The Attention Dimension

Posted Date: 1/6/2011

The attention dimension

In recent years, attention has been the subject of considerable attention. We now realize that a child’s ability to focus effectively can affect his or her ability to succeed with schoolwork, control behavior and relate well to others.
To study and understand the many ways in which attention helps regulate some vitally important activities, my All Kinds of Minds colleagues and I think of attention as a series of brain controls. Many children experience problems with these attention controls, although different kids may show different patterns of strength and weakness. To help those who are having “attentional” problems, we must check out these controls and decide how well each one is working. The attention controls can be divided into the following three systems:

Mental-energy controls

Mental-energy controls regulate the flow of energy to the brain. They make sure that the part of your brain you are using at any given time is receiving the energy boost it needs to get its job done. Students whose mental-energy controls are not working optimally become mentally fatigued when they try to concentrate. Such students can face big problems. It’s as if they are substituting physical energy for their insufficient supply of mental energy.
Interestingly, children who have trouble maintaining their brain’s energy flow often have difficulty exerting mental effort. School tasks may seem to be too much work for them, especially those that are not pleasurable or instantly rewarding (such as homework).
These students may also have serious problems sleeping at night. We say they have a “sleep-arousal imbalance;” they don’t sleep quite right at night, and they are not totally awake and tuned in during the daytime.
It is important to realize, however, that kids who have trouble with mental energy do not have problems all of the time. They may go through periods when they concentrate and perform very well, only to decline soon afterwards. Performance inconsistency, therefore, is also a common feature of weak mental-energy control.

Processing controls

The second attention system is known as processing controls. The individual controls within this system regulate incoming information. The processing controls decide what’s important, what should be allowed to enter consciousness and how deeply we focus our concentration. They also determine how new information will be connected with what we already know, how many “bells it will ring” in our minds and how long we will focus on it. Additionally, processing controls allow us to take in and use less exciting information—material we are likely to need even though it’s not very entertaining.
The children who have trouble with processing controls may be highly distractible and may have trouble knowing what’s important when they read or listen. Often incoming information fails to ring bells at all. Conversely, ineffective processing can result in too many associations that lead, for example, to daydreaming.
By observing kids with processing control issues, you might see that they fail to concentrate long enough on certain matters, but they spend too much time on others. You might also notice that they can be insatiable, always needing excitement and fun, unable to focus on activities that don’t provide immediate gratification.

Production controls

Production controls of attention handle output. These controls help you plan, organize, monitor and predict the results of what you are doing or about to do. These controls help you make use of previous experience in deciding how to act or undertake a challenge. They enable you to know how you’re doing while you’re engaged in an activity, and how you’ve done once you’ve finished.
Children with production-control problems may do things too quickly without thinking, planning or previewing outcomes. They may fail to monitor their actions and neglect previous experience (e.g., “I got punished for that last week, so I’d better not do it again.”).
Children who have trouble with one or more of the attention-control systems can benefit from careful evaluation. Such evaluation can help pinpoint the specific nature of the attention deficit, and therefore, can lead to the most appropriate course of action. Often kids with attention deficits will also have other neurodevelopmental dysfunctions. Difficulties with memory, language or social skills can further impede their school performance.
As educators, parents and clinicians, we need to manage these complex situations by offering multiple kinds of intervention—tips, techniques, specific in-classroom or at-home accommodations, strategies and activities that help the student work through or around the particular learning or behavior problem. Note that in some cases, medication can be helpful, as well.
We must also demystify the student, providing him or her with insights into how his or her brain is “wired,” and helping the child understand why some things are more challenging than others. We must attend to the details of each individual learner’s profile, considering both strengths and weaknesses, to create a personalized plan of intervention.
By Dr. Mel Levine
Founder, All Kinds of Minds


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