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ADD/ADHD: Non-medicated Approaches to Improving the Three Types of Attention

For a parent whose child has been labeled “ADD” or “ADHD,” it seems like there are few options other than ignoring the symptoms or pumping him/her full of Ritalin or other stimulant medications.

And while most parents’ biggest concern is the possible side effects, perhaps an equally important consideration should be that stimulant medications only treat the symptoms – not the underlying cause – of the problem. This means that, although the child may be been easier to “handle” at school, chances are that his/her grades are still sub-par.

So what’s a parent to do?

Understanding the weakest link: Attention

As with almost all learning struggles, the most common root cause is one or more weak cognitive skills – the fundamental tools of effective learning.

“Cognitive skills are the underlying tools that enable us to successfully focus, think, prioritize, plan, understand, visualize, remember and create useful associations, and solve problems,” explains Tanya Mitchell, co-author of ‘Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart in your Child.’ “A child’s cognitive skill set is made up of several cognitive skills including auditory processing, visual processing, short and long-term memory, comprehension, logic and reasoning, and attention skills. In children with ADD or ADHD, the weakest cognitive skill is attention, although other areas tend to suffer as well.”

The three types of attention

According to Mitchell, there are three types of attention: sustained, selective and divided. In general, they are described as:

• Sustained: Allows the child to stay on task for a long period of time
• Selective: Prevents the child from t being easily distracted
• Divided: Allows the child to do more than one thing at a time

In those with ADD, the frontal cortex (surface) of the brain has more difficulty using glucose and less blood flow than in people without ADD. The frontal cortex inhibits impulses, initiates behavior, and controls working memory. When underactive, the ability to screen out irrelevant stimuli is reduced, and the individual pays attention to EVERYTHING. This results in poor regulation of the motivation system and makes staying on task difficult without immediate rewards.

“Video games provide rapid, constant feedback and stimulation and tend to be very engaging for people with ADD,” explains Dr. Russell Griffiths, a Licensed Educational Psychologist. “Neuroscience shows that by targeting and stimulating the underactive region of the brain responsible for the characteristics of inattention, attention can be strengthened. Therefore, the correct approach (to ADD/ADHD) is the opposite of the usual accommodations used (at schools) – like removing distractions, reducing workload, or isolating students into quiet areas.”

Exercises to improve the three types of attention

Although Mitchell recommends a thorough, intense program of cognitive skills training for children who are on stimulant medications like Ritalin, she does offer suggestions for exercises that parents can do at home to improve the three types of attention in their children. They include:

Sustained Attention:

Parents use a stopwatch while their child does a small task or homework assignment and take notice when the student loses focus. If the child starts playing or looking around at 1:30 minutes, the parent stops the time. The child is then given a goal to try and focus for a longer period of time, e.g.1:45 minutes. The game should include prizes or special privileges for the child to look forward to upon making the goal. The parents continue adding new time to the goals until the student can repeatedly focus for 5 minutes at a time.

Selective Attention:

Parents can do the same activity for sustained attention but the parent now adds small distractions and the child tries to stay on task. As the child in able to handle small distractions, the distractions should increase. Make sure to do the task in a game-like setting and once the child completes a goal, they receive a small reward or privilege.

Divided attention:

The most important attention skill. Parents can purchase a game like Simon, Bop-it or Perfection where the game has a timing and attention component to it. The child starts the game and the parent asks for other information while the child is playing (e.g. the parent names a animal and the child has to make the sound, the parent gives two numbers and the child gives the sum, the parent asks the child to describe their room). This may seem overwhelming, but by setting small goals (e.g. two correct answers), and then increasing the goal, a child can strengthen there ability to multi-task.

Mitchell says parents should try to do these activities three to four times a week.

“Again, I’d suggest that parents try these exercises at home to complement a cognitive skills training program,” says Mitchell. “After working with a professional (brain trainer) in a one-one-one setting, most children who have been labeled as having ADHD, ADD or other learning disabilities like dyslexia can improve from three to five grade levels and about half the students will no longer require medication.”

Debby Romick is the Director of LearningRx in Plano, Texas.  She has been in the field of education for over 20 years.

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