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Attention Problems and Children III  

This month I would like to address a couple of misconceptions that come up around attention problems and ADD diagnoses. One has to do with the variable performance of children with attention problems. There may be times when they have been very focused or activities that they can stay engaged in for hours at a time. This can lead parents, teachers, and others to have the expectation that they are able to focus all the time or demonstrate that extended level of involvement in other activities.

First we should acknowledge that not all activities are the same. Activities that are very rewarding and provide lots of stimulation are very different from activities that require a lot of focus and exerted effort to reach the reward. Think of the difference between a video game and reading. Video games are probably the premier example of the kinds of activities that can keep an otherwise attention challenged kid riveted for hours. The games that capture attention tend to offer lots of stimulation coming quickly and frequent rewards. Each time the child does something that advances them in the game, which probably happens every few seconds, they get a reward. On the other hand, text in a book or on a screen doesn’t offer any inherent stimulation. To get the reward out of it requires putting forth effort, focusing attention for a period of time, and then further processing the information to get meaning out of it. Wow, I’m tired just writing that down. It isn’t reasonable to expect any child, much less a child with attention challenges, to be able to focus on reading or other such activities the same way they do on video games.

Secondly, children with attention challenges just tend to have more variable performance than children without such challenges. They can occasionally pull things together, but not as often as non-challenged children. The problem comes when we generalize from those times when they do pull it together and expect them to be able to live up to that all the time. I once heard the prolific ADD researcher Russell Barkley say, “An ADD child does well once and we punish them for it the rest of their lives.”

The other misconception I would like to address here is that it is best to give a lot of leeway to children who have ADD when it comes to discipline. In the paragraphs above I talked about it being unrealistic to expect the same level of focus as in other children and many parents take that to mean they should be looser in their rules and application of consequences. In fact, the opposite is true. You will remember that children with attention problems are less responsive to consequences, so to help them learn they generally need to experience consequences more frequently rather than less frequently. Later in the series we will get into how to do this without turning discipline into a bear of a struggle.

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