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Blog

Are You Paying Attention?

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

It appears as if children are consistently being flagged with having trouble attending in class to the point where teachers are suggesting diagnoses.  First, let me specify that many children do suffer from neurological, biological disorders that affect their attention.  Some children benefit from a medical intervention to assist them in focusing in the classroom, on homework, and the like.

However, our society and medical community are quick to diagnose attention disorders.  It is so easy to assign the causal variables of “lack of attention” to somewhere inside of the child as opposed to seeking out environmental causes (e.g., interactions with others, context, etc.). 

One recent complaint I have heard was that a student lacked attention during reading class and, as a result, the teacher threw out the term “ADD.”  However, when asked how the student performs in other contexts (e.g., math class, science class, etc.), attention is not a problem.  An attention diagnosis is, unfortunately, not selective.  If a student organically has ADD, symptoms will be evident in multiple contexts; not just in one area.  Further, the lack of attention symptoms must be clinically significant to the point that it drastically effects his/her day.

There are many environmental factors that can contribute to a lack of attention.  For this one example, the student struggles with reading.  Therefore, the academic deficit creates a situation where attending to nearly anything other than reading is more interesting that reading itself. 

Another environmental factor could be the student’s interaction with the people in a particular context.  Does that student sit next to other students that affect his/her attention?  How is that student’s interaction with the teacher? 

Finally, there are environmental factors that could impact attention that occur outside of the school context.  For example, what does the child typically eat for breakfast?  Are there any significant changes that are going on at home?

When presented with attention complications, parents should not only look at the environmental variables but also realize that a medical intervention is not always a sure fix.  A recent article was published in the New York Times highlighting how the drugs prescribed for ADD only have short-term, temporary effects.  “To date, no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems, the very things we would most want to improve” (Sroufe, Jan. 28, 2012).

Teachers, when you are conducting your parent meetings, ask the sort of questions that look at environmental causes regarding attention.  Please be cautious about throwing around possible diagnoses as they carry a lot of weight and can easily scare parents.

Parents, if the teacher is not looking at environmental causes, it is your responsibility to do so.  Ask the appropriate questions:  Is my child lacking attention in other classes/subjects?  Is my child struggling with the content of the material or is the material too easy, which then causes him/her to loose focus?  Am I doing anything to provoke the lack of attention?

The diagnosis or suggestion of diagnosis shouldn’t be handed out so frequently and easily as handing out a lollypop.   There are many factors that parents and teachers should take into account when evaluating a student’s lack of attention.  Be the person who is asking the right questions!