Keeping a child’s attention is every teacher’s everyday challenge. We plan lessons with that idea in mind, we seek new teaching methods to be more dynamic in class, we train ourselves to practise positive reinforcement as if it were our religion. In essence, we make every effort to be fun and entertaining to the kids so they pay attention. But, does it depend on us entirely?
Please raise your hand at any point if the following scene sounds familiar: You make an engaging, well-planned explanation about a topic in the unit you are studying with your class. Your words have been very carefully chosen and you have reduced your speech to minimum instructions to allow more time for drilling and practice for the students to take a more active role in the learning process. You are nailing it! The children are all looking at you, hands down on the table and you have managed to create one of those rare atmospheres of absolute silence. It’s paradise. The time has come for you to start making questions to check their understanding. You fire your first question, for which you get an incomplete answer. Never mind, you tell yourself, let’s try someone else. You move on to the second student and… could you repeat the question, teacher? Okay, I will repeat the question… And several failed attempts later you throw your arms up in despair and start wondering what you have done wrong.
You get frustrated, the kids feel your disappointment and feel bad about themselves. The learning process has failed! You have failed as a teacher and you should probably start looking for another job. Except perhaps you shouldn’t. Perhaps there is one thing we might be overlooking when we plan and carry out our lessons.
Let’s go back to that atmosphere of silence and full attention. What time is it? Is it the first period, maybe? The second? Your pupils have spent only one or two hours in school so they can hardly be tired, right? Don’t these kids have breakfast in the morning or what? You ask yourself… Oh! Crap!
Skipping breakfast deprives the brain of the glucose it needs to fuel up in order to function. According to a study by Indian nutritionists and paediatricians Dr Nitin Gajre, Dr Nagalla Balakrishna, Dr Sylvia Fernandez-Rao and Dr Shahnaz Vazir on the influence of breakfast on attention levels in school children, “The gap of about 10 to 12 hours between dinner and breakfast causes, low blood glucose levels and habitually missing breakfast can adversely affect cognitive performance”. The study tests different groups of children from different backgrounds and contexts on their regular breakfast consumption and draws a relationship to attention, concentration and memory. It then goes on to assert that “Children who skip breakfast […] are unlikely to attend and concentrate on the teacher’s lecture in the morning session because they are hungry”.
So, an extremely beneficial skill any teacher can work on is to be aware of the environment and the context in which we are teaching. If you are a teacher and you are reading this, try to remember this the next time you go into a classroom.
This is particularly important in areas or social-economical contexts where students skipping breakfast are rather the common challenge to find. And if we replicate its effects on a daily basis, the chances are the cognitive damage will be incalculable. In other words, if “skipping breakfast were to occur frequently, they would be likely to have a cumulative adverse effect that may place a child’s school progress at risk”[i].
As international teachers in any underdeveloped school environment, we cannot expect children to perform as their peers in our home country. We should always take every factor into account to better develop a plan that tackles the issues we are faced with and be ready to accept that a kid’s performance differs from country to country because of the reality they each live. The best is to leave our preconceived expectations at the door before we step into our classroom and display our best teaching without imposing any of our learned prejudices about what a good student is or is not.
[i] Gajre et al. (2008) ‘Breakfast Eating Habit and its Influence on Attention-concentration, Immediate Memory and School Achievement’ in Indian Pediatrics volume 45, October 17. National Institute of Nutrition. Hyderabad, India