Thursday, May 26, 2005

Attention! Attention! What will it take to get your attention?

I received a personal reply to my post about AHDH and behaviour problems of little kids. The writer is a speech therapist. I thought she made some good points, some of which may be contradictory to the position I took in my post. So here, with her permission, is another perspective of the whole “what to do with kids who have trouble in school” challenge:

I'm on the fence here, working with kids and seeing how their inability to attend can affect their lives and their relationships with other kids. For some kids (a rare few) Ritalin has been a blessing. Not for the teachers, but for the kids, because they can focus enough to learn, and that is empowering.

Attention problems are a complex issue. It's not always a matter of "misbehaving" when they are in school. It's a matter of learning. Some kids are truly unable to attend, for various reasons, and so have a really hard time learning, which can have a huge impact on their self esteem, leading to depression, aggression etc, etc. etc.

It's important to look at the causes too, and at the impact inability to sustain attention can have on a child's life if they don't learn to manage their own attention in those early preschool years. And there are lots of things about our current culture that make it difficult for them to learn those skills when that window of opportunity is open in their developing brains.

Attention focussing/sustaining is a learned behaviour (achieving and sustaining beta wave brain activity)... as is impulsivity. It is learned partly by personal preference/style, opportunity and practice, and partly by imitation. And it is learned or not learned long before the child ever gets to school.

There are many, many things in children's early environments that can interfere with this learning process, by deliberately manipulating their attention externally, preventing them from taking time to reflect on what they see and hear, which builds attention skills. I also wonder about the current trend among parents to "multitask." It's not setting a good example for kids, re: focussing and sustaining attention.

Two good articles that explore how children's early environments can effect their ability to pay attention are Toddler TV Time May Shorten Attention Spans and Attention Problems Due to TV Before 3.

I think the reason most of these problems come up in school is that it is so language-based, vs. watching videos, playing sports, manipulating concrete objects in play, etc. Language means listening, and listening is time-sensitive.

If we want to spend a lot of time reflecting on visual information (pictures, written words) we have all the time in the world. Except for fast paced videos, which are artificial, most of the things we see are more permanent and we can go back and look at them again, or gaze for a long time while processing the information. But when someone's talking, their words go by in a fraction of a second, then they're gone.

If our attention wanders, the opportunity to learn from the unattended words is lost. Yes, the teacher can repeat, and does, often. But there are still some children who process slowly or can't remember what they hear (due to middle ear infections in preschool years interfering with learned listening skills? or a preference for visual sensory information that causes their attention to be pulled away from listening by tempting visual distractions?)

Listening is hard work for some kids. But it's a critical skill for all of us.I'd like to see a better informed public about preventing the problems... and a lot of research on non-chemical ways of teaching kids to focus, to sustain that beta wave activity... biofeedback comes to mind.

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