By Valerie Maxwell Ph.D.
What does the Factors of Attention mean? The area of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex takes responsibility for the “executive functioning” of the brain. This is the “thinking brain” which must make decisions, keep track of time, assimilate what is being told, seen or taught, and organize information with prioritization in order to be processed by the brain. This is how we “think about our thinking” so we can function efficiently in the world. Efficiency in our lives helps to create happiness in ourselves and respect from others.
In order to fulfill these executive functions, the brain must have accurate input. Paying attention to what is seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted is the way the brain receives this input. According to experts (Reid Lyon) there are 5 parts of paying attention:
- FOCUSED OR SELECTIVE ATTENTION: We need to be able to select the most important information and to ignore the input that is not needed at that time. For example, listening to the teacher’s directions and ignoring a friend kicking your chair is vital to success.
- SUSTAINING ATTENTION: Maintaining awareness is essential to helping us focus on our goal or task. Sustained attention is critical to completing the job, whether that is homework or cleaning your room.
- SHIFTING ATTENTION: Flexibility of attention is key to our ability to change, to grow, and to multitask so that we get everything done that we need to do. Playing Nintendo for 20 minutes and then getting back to the homework is not possible without this flexibility.
- ATTENTION FOR ACTION: We need to be able to route the input to the appropriate brain sites in order to put all the information together so that it comes out at the right time, in the right order, and in socially appropriate ways. This function involves SEQUENCING and PROCESSING the information.
- DIVIDED ATTENTION: Being able to attend to several things at the same time without getting distracted is key to keeping all the balls in the air that modern life demands of us. The child must remember his study-buddy’s phone number, focus on his internet project, and listen with acknowledgement to his mother asking him to call his father in for dinner.
“Although there is a solid core of scientific evidence indicating that speaking and listening have a biological foundation, the human capacity for reading and writing does not.” (Maureen Argus, The ADHD Challenge, March/April 2000). In order for a child to speak, read, listen to the teachers, or write, that child must have developed the ability to pay attention in all ways. Children with ADHD and many with learning disabilities related to cognitive deficiencies have attentional problems. Without proper attention, reading and writing cannot be assumed.
There are 5 senses (i.e., hearing, vision, touch, smell, and taste) that need to be in attention at all times. However, most often in school the child must rely on her ability to hear and see. When we talk about a child’s auditory or visual processing skills, we are talking about a child’s ability to use all of the above 5 attention functions in order to understand, think critically, and to produce results. This is processing.
Getting all the input out (whether it’s on paper or in an oral report) is not enough. The output must be in the right order. This is sequencing.
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Dr. Valerie Maxwell is a clinical Psychologist in Manhattan Beach, CA and a frequent speaker at CHADD meetings in Southern California.
Executive functioning has become a very popular term in recent years, especially as it relates to treating children. In the past, diagnosis involving children’s attention, activity level, organizing and problem solving were made. However often little was discussed with parents regarding improving deficits, executive functioning, using behavioral techniques.
Executive functioning (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving, as well as planning and execution. It has also expanded to include organization and impulse control. Executive functioning affects not only children’s behaviors but expands to social abilities and their ability to learn. It includes their ability to self-regulate, to infer and ponder consequences, to encode information in memory.
What we deem largely as automatic, or multi-tasking, is often a skill that needs to be modeled and taught. Children can benefit from working on executive functioning whether they are typically developing, or have clinical diagnosis that includes impairments in these areas. Think about the things that cause stress in your home. Perhaps you begin to worry time and time again when your son doesn’t call you after baseball practice only to find out later he forgot to charge his phone. Perhaps your high school daughter realizes she has a project due the night before it is to be turned in, or maybe you have numerous calls from your child’s teacher with regards to forgetting materials, including books, pencils, homework. Many times, parents can be frustrated in the lack of executive functioning skills if they themselves have relative strengths in these areas. On the flip side, on many occasions when parents have difficulties in the same areas of executive functioning as their children, they sympathize with the children, and lack an understanding of how to help them other than to offer commiseration.
One of the greatest things parents can do to assist in helping their children grow in this area is scaffolding. Scaffolding is a teaching method that enables an individual to achieve a goal or task under adult guidance, or more capable peers. It is important to know what appropriate expectations would be, given your child’s developmental level. For instance, you wouldn’t expect your children to pack their own lunch at 3 years old.
Ways to increase executive functioning
- Identify situations that cause inattention or frustration (identifying situations that make your child or adolescent stressed. Bringing this to their attention will help you both problem solve alternative behaviors to make the situation easier).
- Change tasks frequently to decrease drain on working memory
- Frontload information especially when task is novel or not routine (practice a song that will be sung in the classroom or go over key points in a chapter that will be discussed in class before the teacher presents material)
- Cue your child to complete a task when in the same environment (i.e., ask children to clear their plate in the kitchen)
- Offer breaks that allow for physical activity
- Create a structured environment whenever possible
- Pair tasks your child has mastered with those that are new or more of an energy cost
- Encourage thinking of future scenarios (discussing an upcoming assignment or event with a child gives them the opportunity to collect appropriate materials and create a timeline).
- Underline key concepts when reading (parent or child should underline or highlight main points being read. When answering questions, read questions first, then material).
Dr. Robin Morris is a Clinical Psychologist. She holds a Masters in Family and Child Therapy and a Graduate Academic Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis. Dr. Morris resides in Mission Viejo where she conducts psychoeducational assessments, school/home observations used to determine appropriate placements and services, as well as functional Behavior Assessments. you can contact her at (949) 351-3770 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at drrobinmorris.com