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Four Reasons Why Your Child May Not Be Able to Pay Attention in the Classroom

Nov 06, 2020

So many parents are called or hear at parent-teacher conferences that their child / teenager simply cannot focus on their work or they are “distracted.” Most of those times, parents are referred to medical practitioners to discuss the need of medication. While medication can really be good in many circumstances, it may not always be the right answer. What does a student need in the classroom to pay attention adequately? Posner’s research highlights a number of developmental steps that needs to be in place in order to make the most from our learning environment.

Firstly, we need to be sure that the student is able to register all the information taking place. Are all the senses prepared to receive the information coming in to the brain at the same time? Is your child able to look and listen to their teacher, while simultaneously ignoring any background information that may be coming in? We also need to consider if they are able to withstand information from their own head and body (internal sources) that may be competing with the information coming in from external sources.

Secondly, as we register the information our bodies, we also need to respond in split second timing to the incoming stimuli through an orienting response from our bodies. Now we have to be sure all our primitive reflexes (formed in utero) are fully integrated and not competing for attention within the student. We also need to consider if your child / teenager has sufficient postural control and body mechanics to stay seated at the desk to maintain the arousal and attention to incoming stimuli.

Next, the incoming information would require high speed timing and pacing to travel through the different pathways simultaneously to reach into the pre-frontal cortex in order to be analyzed for meaning adequately. This is where neuropsychologists discuss “processing speed” in their testing of IQ scores. The pre-frontal cortex relies on the fact that all the relevant information is coming in at the same time and speed, otherwise it feels to the student like a badly “dubbed” movie with the teachers’ non-verbal gesture (visual information), not matching up with the verbal speech (auditory information). This can be very confusing the student and frequently cause them to lose attention or allow themselves to become distracted because it is simply too much effort to sustain attention.

Finally, the pre-frontal cortex relies on aspects such as long-term memory, and working memory to keep sustaining the attention. The student uses working memory to retrieve information from long term storage associated with the new learning taking place and uses this information in the working moment to make sense of what the teacher is teaching at any given time. Good teachers always scaffold new learning based on what was taught before, relying on the student’s brain to assimilate ongoing newer information based on what they already know.

If your child / teenager’s working memory is unable to process the new information due to inadequate prior processes of registration, orientation, speed and timing, he / she may become overwhelmed and lose the ability to sustain attention.

All of these processes occur in the subconscious brain and is formed through the developmental process of growing up from being a baby, a toddler, through childhood and further refined through adolescence. Is medication sometimes an answer to consider? Yes, of course medicine could be supportive. Is it the only answer? Therein lies the conundrum. Teachers need to have their entire class focused to remain attentive to the curriculum and medication does seem to be a “quick fix”, but it also can lead to multiple side effects, including the repercussions with regards to feelings of wellbeing and self-esteem when needing to be dependent upon medication to function in a classroom. If you are a teacher, consider referring to an occupational therapist that understands the developmental pathways to attention as described above. With the right kind of therapy in the appropriate steps of development, a student can get the development they may need. If you are a parent, consider an assessment by an occupational therapist that can tease out the developmental pieces and target the origin of attention difficulties. The brain is very complex and not any one individual is exactly the same.

Contact [email protected] for an initial “no charge” phone consultation to see if your child is a fit for our dedicated battery of assessments geared towards attention and executive functions.

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