How to Win the Attentional Game of Tug-of-War


It’s a deafening roar: 35,000 screaming spectators have waited all year for this event. No, it is not baseball or football. It is an epic, old-school tug-of-war across the 2nd longest river in the U.S.A. Every August, a half-mile of rope (9 football fields) is stretched across the Mississippi River, between Illinois and Iowa. Even if you’ve never actually “played” or watched a tug-of-war, you likely can guess how it works. Illinois residents tug on one side of the rope as Iowa residents do the same from the other side of the river. For one weekend, teams work to pull the other team off balance and knock them off their feet. The reward? Aside from bragging rights, there’s a beautiful Alabaster Eagle trophy, and it’s a great fundraiser.

This year, the epic match of tug-of-war is in your brain between focus and distraction. Perhaps it has never been more challenging, both for you and your students. You may have felt “pulled off-balance” more than usual. The good news is that…

The Research

This month’s newsletter focuses on the science of distraction. Why are we narrowing in on distractions, and not just how to focus better? Because understanding your “opponent” is a vital step to winning any battle. We’ll divulge the actual source of distraction, along with the science of how and why the brain gets distracted. Ultimately, we’ll share a powerful yet simple 3-part tool to make the “focus magic” happen.

What is a distraction?
A distraction is anything that pulls you AWAY from what you are doing (or thinking).

Imagine a neurological game of tug-of-war involving multiple systems of the brain – the attentional system, emotional systems, working memory, executive functions, and more. As you’ve noticed in the past, they don’t always play nice together (Shafer & Dolcos, 2012).

Whether these systems are working for you (giving you a healthy “sticky” traction) or against you (as an annoying distraction) depends on the skills you possess. You and your students can retrain your brain to get what you want.

WHAT Pulls Students Away from the Task
Contrary to popular belief, students are not usually distracted by someTHING that is capturing their attention. What usually pulls students away from the task at hand is a feeling of discomfort. Our brain is typically moving away FROM perceived boredom/pain TOWARD pleasure/novelty (Kafkas & Montaldi, 2018) and connections.

Here is a ground-breaking shift in thinking for you: Next time you feel distracted, instead of naming the thing that is distracting you, identify the distracting feeling.

A student who veers away from an assignment might feel bored enough to search for the latest dance craze on TikTok or see what is trending on Netflix (novelty). A student who feels lonely or disconnected from friends will often reach for their social media app of choice for a sense of connection. The device (media app/cell phone) itself is not the distraction. Rather, the distraction is the need to connect with others and the media app can temporarily alleviate their boredom or feeling of loneliness.

In addition, if students perceive their learning experience as boring or painful, they will naturally seek something more enjoyable, meaningful, or novel.

WHY Students Get Pulled Toward Distractions
Often students are distracted by anything that is fulfilling a greater need. The well-supported Self-Determination Theory outlines three core psychological needs that drive student engagement and motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2013).

Competence – a sense of being good at something
Autonomy – having a perceived sense of choice
Relatedness – a feeling of connection to others

For many students right now, competence is wavering as they navigate new ways of learning. More restrictions are being placed on them, many of which impact their ability to connect with peers.

When students don’t feel good at something (competence), feel they have no choice in the matter (autonomy), and have little/no opportunities to connect with their peers (relatedness), they will be drawn toward distractions that meet those needs. It could be a video game they feel good at (competence), violating a rule so they feel in control (autonomy), or checking out their favorite YouTube video for hours (relatedness).

As you might guess, the goal is to incorporate feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness within the focus task.

HOW the Brain Gets Distracted
It would be great if your brain’s attentional systems naturally fell in line with your prioritized to-do list. Unfortunately, the priorities of your post-it note often don’t align with the priorities of your brain. The brain’s attentional systems are biased in layers. The first prioritized layer is survival, everything else is secondary.

A middle school student will be distracted by the movement of nearby students walking outside their class. Their brain says, “Moving objects might be unsafe” and “Are those students safely in my herd (affiliation) or not?” A K-5 student might be distracted by contrast (lights go on or off, a horn, voice, or a clapping sound says, “Wake up.”) A high school student may be distracted by emotions – laughter, screams, or tears. The untrained brain will always prioritize attention to safety or danger triggers.

