Pay Attention! Why It's Not as Easy as You May Think

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Pay Attention!How often do you say to your child, “Pay attention?”  Or, how often does a teacher reprimand a student for “not paying attention?” We tend to think that attention is something simple, either you are paying attention or you are not. But, it is actually much more complex than most people realize.  For example, do you ever find yourself distracted enough when walking into a room to get something that you forget what you came into the room for? Or, have you ever been listening to an audio book only to realize that you stopped paying attention several pages back?

In fact, trying to figure out exactly what attention is, and why some children have more trouble attending than others, especially in school, has been the focus of psychologists for years.  As adults, we realize that the ability to attend carefully to a task, ignore distractions and stick with it, is something that takes time for children to develop. But, what exactly is attention? Why is some information easier to attend to than other kinds? What is an attentional disorder? And, perhaps most important, are there ways to improve our attentional skills?

What is attention?

Perhaps the first attempt to define "attention" was made in The Principles of Psychology by William James. He wrote, "Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession [in] the mind...of one....of several simultaneous objects or trains of thought." (James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890, page 403). But knowing what we think attention involves doesn't help us understand how this ability develops in children or why is it so difficult for all of us some of the time -  and for some, a lot of the time. The fields of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience have begun to help us understand how very complicated something that seemed so simple to William James, really is.

Attention redefined

Neuroscientists like Dr. Michael Posner Attention impacts different neural networksand his colleagues have helped us understand that attention isn't just one thing. There are several types of attention. To begin with, there are different components of attention that correspond to different connected brain areas (networks). Dr. Posner and colleagues have identified three of these: alerting, orienting and executive.

Alerting

You know that when you are alert you feel wide awake and responsive to what is going on in the world around you. An alert state is very important for performing any task well and we all know what it is like when we are groggy and mentally foggy, perhaps when we first wake up in the morning. There is a chemical, norepinephrine, that modulates alertness largely in frontal and parietal brain regions. Alertness can be triggered by warning signals of any kind which rapidly allow us to change from a resting state to being more receptive to a new stimulus; a good example is the yellow light on a traffic signal that prepares us for when the light changes to red.

Orienting

The second component of attention is orienting. When you are oriented, you know where you are, who you are with, the day and time and most important, what is needed to perform the relevant task at hand. We rely on orientation to efficiently navigate a large airport during a connection, for example. Our senses are very important for orientation, allowing us to take in visual, auditory and tactile information from the world around us and use it to figure out what is the most relevant information to accomplish a task. Navigating an airport during a tight connection requires looking for appropriate signage and maps, asking officials if necessary, noting the boarding time and figuring out how quickly we need to move to get to the correct gate on time.

Executive

The third component  of attention that Dr. Posner and colleagues have studied involves the executive network. This is tied to our goals and helps us resolve competition for our attention when there are distractions or conflicts.  We can think of this level of attention as akin to self-control, maintaining attention in a regulated and purposeful way to accomplish a goal. The areas of the brain involved are complex and distributed widely through the brain. The executive attention network enhances activity in brain regions related to our goals and inhibits conflicting activity. This control requires coordination of our executive functions (goals, priorities, organization), emotions and other cognitive functions like memory and knowledge so that irrelevant feelings or thoughts don't interfere with getting a job done. This kind of effortful control and self-regulation takes time to mature, and can be quite variable from person to person (and task to task).  Executive attention (sometimes referred to as cognitive control) is highly correlated with success in school and later life.

Selective attention

One facet of executive attention known to be critical for academic success is selective attention. Dr. Courtney Stevens and her colleagues have studied the relationship between selective attention and academics over the past decade. Selective attention, depending on the activity, can involve one sense more than or in combination with others. For example, listening to an audio book or a newscast on the radio requires auditory selective attention while photography or drawing would require visual selective attention. When watching a newscast on TV we can use the visual information to augment our auditory attention. Dancing and athletics often require selective attention to movement and bodily senses, as well as visual and spatial attention to those moving nearby. For each of our senses, children need to learn to selectively attend. Dr. Alison Gopnik and her colleagues have studied the maturation of selective attention in young children as well as adults when they are in new environments. She has found that young children, as well as adults in a new stimulating environment (like a first trip to Paris during an exciting time like a honeymoon), are often global attenders - taking in many sights and sounds at once.  That makes for a fun day at the park or vacation, but to get a job done or accomplish a goal, we need to be selective about what we pay attention to (and ignore).

What is an attention deficit disorder?

Selective auditory attention may be especially challenging, especially in today's world, where we are bombarded with rapidly changing information and frequent technological interruptions. For many children, moving from the world of multi-sensory experiences in play, sports and media (especially tablets and television) to sitting still and selectively attending to a teacher in a classroom can be particularly difficult.  For some children, there appears to be a physiological limitation, beyond that expected for their age, on their ability to listen and learn on demand - this is referred to as an attentional deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) if the difficulty involves both selective attention and behavioral control, or ADD if there is not a problem sitting still. Although ADHD and ADD are considered medical diagnoses and often treated with medication, there is evidence that attentional skills are malleable.

