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Attention Issues Still Need Attention

We are probably seeing more attention concerns because we are diagnosing it better – and maybe because of their phones.

Despite some thinking that attention issues are over-publicized and over-diagnosed, many experts say that actually we may just be getting better at spotting  and diagnosing them, but we still actually haven’t carefully enough assisted students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, nor, at times, put in place appropriate strategies to help them in school.

Beyond that, brand new research says that yes, those cell phones could be causing symptoms of ADHD in all children as well, adding to the nagging and highly visible problems that attention issues cause in school.

Sharon Saline, and psychologist and specialist in attention issues and author of the book What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew, says that educators need to recognize that attention issues come in various forms, but that a diagnosis of ADHD is a different, specific problem affecting 5-8 percent of the student population.

“It’s a neurological, genetically based disorder. It’s not a failure of will or a matter of not trying hard enough” she says. Saline explains that disorders are more than habits or tendencies and need to be diagnosed and treated, explaining that while environmental factors can exacerbate inattention or hyperactivity, ADHD involves physiological imbalances and lower levels of certain chemicals in the brain which make executive function controls over attention, behavior and even emotions, weaker.

“The intensity and breadth of these deficits shows up in a spectrum of the disorder,” she says. Based on their challenges or impairment, somebody can have mild ADHD or severe ADHD. And, beyond that, many children just simply have attention issues because of how a growing brain works.

Thomas Armstrong, also the author several books on the disorder and adolescence, says the setting they are in matters for these students. “A student who is in a classroom that offers mainly lecture, worksheets, and textbooks is going to manifest more serious symptoms of hyperactivity, distractibility, and impulsivity, than that same child in a classroom with lots of hands-on learning, outdoor learning, and high motivation activities, high stimulation activities,” he says

He says such students need to be diagnosed (that starts with a pediatrician often) have the appropriate treatment (he advocates for non-drug remedies but other experts believe certain medication can help) and have a plan in school that identifies them and provides supports that meet their specific needs.

“I’m not against psychoactive medications but I believe they are overused, and used too quickly, sometimes after a doctor’s 15-minute exam – whereas if used at all, they should be part of a comprehensive strategy,” he says, noting that other remedies may help and that some drugs may have unintended side effects.

Some experts believe students with attention issues are not often identified in schools, and once they are, that information sometimes doesn’t get passed along to parents (some districts are wary of such diagnosis for a variety of reasons) or parents don’t regard it. And 504 plans that can cover attention issues (or individual education plans) often take a long time to put in place and are not customized to meet the individual student’s needs.

And what about the other students who may exhibit attention issues but not any severe enough to be diagnosed?

Sullivan also believes attention issues are on a spectrum, and many experts think anyone may have some level of attention issues, and there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that those problems are exacerbated by technology. There has been research for some time suggesting that phones, computers and video games are difficult for young people to avoid – and that their draw is so strong it is hard for them to keep attention on something else when the devices are available.

That is not as much of a problem in school where generally use of electronic devices is controlled. But now a study out this month shows digital media use by teens seems to result in an uptick in persistent attention issues. The researchers note that they aren’t saying it will cause ADHD, but that it increases symptoms. Perhaps these devices re-wire the brain to make any sort of sustained attention more difficult.

So, given this information, what should educators do?

First, understand how ADHD is diagnosed and use the tools at hand to report students who are a concern

“Everyone has some degree of inattentiveness,” says Saline, “but the difference between ADHD and common distractedness has to do with the intensity, frequency and disruptiveness of the attention issues.” Teacher who spot problems may want to begin to keep notes about the frequency of the issues with a student, or when they occur.

Second, they should bring up the student with a counselor or administrator and recommend that they perhaps let others know of your concern to see if it appears to be a problem in other classes.

Then, counselors are in a position in most districts to further explore the issue and begin a series of steps that will document the problem and develop specific strategies to help – usually through a 504 plan.

One key to getting a plan, having it put in place and having good strategies spelled out (that could travel with the student for years) is the teacher’s input – so they can help by keeping good records and trying to objectively assess the student, although attention issues can sometimes be particularly frustrating.

And with any attention issue, teachers should develop good strategies to get a student’s attention.  Saline recommends a “rule of three”: Get close and say their name, look at them at eye level and make sure they are looking back and then give them the message and ask them to repeat it – twice. “It may seem silly to them, but that’s okay. By repeating the directions, you know they’ve grasped what they need to do and this activates several means of connecting – sight, sound, repetition – that trigger different and simultaneous neural pathways.” Others recommend gently touching the student on the shoulder or arm.

It’s natural to get upset when a child isn’t cooperating and things aren’t going well,” Saline says. “But agitation only adds fuel to the fire. Stop what you’re doing, take some deep breaths and pause the action. If you have to step away briefly to quietly think and re-center, do that. Then think about what might have triggered the issue and what help that student in this situation and going forward.”

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and Counselor of the Year in Montgomery County, MD