Once core needs such as safety are felt, and the student feels like they belong, a whole new layer of triggers becomes relevant. The brain’s attentional systems are naturally drawn toward stimuli/tasks that are engagingtask-relevant, and rewarding (Fortenbaugh, DeGutis, & Esterman, 2017).

When the brain perceives a task is highly engaging, it can focus on that task for extensive amounts of time. You can see this in students spending hours deeply engaged in their music, dance, sports, a Harry Potter book, or theater training.

The brain thrives on relevancy. When pursuing something meaningful, the brain’s attentional systems will naturally suppress distractions and give extra focus to a relevant task (Stemmann & Freiwald, 2019). The significance of perceived relevance can be seen in the student who ignores the 50-problem math worksheet to go out to practice 50 layups in the driveway. The student in the driveway likely believes practicing their layups is more relevant to their current and future goals.

What we pay attention to is driven by rewards. The brain craves rewards (regulated by the dopamine reward system). When the reward is appealing enough, the brain will exert extra resources in pursuit of the reward (Anderson, 2019). Many martial arts programs are built on a system of rewards as you work to earn your next belt. Music classes have the reward of getting to play in a band or orchestra. In athletics, practice can help the student get better. When the coach sees that, he/she may see the reward of more playing time in the game.

Practical Applications

To help your students win the TUG-of-war between focus and distractions, teach them these three simple tools to stay focused. When they sense they are getting distracted, they can reach for these tools and TUG their focus back to the task at hand. Your acronym is T-U-G, which stands for “Tiny, Up the Why, and Get Up.”

T: Tiny Chunks
Boost the feeling of competence by asking, “What’s the smallest chunk I can do right now?” Break a daunting task into tiny chunks. Celebrate the completion of each mini-task. These frequent bursts of dopamine will foster greater motivation to stay on task (Lloyd & Dayan, 2015).

Support students in breaking assignments into small chunks. Instead of writing the assignment as “Complete problems 1-39 odd”, consider assigning “1-9 odd, then celebrate; 11-19 odd, then dance for 15 seconds …”

Model this approach to chunking in your instruction as well. Deliver small pieces of instruction (7-10 minutes) and then provide students an opportunity to apply, rehearse, or analyze what they just learned. Then jump back into your next chunk of content delivery.

U: Up the “Why”
Up the relevance of each task by asking yourself, “Why is this important to me? Why should I do this?” By upping the value of the WHY, you are playing into your brain’s natural attentional bias.

Guide your students to reflect on why an assignment, subject, or school, in general, is important to them. Encourage them to create a visual cue to remind themselves of why it matters. They could add a doodle to the top of their assignment to remind themselves of why it matters.

Here are visual examples of how to use “Why” reminders:

  1. Change the background of their phone/computer screen to a picture of the college they aspire to attend.
  2. Use a photo editing software to put their face into a picture of someone doing the profession they hope to also be doing after school.
  3. Create a mini vision board of the change they hope to make in their community or world.

The main idea here is to help students see a greater meaning beyond the individual task. This could also be done by helping students complete statements such as:

This is helping me to… OR By doing this, I am one step closer to…

G: Get Up (and Move)
Push back on the discomfort that drives distraction by asking yourself, “How can I re-energize my mind and body right now?” Give your body a short surge of adrenaline and cortisol with a quick movement activity. These work together to boost attention and focus (Donnelly et al., 2016).

Whether you are teaching in-person or virtually, infuse short energizer breaks into your instruction every 15-20 minutes. Here are a couple of new ones you can try:

  1. Have all students stand up and run in place.
  2. Instead of creating more polls on Zoom, have students select their multiple-choice responses by morphing their body into that letter (A, B, C, or D). Think of it as the YMCA of multiple-choice options.

The tug-of-war between focus and distraction can be won. Carve out 5-10 minutes this week to teach your students how to TUG their way into a win for them, for you, and their learning.

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

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