Betwixt: The Incredible Shrinking Attention Span

It started with a simple fidget, a slight shift in his chair.

Next, I heard a student cough.

Within minutes, my entire class of seventh grade boys was squirming like a mess of worms in a fisherman’s tackle box as I vainly attempted to teach a lesson.

In desperation, I held a whiteboard eraser over my head. I announced that the first student who could grab the eraser and bring it back to me would get to write the answers on the board in front of the class.

Not really an exciting goal, I know. But it worked.

I chucked the eraser across our large youth room, and watched as thirty boys scrambled over each other, around chairs, and raced to bring the eraser back.

As they resumed their seats again, their entire body language changed. They were refocused, re-energized and ready to dive into our lesson with renewed vigor.

Why do I relay this story to you? It’s because it indicates a reality that we, as youth leaders, need to keep in mind as we seek to reach our students and talk about God’s forgiveness and grace.

We’re living in an age of what I not-so-fondly refer to as the “incredible shrinking attention span.”

As I taught that group of seventh graders, I had intentionally structured my lesson to capture their attention. I had anticipated that they were active, energetic teenagers, and that we needed compelling topics, interactive activities and vigorous discussion to keep their attention on the subject at hand.

But no matter how carefully a teaching opportunity can be crafted, it’s difficult to grasp just how short the attention span of students can be. And sometimes, you have to throw a wrench in your own plans in order to recapture the attention of your youth.

We live in an age where students are being raised by television shows that interrupt the most dramatic story lines with a barrage of fast-paced commercials. Our students listen to online radio stations that interrupt them with advertisements, surf internet sites where pop-up messages lurk around every corner, and constantly carry around cell phones that pepper each moment with text messages from friends and family.

Our culture embraces ever-shortening communication, moving in the last twenty-odd years from postal messages to faxes to email to instant messages, and now to text messages and social media. In just a few short years, our attention spans have been curtailed even more to prefer Twitter-style messages that don’t exceed 140 characters. Even movies, songs and news headlines have been slashed to sate our short-attention-span appetites.

How can we possibly deal with this?

I’ve been researching this subject for a while. Most experts say that we’re facing an unprecedented shortening of focus, but they agree on a few basic principles that can keep our students on track.

Keep Kids Engaged

Seek to constantly break up your lessons and studies with engaging activities. Think creatively–utilize discussion, drawing, molding, crafting, movement, hand motions, exploration, debate and anything else you can think of to capture all the senses.

One helpful tip I’ve observed is to have students summarize a Bible story or discussion back to you after they’ve listened to it being read or silently followed along in a workbook or Bible. Often, I’ll say, “Give me the Twitter version of this,” and I’ll prompt them to explain it in just a few sentences. Breaking larger jobs, duties or readings into smaller “chunks” is also a great way to keep short attention spans focused on the task at hand.

Lessen Distractions

Turn off the background music, close the door so people don’t walk in and around your room and put the coloring sheets away. Make every attempt to host your groups in places that aren’t high-traffic, busy or noisy. Have kids put their phones away, or collect them all in a basket when they walk into the room so they aren’t constantly checking their texts and messages.

Model to them the same level of focus that you’d like to see in them. Resist the urge to check your own phone, or chat with fellow leaders, or surf through your emails while they’re talking or learning. They’re watching your behavior, too.

Use Signposts

In a formal speech, “signposts” indicate where a speaker is going in their discussion, and what you can expect. The same logic is helpful in focusing our students’ short attention spans. I’ve found it beneficial to explain where we’re going in a lesson, saying things like, “First we’re going to read this Bible story, then we’re going to talk about it in small groups and then we’re going to do an activity to show how it applies to our lives.” If nothing else, it gives them a glimpse that they won’t be sitting in a chair being lectured to for the next two hours.

Be Frank

Sometimes, I’ll explain to the kids themselves that research shows that developmentally, they can focus on what we’re talking about for at least 15 minutes (generally, the rule is roughly one minute of attention for every year old they are–so a seven-year-old can focus intently for seven minutes, a thirteen-year-old can focus for thirteen minutes, and so on).

Upon hearing this–and realizing science backs up my words with facts–students enthusiastically dive in to the lesson and focus on what we’re doing. And, as an added bonus, they usually remind me exactly 15 minutes later that their attention is waning–in effect, they self-police their attention spans and alert me when it’s time to move on to the next activity.

Have Expectations

If you’re a regular reader of my articles, you’ll know that I talk a lot about our expectations for students. To paraphrase a favorite adage, “Shoot for the moon, and if you miss, you’ll still land among the stars.”

In the same way, have high expectations for your students. They will rise to meet your personal expectations, every time. Don’t confuse that with me saying they will be perfect–no one, not even the most wonderful Christian teens–are perfect. But having high standards will give them much-needed goals and boundaries that are critical to their development as well-rounded adults. Having high expectations of focus and attention in your time together will be a blessing to them for the duration of their lives.

Even as you have high expectations, it’s important to keep in mind that your students are not perfect and they will lose focus–it’s part of being human, but also part of being a young teenager whose brain is still developing. When our students fail, we have the privilege of reminding them that we have a Savior who gave up His very life for us on the cross and rose triumphantly so we can weather any storm in life, knowing that we have boundless forgiveness offered to us and the hope of eternal life to spur us forward.

This same Savior knows us intimately. He knows that our students will lose focus, and He knows that we’ll get angry when our students are distracted. (And just as He forgives our students, He forgives us, as well.)

It’s infinitely comforting to me to be reminded of Jesus’ words in John 10:14-15: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus didn’t tell us that He only lays down His life for those sheep that actually pay attention to Him perfectly–and what a comfort that is for all of us to know.

Published January 3, 2013

About the author

Cassie Moore is an author, speaker, and Director of Next Gen Ministries at St. Mark Lutheran Church & School in Houston, Texas. She’s author of “Authentic Youth Ministry: Straight Talk about Working with Kids, Teens & In-Betweens”, contributor for “Connected for Life: Essential Guide to Youth Ministry”, and an upcoming historical fiction series. She grew up in Illinois & Minnesota, has a degree from Concordia University in Irvine, California, has worked on national & district youth gatherings, and enjoys speaking nationally. She loves observing culture, travel, & talking to strangers. She and her husband, Pastor Tyler, have two dogs. Connect with her at
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