Monday, June 21, 2010

Making Sense of Attentional Issues

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Very often, a parent will say to me, "My child couldn't possibly have any attentional issues. He has an amazing ability to focus!  He can spend hours and hours playing a video game {or putting together Legos, or watching television} without ever so much as looking up.  He he gets so lost in what he's doing sometimes that we have to call his name several times to get him to respond.  There's nothing wrong with his attention span!"

What his teachers will tell me:  "The child often can't attend to what is required of him at any given moment in class and we spend a great deal of our energy and resources trying to get him to settle down and focus.   Or when he does manage to sit and concentrate {on something of his own choosing,  like a book or a puzzle,}  he becomes so absorbed in what he's doing that he's no longer actively participating in the group.  He has very little in available to him between those two extremes,  and can't attend successfully to class activities or assignments when there are other things going on around him.  He has to shut it all out completely, or he will become distracted and disorganized.  He often needs a grownup nearby to help steady him, and demands a lot of extra attention, by either approaching the teacher to tell him what to do or by his actions, which require redirection."  

Attention is the ability to concentrate on some feature or features of the environment, to the relative exclusion of others.

 It's the word "relative" that is the gold standard here.  Everyone is capable of getting completely lost in what he's doing.  One of the very great pleasures of life, in fact, is becoming so absorbed by an activity that the world falls away.  We are in a reverie, at one with our hands, our imaginations, and our materials.  We are in another world entirely.  When we are forced to come away from this state before we are ready, we are often a bit discombobulated and have difficulty transitioning back to our actual environment.

This is a delightful state,  and how great art and works of genius are made.  But hyperfocus, to the exclusion of everyone and everything, is not appropriate for most of the demands of modern life.  It doesn't work at school.  The kind of attention we need to succeed there is more flexible than this complete, all encompassing absorption, and is more in tune with the rest of the environment.  It doesn't completely exclude our surroundings.  It doesn't take us so far away from everyone and everything that we need to be called and called to come back.  It allows us to exclude what is irrelevant while remaining in synch with everything around us.

When we are in the classroom, even if we are concentrating hard on our assignments, we should be able to maintain an easy awareness of everything that is going on around us.  Although we may be choosing not to respond to it, we know that there is noise and movement swirling around us, and there are other people in the vicinity talking and doing things.  Although we are focused on the task at hand, we should be able to be called out of ourselves quite easily,  respond,  and then go back to what we are doing without becoming derailed by the interruption.   We should be able to do this even when the class is noisy, there are other things going on at the same time, or when the other children sitting next to us at the table may be engaged in some other pursuit.  We should be able divide our attention easily.  School, like life, requires us to be able to attend to several things at the same time.  While working on an automatic task, for example cutting or coloring,  we should be able to cut or color easily and accurately while chatting with our neighbors and keeping an eye out for the teacher.

The ability to attend is a complex skill and is predicated on many things.  We need be able to control our need and desire for movement so that we can sit still.  We need to be able to filter out distractions.  We need to have the instinctive ability to focus on what is relevant and ignore what is irrelevant to us in that moment.  We need to have excellent command of our close vision.  We need to have the internal structure and maturity in place that would allow us to focus on something other than what would necessarily  motivate us.  We need to be able to tolerate frustration, so that when something doesn't come automatically or easily, we are willing to struggle without instantly giving up.  We need to have sufficient control over our impulses, so if the thought "I'm thirsty" floats into our minds, we stay focused and do not immediately jump up and run in search of a drink.  If people around us are talking, we should not get so distracted by the conversation that we can't attend to what we're doing.  If people get up and start walking around, we should not be so pulled out of what we are doing to watch them that we forget the task at hand.

If your very young child is having difficulty attending at school, it may be that their expectations of the children's abilities are not realistic.  I have visited so many classrooms over the years where the teacher is spending a large portion of her time and energy just trying to get the children to sit still.  I always want to take these teachers aside and point out that the reason these children can't keep still is because they need to be moving!  Movement is what activates the brain and drives development forward.  We should be providing ample opportunities for young children to move, not denying them, especially to children who live in cities and who don't have ready access to nature.

Or perhaps your child's maturity and temperament are not right for that particular classroom.  If your child is someone who has a high energy level and needs to move a lot, it's not fair or realistic to put him in a classroom that requires him to sit for long periods, skimps on the recess and structured movement opportunities, and then to expect him to thrive there.  Most three year old boys are just not ready to go to school anyway, so if yours is struggling there and is fine everywhere else, it's entirely possible that he just needs to wait another year or two before he's ready.

There are some things we can do to help very small children learn the skills to pay attention.  I would strongly recommend reducing or eliminating television viewing, including  educational videos.  The most resourceful, independent, creative people I know didn't watch television when they were children.

The same for computers.  Children need to spend their time manipulating three dimensional objects and moving their bodies against gravity before the age of six.  Your three year old does not need to be sitting in front of a keyboard looking at a two dimensional screen.  He has no opportunity to develop depth perception, balance, or fine and gross motor coordination there.   He'll have the rest of his life, after he has acquired those essential developmental skills, to sit in front of a computer or a television.

{And please try not to spend a lot of time on your cell phone or Blackberry when you're with your children.  Interact with them instead.}

I also recommend making sure the bulk of the child's toys are things that lend themselves to creative play and are open ended.   Limit toys that have lots of bells and whistles but don't actually require much interaction from the child.

Help a child learn to tolerate frustration and solve his own problems by not jumping in every time he struggles.   Play board or card games as a family to teach social interaction skills and learn to lose gracefully.  Other family activities that teach good social interaction and expand attentional skills are charades, stink pink,  Fictionary, Pictionary, and those old fashioned games you play in the car like looking for license plates.

Make sure your child gets outside to play every single day.  The stronger and healthier his body, the more it will support his brain and his hands.

Cook with your child. Have dinner together as a family every night.  Take turns talking about your day.

Read to your child before he goes to bed.

More ideas here.

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