Thursday, 20 November 2008

Attention CAN be improved

Attention and the ability to keep it are of paramount importance not only in school but also later in life.

Though paying attention seems to be a sigle activity of a mind, it is infact a complex neuro-cognitive process. Paying attention to a task might involve the perception of that job, then its recognition in the conscious realm and finally an action based on the two preceding neural activities. If one considers also the fact that there are several neurologic inputs entering our brains all the time- the process of attention also involves filtering out those stimuli which need not be attended to... the potential distractions.

Consider a routine drive from home to work in the morning. Driving is almost an instinctual activity for most people... they do, however, keep a track of speed and change gears, keep a track of the traffic signals and stop when needed, keep a track of the movement on the road and brake when required to do so... only to name a few. A complex neuro-physiology is at work allowing us to ATTEND to driving while filtering out extra stimuli.

Now imagine a classroom. A routine class room in India has about 40-45 students. Each child has his or her own requirements and contributes to the collective cacophony a class room can become. A child must learn to filter out all the noises, interpersonal interactions and finally bring their attention onto the teacher to be able to do anything meaningful in a class. Imagine how difficult it can be... For children who DO have a problem bringing their minds to a task at hand, all the things are equally distracting, whether it is a child wanting to be excused to go to teh loo or a the sound of the dropped pencil. Even the occassional cough and the chair dragging on the floor can be distracting for such children.

So how can we help such children?

For these children, multi sensory teaching seems to work very well because this kind of teaching constantly changes the stimulus, creating a focus area which is constantly changing- an impact that demands attention.

The mind, in order to process any information must expend some energy. The children who find it difficult to attend may find themselves tiring out too soon when the task at hand demands more energy than they can effectively control.

The Attention control systems, then, may be classified as follows:

  1. Energy

  2. Processing

  3. Output

Energy required to attend and process a task may get deranged at various levels. The first level of disturbance may be at the level of alertness. These children, then appear to be day-dreaming and may fail to be or even appear attentive.

Next control is the sleep arousal control. The child ( or the adult) in this case will have problem going off to sleep, will not have a very relaxing or good quality of sleep and will not wake up refreshed and feel tired during the class or the office meeting.

Then comes the ability to control mental effort. This is especially troublesome if the child does not find the material stimulating enough. Such children find the task assigned to them both boring and daunting. As they are unable to complete the task, it also sets up an excruciatingly painful cycle of poor self esteem. These children do better if the task is broken down into smaller segments and each serves to remind them that they have completed a (mini)- task.

And then, the performance consistency. This is the control that allows the child to direct attention and energy on a day-to-day or even a moment to moment basis. These children may not have trouble all the time. There may be times they are able to hold up. Then they do well. This might just kick in systems whereby the positive re-enforcement cycle may take over and their self esteem starts to build up.

The processing controls may then come into play. These are saliency control whereby a child can decide which task out of the myriad distracting ones needs to be attended to; depth and detail determination which allows the children to focus on specific details and allows them to recognise and remember details; cognitive activation allows the child to connect newly learned data to pre-existing knowledge base; focal maintenance determines whether a child is able to maintain APPROPRIATE focus on a task. In some subjects the child may appear highly distracted while in other areas he may attend to unnecessary detail. And finally, the satiety control. This allows the child to focus on relatively low interest level materials with ease. The children who lack this control may find it difficult to be satisfied with low interest activities.

The final rung in the ladder is is the Production or the output control. The first among this category is the preview control, lacking which a child may be unable to evaluate an action, and either plunge too soon into it or react too quickly. If the child lacks facillitation and inhibition, he may not be able to consider multiple options to choose the best one. These children, then act too hastily. Pacing is another control that may be lacking so that the child may do a task too fast without any real comprehension of it or may be inordinately slow at it. Children lacking self monitoring may not be able to take remedial measures if they cannot decide if they are straying from the job at hand. And those who lack reenforceability can not use previous experience to direct current actions.

Thus a lack of attention amy be a break down at one or more of several closely related processes and controls. In order to be able to help a child we need to first identify the break down point(S) and then go about correcting our own course so that we may be able to connect with these children.

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