The good news: attention is trainable!

In fact, many scientists including Drs. Posner, Stevens and their colleagues have found that attentional skills are amenable to training. Dr. Stevens and colleagues found that a short (six week) period doing exercises in the Fast ForWord Language program, that train selective auditory attention in several different contexts (language listening tasks, two-tone rapid sequencing tasks, speech-sound discrimination tasks) resulted in improved auditory selective attention for listening to stories read aloud, among both language impaired and typically learning second graders compared to students who had a regular classroom curriculum but did not participate in the specific auditory attention exercises.  

In an article reviewing the research on the relationship between selective attention and academic achievement, Dr. Stevens and her colleague Daphne Bavelier conclude, “there may be large benefits to incorporating attention-training activities into the school context” (page S44).  Luckily, neuroscience-based interventions are now available to help educators build attentional skills in their students, to free them up so they can focus on covering curriculum content.

How did you do? Did you scan the page, get distracted by your phone (alerting attention), or stop mid-stream to think about your next vacation? Or did you maintain selective and executive attention all the way through the article?  Let us know in the comments!

References:

Posner, M., Rothbart, M., Sheese, B and Voelker, P. (2014) Developing Attention: Behavioral and Brain Mechanisms. Advances in Neuroscience Article ID 405094.

Posner, M., Rueda, R. and Kanske, P. (2007) Probing the Mechanisms of Attention. In J.T. Caciopo, J.G. Tassinary & G.G. Berntson (eds), Handbook of Psychophysiology. Third Edition. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press (pp 410-432).

Stevens, C. and Bavelier, D. (2012) The role of selective attention on academic foundations: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience  25:S30-S48.

 

How Do ADD, Dyslexia, and Auditory Processing Disorder Overlap?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015 - 08:00
  • Lynn Gover

Key Points:

  • Children who are perceived as not paying attention or not trying may actually be tuning out because they are having trouble understanding the words they hear.
  • Children with a family history of dyslexia also have more difficulty with auditory processing.
  • The parts of the brain that handle sensory input develop earlier than those responsible for focus and attention.
  • Early intervention to improve auditory processing can have a significant positive impact on a child’s learning.

The following is a summary of Dr. Marty Burns' webinar “How Do ADD, Dyslexia, and Auditory Processing Disorder Overlap?”. Read below for the key takeaways, or view the recording now.

The rise in diagnoses of ADD and ADHD in children over the last couple of decades has been a great cause of concern and controversy for parents and scientists alike. But new research suggests that for many of these children, the symptoms may actually indicate a more fundamental problem with understanding and processing speech.

While attention is closely related to sensory and language processing, they begin in different parts of the brain. Attention is mainly controlled by the frontal lobe, responsible for many of our higher cognitive functions such as planning and organization. This brain region develops slowly, only reaching maturity in the late 20s. And as we might expect, both children and adults with attention deficit disorders show lower levels of frontal lobe activity.

Our sensory processing, however, is concentrated among three lobes in the back of the brain, with an area called the angular gyrus integrating their audio, visual, and spatial information. These brain regions, which develop at a much earlier age, play a major role in language acquisition. And one of the crucial elements is learning to recognize the internal details of words, so that we can distinguish ‘bad’ from ‘pad’ or ‘moon’ from ‘noon’. By hearing speech in one’s native language, our brain eventually builds a map of all the sounds in that language – sounds that we then learn to reproduce and to associate with visual symbols.

Auditory processing disorders occur when there has been some impediment to the development of this mental sound map, making it difficult for children to distinguish units of speech. It’s important to note that this is a distinct problem from hearing impairment, as the problem is not with hearing the sounds, but with understanding them. However, hearing obstruction due to a prolonged ear infection or a cold can lead to auditory processing disorders by disrupting a critical learning period. And such disorders may have a genetic aspect as well. Children with a family history of dyslexia, previously thought to affect only higher levels of language learning, also show lower activity in sensory regions of the brain and difficulty with speech processing even before they learn to read.

Although attention is localized in the frontal lobe, it relies on the sensory networks developed in other brain regions. And this is where attention problems and auditory processing problems overlap. Attention involves learning to sort through all the sensory data around you and pick out what’s relevant. But you can’t recognize something as relevant until it’s part of your knowledge base. So it’s hard to pay attention to speech when you’re having trouble distinguishing its sounds from one another, or from other sounds in the environment.

The result is that children with auditory processing disorders may exhibit symptoms similar to those of attention deficit disorders, such as being easily distracted, not engaging in class, or not following directions. Teachers may perceive them as not trying, not paying attention, or being disruptive when in fact what’s happening is that they try to pay attention but can’t follow what’s being said and eventually give up. Such children may also receive a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD, with treatments that fail to address the underlying issues.

