Monthly Archives: July 2013

Don’t Just Sit There. Do Something. (Short and to the Point Version)

This is the abridged version of the blog post. Scroll down to Don’t Just Sit There. Do Something (Long and Winding Version) for the full blog post.

Your camp is getting ready for their first field-trip to a swimming pool. Obviously, it is critical that they know how to behave safely.  Before you line up for the bus, you need to go over some ground rules.  You sit them down in a circle, emphasizing that it is very important that they pay attention.  Within two minutes, Samantha and Lucinda are whispering to each other, and Devin is spinning around in circles. Within five minutes, Chloe is filing her nails, Lane is playing the drum on the floor with a pencil, and Carlton is doing everything in his power to crack-up Damon and Hwei  Nyi.  A few minutes later, you notice that D’Treena is staring out the window, while Antwan and Gavin are finger-kicking a paper football.

What is going on? You are not asking them to sit through a lecture on quantum physics.  All you are asking of them is to listen to a few minutes of critical instructions. How will you respond? Yell? Deduct points from a reward system? Use time-out? Cancel the field trip? Ignore the behaviors and plow through the instructions anyway? Adjust your method of covering this essential information?

In a study of children who were developing typically and children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Mark Rapport et al found that the ability of typically developing children to remain focused on-task was no more than  7 minutes, while the attention of children with ADHD ranged from 2 to 5 minutes, depending on whether they had been diagnosed with or without the attention deficit component of ADHD (Rapport, M. et al, 2009). Whatever your capacity to focus, a child’s capacity is less.  Whatever your capacity to PRETEND to focus, a child’s capacity is less.

In June, Deb Shapiro, my colleague from Camping for All, and I led a workshop on “Just Sit Time” for the summer camp staff of Charlottesville Parks and Recreation.  Knowing that there were many years of experience and many outstanding camp leaders in the room, we decided the group could help us write this post.  What follows is drawn from their observations and ideas as well as some additional observations and ideas offered by Ms. Shapiro and myself.

Danger Zones

We asked the 66 participants in our workshop to identify times that behavior tends to unravel.

l.  These are there activities that they identified as most likely to be problematic:

  • Waiting
  • Watching
  • Listening
  • Transitioning
  • Large Group Times

Great Expectations

Set expectations that are clear, reasonable, and realistic. Make sure that your expectations are clearly, concretely explained, using visual aids such as demonstrations and posted rules.

Please. Let Me Explain.

Tempting as it is to explain why they need the directions, and what happened last time, this verbiage is adding “just-sit time” and probably confusing your students. Keep it concise and break it up. Don’t explain everything at once, find ways to move students from listening to active modes often. An attention grabber alerts the student that they really need to listen now. It can be perfectly straight forward, as in “I need your attention for a moment” or it can be intriguing. “Hey guys, did your parents ever tell you not to draw on the walls? Well, today you are going to draw on the walls.” Audience Involvement. Allow for questions and comments, or get students to act out instructions along with you. Let someone else talk. Trying drawing some information out of the group. (“Can anyone tell me the safe way to go down a waterslide?”) Get silly.  Another great way to grab and keep attention is to clown around just a bit. (“We’re going to be painting a mural today, so I want everyone to crowd all around the wall and all of you try to paint the same thing at the same time, because that way you won’t just be painting the walls, you’ll be painting each other. “) Don’t take this so far that you get your group wound up. A little humor goes a long way. Engage their eyes.  Don’t just say it. Show it. Walk over to the paint table and pick up the paints as you talk about the colors they will be using. Engage their bodies. Likewise, get your students moving, even as you go through the instructions. (“Okay, now everyone stand up, spread out a little, and pretend to paint on a mural.  How far apart is everyone? Good.”) Save some for later. Maybe you don’t have to explain it all at once.  Can you begin an activity and stop after 10 minutes to explain the next step?  Repeat after me. Asking students to repeat back instructions helps you check for understanding and gives them a chance to talk (and hear a different voice). It also alerts them to the fact that they need to listen, because they are going to be asked to repeat your instructions.

Keep it in sight.

Divide and conquer.  Whether it’s sitting in group time or waiting in line, you want to keep apart children who trigger one another’s challenging behaviors.Get in there! Spread your staff among your students.  The very presence of an adult nearby can have a settling effect. Case the joint. Look around the environment of your program. What blocks your view of a section of the space? A bookshelf, a hedge? Can the items be moved? Trimmed back?

Find something to do. There are many opportunities for students and campers to find themselves with too much time on their hands. Be prepared to keep students occupied during these periods of otherwise unstructured time. Have a game plan. When the whole group is unoccupied, games can be played on the spot with little or no equipment. A bag of tricks.  Decks of cards, games, books, finger-puppets, simple art supplies — these things can be thrown in a fanny-pack or day-pack and carried along on any trip away from site. Up to More Tricks. At your permanent site, a box or shelf of tricks can be just as helpful.  Can You Lend Me a Hand? Look for situations or times of day that certain children tend to become restless and assign them chores suited to their high level of energy. There’s Something in This for Everyone. The best science programs I have seen do not have one child up in front doing an activity while the other children watch; they have multiple stations in which children, who understand expectations for cooperative learning, complete the assigned activity in small groups.  This should hold true for other activities, such as cooking. You can have multiple groups doing the same thing (everyone is constructing a simple electrical circuit) or stations  with  specific tasks (chopping, measuring, blending). It is not active learning if one or two students are active while the rest watch!

Change is Hard. During our workshop, staff identified transition times as among the most difficult times of their programs.  Behavior problems may arise out of the various challenges that transitions produce.  Leaders who understand and anticipate these challenges can stay ahead of the game. We have already talked about several strategies than will be helpful here:

  • Set and review clear expectations.
  • Look for ways to keep students occupied physically and mentally during the transition.
  • Mix adults throughout the crowd.
  • Strategically arrange children who have difficulty with transitions close to adults and far from their most distracting peers.

There are additional strategies that can be particularly helpful with transitions.

Advance warning systems. Giving five minute warnings before ending an activity can prepare your children mentally and physically for the coming change. A verbal reminder may be enough, but for visual learners, I like to hold up five fingers.  Various types of timers can be used as added visual cues. Rites of Passage. Many camps and other programs have developed “rituals” for transition activities that keep mouths and hands occupied (singing with hands in air as they enter a dining hall). Be Prepared.  Quick, efficient transitions are bound to go better than slow, confusing ones. To the extent that you possibly can, prepare and collect your materials in advance. And as you set out materials, engage your students in this task as much as possible, especially those easily distracted children we discussed above.

From Danger Zones to Safe Zones

Failure to adapt activities to a child’s predictably short attention span has potential to result in disruptive behavior. This is true for all children, but more so for children with unusually short attention spans.  Fortunately, there are many strategies that be employed to turn those “dangerous zones” into “safe zones.”  Define expectations clearly, and review them often.  Develop strategies that reduce the amount of time children are expected to sit doing nothing at all but listen, watch, and/or wait.  Mix adults in with children. Prepare for transitions.

What are some of your favorite strategies for turning danger zones into safe zones? Please reply to share your success stories.


Rapport, M. et al (2009). Variability of Attention Process in ADHD: Observations in the  Classroom.  Journal of Attention Deficit Disorders, 12.  563-573