Helping a student remain on task

iStock_000021886001XSmall (1)Research on students’ ability to manage classroom assignments – their approach to tasks, the cognitive strategies they employ to focus on a task, to follow through and to finish an assignment – has begun to demonstrate the important influence these factors exert on academic achievement.

One of the basic requirements of school is that children be able to complete assignments independently. The ability of children to plan their approach to tasks, to organize, to evaluate their performance and to reinforce themselves for their efforts are important factors in their ability to function independently.

Yet, many students lack these basic skills or are inefficient in their work habits. Often, such students experience failure in the elementary years, and this leads to poor self-esteem and decreased motivation. They are caught in a cycle in which they think poorly of themselves and perform poorly as a result.

Brenda H. Manning, of the University of Georgia, has been studying student self-management. By analyzing the work habits and the way in which students talk to themselves during independent seatwork, she and other researchers have discovered a pattern of negative “self-talk” which appears to inhibit learning and performance in school.

Poor self-management skills

In her most recent article in Contemporary Educational Psychology, Manning examines the case study of a fourth grade girl who exhibited poor self-management skills.

“Jill” exemplifies this common problem. She has above average intellectual ability and wants to do well in school, but she lacks an understanding of the strategies effective students use to cope with the demands of school. Jill’s former teachers all described her as cooperative, even eager, when the learning is being directed by the teacher.

However, she was unable to complete her work unless the teacher attended to her continuously. Some teachers had labelled her “lazy” and “unmotivated”. In interviews, Manning found Jill to be energetic, perceptive and fully aware of her school problems. Classroom observation revealed that Jill was ‘on task’ only 15% of the time during independent seatwork.

Cognitive self-instruction

Following interviews, testing and observation, Manning instituted a program of “cognitive self-instruction” which called for the teacher to model and Jill to practice appropriate self-management behaviors for 4 months. The behaviors that this program attempted to develop were: focusing attention on and beginning a task as soon as it was assigned; following through without being distracted and completing the assignment.

These ‘on-task’ behaviors were taught by having the teacher model what effective learners say to themselves as they begin to work, and how they encourage themselves to continue and complete their work.

A checklist of questions, such as, “Do I have my materials today?” was prepared as a way for Jill to cue herself when working alone. Jill would also role play behaviors, imitating those encouragements which the teacher had modeled for her. Additional activities were used to reinforce these behaviors, including a concentration game in which the teacher deliberately tried to distract Jill from her work. Jill also used a tape recorder programmed with intermittent sounds. She was asked to record whether she was on or off task each time she heard the sound.

Nature of self-talk important

Manning states that the kinds of thoughts students have about themselves as they work – the “self-talk” they engage in while working – affects how well they perform a task. Neutral, task-relevant comments and coping statements, such as, “I’d like to stop but I can work longer,” or, “I’ll do this problem carefully,” have been found to enable students to focus on tasks and follow through, improving their classroom behavior and academic performance. However, Manning reports that exaggerated reinforcement statements, such as, “I’m going to get an A on this paper,” or, “I’m smart,” can increase anxiety or inflate a student’s sense of his or her ability.

The results of this training program were very positive. Both Jill and her teacher believed that she had improved greatly. A follow-up 3 months after the end of the training demonstrated that Jill had retainer her improvement in self-management skills, and an interview with Jill, at the same time, revealed that she had developed an internal sense of control; she stated that she was responsible for making sure her schoolwork was completed.

In conclusion, Manning points out that students who lack self-management skills, even if intellectually able and eager, often experience failure in school, and, because of this, tend to talk negatively to themselves, which inhibits their attempts to improve their school performance. Being made aware of when they are on and off task, being taught objective but positive task-relevant statements, and setting up a system of cues for a student can be an effective way to teach self-management for independent seatwork.

“Cognitive Self-Instruction for an Off-Task Fourth Grader During Independent Academic Tasks: A Case Study” Contemporary Educational Psychology Vol. 15, p. 36-46.

Published in ERN March/April 1990 Volume 3 Number 2

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