Relevance, the Key to Focus

By David Robertson, IPLI Mentor & Chief Academic Officer at Warsaw Community Schools

This past October was one of the best I can remember.  You see, I’m a lifetime, die-hard Cubs fan, and in case you don’t follow baseball, last season the Cubs won
the World Series.  The first World Series they’ve been to since 1945, and the first series win since Nineteen Ought Eight….

The day of the decisive game seven was a tough day for me.  I was leading an all-day professional learning session in my district but trying not to think about the game was so tough!  So yeah, focus for me that day was a challenge!

The good news is I had a great day at work!  I had a great day because I realized:

  • My work today matters.  
  • My work today is relevant.

Therefore, on this day, I was focused…even on a day when focus was a challenge.

What about our students?  How many times do they come to school struggling to focus? The struggle to focus is typically born of issues outside of school.  For me, on that day in October, it was a baseball game that was to be played at 8:00 p.m., but for our students, it may be lots of reasons — good reasons and bad reasons:

  • Maybe they have a special event after school.
  • Maybe they’ve got a family getaway this coming weekend.
  • Maybe they’re having friends over for a sleepover.


  • Maybe they didn’t have breakfast this morning.
  • Maybe a close relative or a pet died.
  • Maybe mom’s boyfriend hit them this morning.

See, our students come to us with baggage and not just long-term baggage, but daily-focus-baggage.  So how do we help our students focus?

Relevance!  Relevance is the key to focus!  When the work students do matters to them, focus isn’t an issue.  Even if there’s a lot going on outside of school, if the work they’re engaged in during the school day matters to them, they’re dialed in!

Finding ways to make the activities students engage in at school relevant can be tough.  Robin Roberson from the American Psychological Association identifies two ways to provide relevance for students – utility value and relatedness (http://bit.ly/2omEGoD).  Utility value answers the question – “What am I going to use this for?”  Relatedness answers the question – “What does this have to do with me?”

Relevance can be found in many ways, but one thing is for sure…finding what matters to kids requires the type of relationship with students that demands you know and care about their interests.  If you are looking for ideas for how to do this, just search the web.  Here are a few examples:

So, while there are days that even I struggle to focus, I am blessed to have the privilege of having work that is relevant to me…so I can focus, even on a day when focus is a challenge!