Wondering what attention really is, what causes it, and what you can do about it?
First of all, the simple definition of paying attention means being able to focus on the important stuff while ignoring the things that aren’t important. For example, let’s say you have an important project to finish at work. You need to be able to sit down at your desk and get started. If you keep turning your head to watch who is heading to the coffee machine, or if you keep perking your ears up to hear the latest gossip at the water canteen, you will definitely not finish your project in time.
In school, there are many potential distracters for your child: children whispering, watches beeping, the janitor sweeping the sidewalks outside, the faulty air conditioner system, and so on. Your child needs to be able to screen out all of these distractions while at the same time focusing on what the teacher is saying.
Although it is obvious when a child has trouble paying attention, it’s not always obvious why this is so. Part of this is due to the fact that “attention” is a very broad term. Saying a child has trouble paying attention is like saying you have a stomach ache. You could have indigestion, appendicitis, or an undiagnosed hernia. In order to really determine why you are in so much pain, your doctor would insist on examining you in order to make a diagnosis.
Unfortunately, even though 1 out of 4 children in the U.S. are taking medicine, and the second largest group of medicines being given are attention-enhancing drugs, few professionals seek to discover the underlying reasons for your child’s inability to pay attention.
In truth, there are a lot of reasons why your child might have trouble paying attention. It’s simply not enough to give your child Ritalin and hope things work out. At best, attention-enhancing medications are only a tool that will help your child begin to take responsibility for his or her behavior. Look at it this way: if before medication your child was like a car without brakes, then giving him medication is like restoring the brakes. However, someone will still need to know when to apply the brakes, how hard, and for how long. That person is your child.
Your child’s ability to take charge of this attention is critical to his success. Attention can be compared to the conductor of an orchestra. In the same way that a conductor doesn’t actually play music, but is totally responsible for those who do, your child’s attention system is responsible for many individual brain functions that govern his ability to think, learn, and get along with others. Even if your child has strong skills in numerous areas, if he is unable to master his attention system he will be like an orchestra without a conductor.
When we examine the attention system, which Dr. Mel Levine refers to as the attention control system, there are three major controls that play a role. One of these is called the “mental energy system.” Have you ever noticed that sometimes your mind feels like molasses pouring on a cold day? You want to garner the energy you need to start work on that important project, but whenever you start to tackle it you start to feel sleepy, or it seems to take an inordinate amount of effort in order to understand the most basic of information.
This is an example of the mental energy control system. It is akin to the fuel regulator in your car, which determines how little or how much gas goes to your engine. Too little, and your engine won’t start. Too much, then you run the danger of burning out your engine, or running out of fuel before you get to your destination.
The two major forms of behavior the mental energy control system is responsible for are alertness, and mental effort. Children who suffer from a weak mental energy control system may react in two different ways. Some children appear sleepy no matter how much sleep they get. They may yawn or sleepy, especially when they have to sit still. These children are the ones who slowly wilt into their seat as the class goes on.
Other children may appear exactly the opposite: they may fidget, squirm in their seat, or show other behaviors that are really an attempt on their part to stay awake. Ever notice how some children get even wilder when they are tired? Suddenly they become obsessive talk show hosts, or look like they are trying out for the Olympic Triathelon – all in an effort to keep their systems up and going.
Children can also be more alert at different times of the day. Some children are simply night owls, who are only beginning to warm up when the rest of are winding up for the day. These children may also be off in terms of their sleep schedule: they may have great difficulty getting or staying to sleep at night, and as a consequence might be hard to wake up in the morning. This is also called a sleep-arousal imbalance.
Other children are more or less alert depending on how information is presented to them. Some children are weak when it comes to information presented in an auditory format, while others tilt off when presented information in a visual format. This children might show inconsistent performance; one day they might be bull’s eye on target, while the next they aren’t even at the competition.
This is often extremely frustrating for parents and teachers-and the children too. Parents and teachers are often angry at the child, feeling that this behavior is being done purposely. The child, on the other hand, is often confused and at a loss; he would love to be in top form every day, but he is at a loss at how to do so. Often he feels as if he is at fault, although he has little control of how much “fuel” his system receives on any particular day.
Another frustrating truth is that the same child who can’t manage to expend a little bit of effort at school suddenly turns into a work-horse for thing she enjoys. Parents look at the child and exclaim, “Well, she spends plenty of time on the phone!” Although this is undeniable, it is also true that these activities are fun and motivating, while most school related activities are not interesting or highly-motivating. They require a lot of effort, over an extended period of time, and rewards for doing so are often not immediate.
Many people are able to overcome this, because they recognize the long-term value of pursuing such activities, and because they can manage to sustain a reasonable amount of mental effort while engaged in an otherwise unsatisfying activity. These children, however, find it extraordinarily difficult.
Stay tuned for my next post on attention, where you’ll learn 16 new tips to help the child with weak mental energy controls at home and at school!