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Attention Problems and Children II  

Last month I wrote that there is evidence for a strong neurobiological component to attention difficulties and this month I will lay out what some of those deficits are.

The biggest area that gets discussed here is what is referred to as executive function. Executive function is a pretty broad term, but generally refers to the ability to organize information, plan, and execute plans or pursue goals. The deficits that lead to attention problems seem to be in a couple of areas. One is working memory or the ability to keep pieces of information in mind while working on mental tasks. If this is limited, children can’t hold as much information in their mind so can’t plan as efficiently. Children with attention problems often have difficulty following through with a request to do several things in sequence. This is directly related to working memory. The other piece that comes under executive function is what is referred to as response inhibition. Our sense organs, eyes and ears in particular, continually register everything that is going on around us. Part of what makes us efficient in dealing with the world is being able to filter out what is unimportant and focus on what is important. Response inhibition refers to the first part. Children who have difficulty with response inhibition have more difficulty ignoring all of the information that is coming in.

Another neurobiological issue that impacts children with attention problems has to do with their sensitivity to rewards and consequences. They seem to be particularly focused on positive rewards, though the rewards often don’t have as much of an impact over time as they do for children without attention problems. They also seem less sensitive to negative consequences. That is, negative consequences don’t have as big of an impact on them. Children with attention problems seem to be overly focused on achieving rewards, but consequences in general, both positive and negative, don’t have as strong of an effect on them.

The final area of neurobiological functioning I will talk about has to do with the perception of time. Children with attention deficits seem to have poor ability to estimate periods of time, generally thinking that time periods are longer than they really are. They then overestimate available time and underestimate how long it will take to do something. This also contributes to their inability to wait for something (like perhaps parental attention) and to think that future rewards are so far off they might not be worth pursuing.

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