Recognizing and Overcoming Attention Focus Challenges
How can I possibly know whether my kid is just goofing off or he’s having real difficulty paying attention? In a Reader’s Digest article, the author asks his son to put on his shoes. The father’s request marked the beginning of a woeful tale of a dad’s rise to total frustration and a young boy’s complete obliviousness as the words “…entered his left ear, and before they could penetrate his brain, [were] ejected out his right ear at nearly the speed of light.” When the father finally yells his request, his son Robert has no idea why his dad could possibly be so irritated.
Sound familiar to you?
What so many people want to know about Robert is this: Does this mean that Robert has Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.)?
Probably not. But then,attention focus problems occur in everyone from time to time, not just to those with A.D.D. Let’s face it, we all have problems focusing our attention at times. Attention focus becomes a problem only when it is out of our control…when it controls us and interferes with our learning and daily lives.
Recognizing and Overcoming Attention Focus Challenges: Three Categories of Common Attention Disruption
Attention focus problems have many “faces.” There are different types and they may look different on different people. The good news is that most can be overcome with proper training. Below are three broad categories of common attention focus disruption and some of the issues, or symptoms,that individuals may be dealing with daily.
Excessive Activity (constant movement, either physical or mental)
For these individuals, the body is in constant motion and out of control. They have too much unchanneled physical energy. They always seem to be playing with something, can’t seem to stay in their seat, and in fact, often prefer to work standing up. Mentally their attention may be jumping from one thought to another too fast to fully absorb anything.
Some have an inability to filter out unimportant things and focus on what is relevant. They pay equal attention to everything. The ability to focus on the important stimuli and let everything else be in the background is called figure-ground. A child with an auditory figure ground problem may find the hum of the air conditioner, feet shuffling, pencils writing, a classmate whispering, and a page turning to be equally as loud and demanding of his or her attention as the teacher’s voice.
A person with a visual figure ground problem may live in a world that looks like a page from Where’s Waldo . They see everything but nothing stands out as important. On a written page, the white spaces may stand out as prominently as the letters, making it almost impossible to focus on anything.
Distractibility (external and internal)
Distractibility is different from figure-ground in that the individuals can focus their attention on something. But they tend to shift their focus easily and remain there instead of shifting back to what they were doing. Distractions may be external or internal. Individuals with creative, active minds can often wander way off target and become absorbed in their own visualizations, triggered perhaps by a single word that they heard or read.
Many dyslexic and A.D.D. individuals are highly intelligent and highly visual. They often tend to be creative, “right-brained” thinkers, who think in concepts and pictures. They may have the ability to see in dimension, to mentally “see” objects from all sides. This perceptual talent lends itself to drawing, building, putting things together, and recalling concrete or visual information.
Disorientation is the loss of focus triggered by confusion – for these individuals is almost always associated with efforts to work with symbols or to listen . When the person experiences confusion about symbols (such as letters or numbers), his brain really wants to understand. If this person, who can easily “see” in dimension, goes to his most comfortable thinking style, he can perceive the letter or word from different angles, recoding different images of the word or letter in his mind and making it hard to retrieve.
Disorientation can be triggered by overwhelm, particularly with language. If there seems to be too much information, the individual may become disoriented and lose track of what is going on around him.
Another common characteristic of disorientation is that it often throws-off a person’s internal time clock. He or she may start working or talking extremely fast or extremely slowly. A student who loses his focus may find at the end of a 20 minute math period that he has written only one problem. He truly doesn’t know where the time has gone and may be angry at the teacher for not giving the class time to do the assignment.
Strategies For Teaching Attention Focus
Children and adults with these types of attention focus problems are not in control of their attention and generally do not recognize when they have gotten distracted or disoriented. Many things can be done to help a child to be more successful at paying attention at any one moment. The atmosphere of the Learning Center, when the students work one-to-one in a quiet place is set-up for it. The clinicians can sit close to the students and constantly refocus them. Unfortunately, the “real world” isn’t like that.
To be independent learners, children must also be taught how to attend. The Therapeutic Literacy Center is built on the premise that children and adults with at least average intellectual potential can and should become proficient readers. We believe that about attention focus also. Children and adults CAN learn to be in control of their own attention.
There are several different techniques that can be employed to facilitate attention control, including Edu-K, Orientation Counseling, and floor balance and balance beam work. While most of these strategies require training to use them properly, there are some basic steps critical to any attention focus training.
First, the individual must learn to recognize what it feels like to be “on” (focused) and “off” (unfocused).
Have the student walk forward and backward on a line on the floor, keeping his eyes focused on a spot on the wall. Or have the student toss and catch a beanbag, keeping his eyes on the beanbag as it goes up and down.
Guide the student verbally using a slow, soft voice. The key is for the student to be able to wok on the line or toss the beanbag with slow, controlled movements. As the student gains control of his balance and movements, he is also increasing his attention control. Through questioning, help him to think about what it feels like to be focused. Help him “remember” this feeling so that he can transfer it to homework, schoolwork, etc.
Second, guide the student in recognizing what happens, what he does, when is “off” or loses his focus (eyes defocus, turns pale, looks around, starts talking or writing at warp speed, stumbles over words, slows/slurs his speech, etc.).
Third, the student and teacher or parent must recognize what triggered the confusion or loss of focus. The confusion must be eliminated or the confusing pieces (such as letters or words) must be mastered.
And finally, the student must have a strategy for getting back “on.” This can often be done by applying the same techniques that were used in step one.
Permission to Pay Attention
Individuals sometimes need to be taught to give themselves permission to refocus their attention. For example, one of our students became very distracted by the sound of a metronome in an adjacent room. His session was totally disrupted because he could not stop listening to it.
However, after exploring what the noise was, and practicing giving himself permission to stop listening to it, he was able, on several later occasions to say, “Oh, I know what the clicking noise is. I don’t have to listen to that anymore” and return to his task. Students can learn to give themselves permission to quit paying attention to classroom distractions such as the pencil sharpener, in this way also.
Programs and References for Attention Focus Techniques
Davis. R. Davis Orientation Master Training (Inservice Training services) Burlingame, CA: Reading Research Council. (1799 Old Bayshore Highway, Suite 248, Burlingame, CA 94010 Dennison, P. and Dennison, G. (1989) Brain Gym: Teacher’s Edition. (Manual to explain, instruct, and facilitate movement activities for whole brain learning (Glendale, CA: Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc. (P.O. Box 5002, Glendale, CA 91201) Smith, J.M. (1991) You Don’t Have To Be Dyslexic. Sacramento, CA: Learning Time Publications (4436 Engle Road, Sacramento, CA)