional ‘learning loss’ and shifts us from survive to thrive. 

If you are currently teaching in the classroom, then you have experienced an increase in unwanted and disruptive student behaviors contributing to a lack of focus. With little to no attention to emotional and mental impacts from the pandemic, educators will face a challenge in building a bridge from learning loss to recovery and retention. These emotional and mental losses can be mended with wholehearted relationship building from teachers to students. The good news is this is why most of us are in the business of education.  

If students are struggling to behave and concentrate think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Start at the bottom of the pyramid. Research shows that for students to learn effectively and feel safe in an environment, all prior needs must be met for adequate learning and retention. As educators, we know if a student is acting out there is an underlying issue causing the behavior. Many issues that correspond to lack of focus are connected to the need for attention, love and belonging, or the need to create to feel fulfilled, recognized, and valued (self-actualization). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs should be the first source to address when looking to increase positive behavior and student focus.  

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

With these hierarchies in mind, below are a few useful classroom tools to make addressing emotional and mental learning loss easier. 

Helpful Tips and Strategies for the Classroom 

When students are struggling to concentrate it may be time for a healthy snack or water break. This way, students get an energy boost while they work, and their brain gets the fuel it needs so they do not miss learning. 

If a student is struggling to engage, you can modify the assignment. Give students options and creative ways to finish their work. This gives them the opportunity to make authentic choices and to be invested in what they are doing. 

 Ask something like “How would you like to complete the assignment and show me what you know?”  

More things to try:  

  • Model being a “lead learner,” a facilitator of learning experiences and change the focus and emphasis from grades to learning and investigating 

  • Have students engage in more classroom/team-building tasks and activities. This can be done when students need a break from learning.  

  • Implement multicultural education and inclusive teaching techniques to help all students feel valued and welcomed. Brown and Baylor University have great free resources! 

We know the pandemic has disproportionately affected socioeconomically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups the worst. Food scarcity, neglect, and uncertainty in the home are all issues that were amplified during the pandemic and continue to affect many students. As you end the school year, take a step back, breathe, and remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.