Attention is Critical to Learning

Attention is Critical to Learning

BY LAURA SPAULDING Staff Writer / Educational Consultant

The Joy School is closing out Learning Disabilities Awareness Month by highlighting Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. While not technically categorized as a learning disorder by the DSM-5, ADHD is one of the most common reasons children struggle in traditional classroom settings. 

ADHD is not a learning disability because it does not directly impact a child’s academic skills, such as reading, writing, learning a new language, or mathematics. Like Specific Learning Disorders, however, ADHD is listed by the DSM-5 as a neurodevelopmental disorder. This means it is a brain-based disorder, causing differences in brain development and brain activity. The DSM-5 defines ADHD “by impairing levels of inattention, disorganization, and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity.”

A real medical condition, ADHD is not related to intelligence, laziness, or a lack of discipline. While it is not a learning disability, it does impact a person's learning, and no amount of trying harder will make it go away. While learning disabilities usually first show up in school-age children, ADHD symptoms often exist in preschool-age children or younger, and they often cause significant problems both at home and at school.

Many extraordinary gifts often accompany an ADHD diagnosis. Some have wondered if the same brain differences that cause a child to struggle in a traditional classroom enable them to profoundly excel in less traditional areas. With the right structure and support, individuals with ADHD often become accomplished thinkers, innovators, inventors, and world changers. 

While ADHD affects everyone differently, everyone with ADHD struggles with attention and executive functioning skills. A recent “Q and A” with one of our Speech and Language Pathologists, Meredith Hibbetts, offers us a tiny glimpse into the extraordinary minds of students struggling with executive functioning and attention deficits.  Here is what we learned from Meredith:

Q: What role does attention play in the learning process?

A:  Attention is critical to the learning process. You can't acquire knowledge or information without first attending. And from my experience, students with attention deficit diagnoses don't actually struggle to attend, but rather they struggle to filter out distractions. They are attending to everything in their environment, whether it's the hum of the AC or light coming in from a window.

Q:  How can we help a student who is struggling to pay attention to the right things?

A:  There are thoughts about classmates running through their minds or feelings of hunger, fatigue, or excitement. Helping them develop an awareness of their attention so they can manage it becomes critical. Attention has two parts. It is about focusing and managing. And it is about filtering out distractions.

Q: So, what is the difference between the two parts of attention- focusing and filtering?

A: Focus is your ability to focus on something for an appropriate period of time. Then filtering is when you filter out the distractions and the noise around you, enabling you to attend to the salient information.

Q: Are there ways we can help kids focus and filter? 

A: The first step is self-awareness. Building an awareness of what your distractions are enables us to begin changing the impact of those distractions. That’s where managing our attention requires the use of some executive functioning skills like: planning, finding the right space and time, prioritizing, problem-solving, and time management. Lots of kids with ADHD also struggle with time blindness, which is defined as difficulty feeling the passage of time. These kids struggle to perceive how much time has passed and estimate how much time a task will take. This can impact their ability to initiate tasks, manage multiple tasks at the same time, and manage long-term projects. Often these kids will procrastinate because they don't feel the passage of time in a meaningful way.

On top of difficulty with attention and time management, other common classroom difficulties experienced by children with ADHD include staying on task with an appropriate level of energy or effort and maintaining self-control and self-discipline - including an impaired ability to manage emotions. They are often either overactive, impulsive, and fidgety, or they appear to be withdrawn or lost in a daydream. Sometimes they oscillate between these two extremes on the same day. Difficulty with following directions, organization, and transitioning between activities can cause feelings of anxiety or being out of control.

Other than Meredith’s suggestion highlighting the importance of starting with building self-awareness and executive functioning skills, it is also important students are not penalized for behaviors beyond their awareness or control. Providing organizational tools, reminders, timers, planners, checklists, fidgets, noise-canceling headphones, opportunities for movement, and frequent breaks also helps build classroom structure and support for students with ADHD. 

Along with classroom tricks and tools to set students with ADHD up for success, parents and educators should also stay up-to-date and informed about the various medical treatments available for ADHD, such as stimulant and non-stimulant medication and behavior therapies.

If you or someone you love has been impacted by ADHD, help spread awareness by sharing this post, and learn more about The Joy School by joining us for a tour.