Facing Attention Problems Without Fear

New thinking on why some kids canít concentrate.

There are few things parents fear more than an attention problem in their child. But, attention problems are often difficult to identify and many parents aren’t sure of the most appropriate solution. Therefore, fear and a lack of awareness generally lead parents to dismiss an attention problem, hoping that their child will simply “grow out of it.”

This chain of reactions was confirmed once again in a recent Cogmed survey. The survey found that nine in ten parents in the United States say it’s easy to mistake the symptoms of an attention problem for normal childish behavior, despite the fact that 73 percent of parents say they can readily identify the symptoms of an attention problem.

Parents know when they see a kid who can’t pay attention. However, they aren’t sure when inattention becomes abnormal. After all, most kids— and adults— have trouble paying attention.

The Dangers of Dismissal

Too often, parents view attention problems in terms of absolutes, thinking that their child either has a severe problem or no problem at all. The result is that less severe attention problems, such as those that cause smart children to get Cs instead of Bs, are dismissed because the situation does not appear to be dire. The danger here is that children with actual attention problems are withheld from achieving their full potential.

Parents need to be aware of their children’s options. Ignorance of attention problems and appropriate treatments leads to fear, which in turn results in the dismissal of what could be a debilitating condition.

Connecting Working Memory and Attention

The scientific community has been progressing rapidly in its understanding of attention problems and the treatments they require. One such effort is highly noteworthy— the discovery that working memory can be a key contributor to how a child performs academically.

Working memory is an important brain function that helps people retain information for brief periods of time. It’s what we use to follow instructions, maintain focus and complete a math calculation. The capacity of working memory varies from individual to individual. Working memory develops during childhood and adulthood, reaches its maximum capacity at about 30 years of age and gradually declines during aging.

Some individuals, such as children and adults with ADD or ADHD, people with learning disabilities and victims of stroke or traumatic brain injuries, suffer from impaired working memory. These individuals struggle daily to perform ordinary activities. For example, they are likely to lose focus when reading or forget why they move from one room to another.

Previously, working memory was believed to be a fixed characteristic of an individual. Recently, however, researchers have demonstrated that working memory capacity can be increased through sustained mental exercises.

In children with attention problems, increased working memory capacity has led to measurable improvements in attention and complex reasoning skills, as well as an ability to control impulsive behavior. Scientific evidence indicates that children with attention deficits significantly improve their working memory with training and can actually reach the working memory level for their age group.

Recognizing a Weak Working Memory

Working memory is just one issue parents need to understand as they approach attention problems. Ignorance of issues like working memory can increase parents’ fears of an attention problem in their child. Unfortunately, this fear often prevents parents from seeking a professional assessment for their child. But, by actively staying informed, parents can help their kids reach their full potential.

Following is insight for parents confronted with potential attention problems.

  • Understand your child’s working memory capacity. Working memory is a crucial component of attention. Kids with working memory problems have difficulty performing tasks that require working memory, such as tackling mathematical word problems, taking tests and following instructions with multiple steps. For more information, visit www.aboutworkingmemory.org.
  • Consider your child’s behavior compared with peers. Attention abilities develop incrementally in children. It is normal for younger children to have more limited attention spans. When considering your child’s behavior, be sure to compare it to the behavior of his or her peers.
  • Gauge your child’s behavior over at least six months. Attention problems cannot be observed in one isolated moment. They exhibit themselves over a period of time. If you think your child may have an attention problem, consider his or her recurring behavior over a period of at least six months.
  • Realize that struggles to complete homework signal trouble. Most kids have a problem completing some of their homework some of the time. However, children with real attention problems significantly struggle to complete some of their homework most of the time.
  • Observe your child’s performance in key academic subjects. The Cogmed survey found that poor academic performance is the indicator of an attention problem most likely to prompt parents to seek professional help. Stay in contact with your child’s school and teachers, assessing his or her performance in various subjects, particularly math and reading comprehension.
  • Know which situations best spotlight attention problems. Almost all children can concentrate on something they enjoy. Attention problems show when a child is put in a situation that requires sustained concentration or when a child considers an activity to be boring.
  • Consider your options. Attention problems range from mild to moderate to severe. For each level, there are appropriate means to improve attention, ranging from tutoring and training to employing strategies that focus on improving learning environments and daily routines.
  • If you see a problem, don’t wait— your child may not grow out of it. The leading obstacle to proper identification of attention problems as identified by a recent survey was the likelihood of parents to wait for their child to grow out of inattention. If you consistently observe the indicators of an attention problem in your child for a period of six months, it is generally useful to seek an assessment. A true problem will not go away with time.

Parents must understand that greater awareness of working memory and its connection to attention problems can help solve many unanswered questions about their child’s possible attention problems. Even though the majority of children and adolescents do not— and will never— have ADHD, there is a segment of the population that struggles with staying focused because of poor working memory— and that’s normal. Recognizing these conditions can help parents and teachers to better address attention problems during children’s development.