The good news, however, is that Fast ForWord provides targeted exercises designed by neuroscientists to remedy auditory processing disorders, which have also proven effective in addressing overlapping problems with attention and language processing.  

For more information, watch Dr. Marty Burns' full webinar “How Do ADD, Dyslexia, and Auditory Processing Disorder Overlap?”.

 

New Study Suggests Fidgeting Helps Students With ADHD Learn

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 - 08:00
  • Cory Armes, M.Ed.

Key Points:

  • Fidgeting may help students with ADHD concentrate on complex learning tasks.
  • Allowing students to fidget and move during class can help improve academic performance.
  • Try creating a "Jumping Corner" in the back of the classroom for students who need to move while learning.

ADHD: The Most Common Behavioral Disorder

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most common behavioral disorder diagnosed in children. Common signs include restlessness, continual talking and inability to concentrate and pay attention. About 11 percent of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD, with 1 in 3 having received treatment with medication and behavioral therapy. Some of these students end up falling behind their peers academically.

New Insight Into Hyperactivity

adhdnew study published in The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests that hyperactivity may actually help students overcome their attention problems. Common hyperactive behaviors like running, jumping, rolling on the floor and continual talking are typically viewed as a disruptive problem that should be treated in addition to the attention problems. New research shows these behaviors aren't always present; instead, they are displayed when students are asked to complete tasks involving the executive functioning centers of the brain.

Researchers found that when students with ADHD were asked to perform a task that involved working memory and organization, those who were allowed to move or fidget did significantly better than those who were asked to keep still. Conversely, children without ADHD did better when sitting still, but worse when moving around.

These findings suggest that students with ADHD actually need their gross motor movements to help them complete challenging intellectual tasks. Rather than being part of the problem, it's likely that hyperactive behaviors help these students stay focused and attend to the task at hand. Researchers describe "excess motor activity as a compensatory mechanism that facilitates neurocognitive functioning in children with ADHD." This means that hyperactivity may be a feature to encourage rather than a bug to fix.

Translating Research Into Effective Teaching

Because traditional classroom management programs seek to reduce or eliminate disruptive behavior, these findings require some new thinking about how to effectively teach students with ADHD. It's a major challenge to maintain a learning environment that respects the needs of traditional learners who thrive in quiet, orderly spaces while allowing students with ADHD the freedom to move. Student safety is also important, so it's crucial for teachers to create a classroom with designated times and spaces for movement. Some strategies for teachers to employ in the classroom include:

  • Allowing students to keep a fidget toy in their desks is a small start. Students can take the toy out when they feel like interrupting or jumping up. This can be a ball to squeeze or another toy with interesting tactile properties to keep them physically engaged so they can pay attention.
  • Designating a corner of the classroom as an "Activity Zone" or a "Jumping Corner" creates a place where students can retreat when they feel the need to move around. This area is ideally placed in the back of the room where other students will not be distracted, but will allow clear sight lines to the teacher so the student can continue to follow the lesson.
  •  A yoga ball chair or therapy bands tied to chair legs can help students with ADHD bounce and move without leaving their seats. This is especially effective during tests or writing sessions that require quiet thinking and movement at the same time.

As more research indicates that hyperactive behavior helps students with ADHD overcome concentration struggles to master complex material, it's more important than ever for teachers to find creative ways that support these students within their comfort zones. Allowing students to fidget in a controlled, respectful way can improve academic performance and create a classroom environment that is more comfortable for all learners.

 

10 Tips for a Great Parent-Teacher Connection This Year

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 08:00
  • Lynn Gover

You may just be starting school or you may be in full swing. Either way, it's important that you start your relationship with your child's teacher on the right foot. Prepare for parent-teacher conferenceResearch indicates that family engagement is a key factor when it comes to a child’s academic success. Make the most of your time when you first meet the new teacher or during Parent-Teacher conferences by doing your homework and showing up prepared with questions and talking points that are relevant to you and your child.

  1. Make a list of your questions. Sometimes we have a whole list of topics and questions that we’re thinking about, but when we’re put on the spot we can’t recall any of them. Write down your questions to use as a reference during your meeting.
  2. Write down your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Having an open discussion about your child’s strengths and weaknesses can bring valuable insight to your child’s teacher that she might not have witnessed in the classroom. Also share specific rewards and motivations that you use at home.
  3. Review your child’s work, grades and progress reports. Pay special attention to teacher communications sent home and how your child has been progressing so far. Walk into the meeting prepared with specific questions or items you want feedback or clarification on.
  4. Keep the lines of communication open. Ask the teacher about communication preferences.  Is he/she available after hours to talk about your child’s progress? Or maybe email works better? Be sensitive to a teacher's schedule and workload when asking for support - praising a teacher's strengths goes a long way in building good rapport.   
  5. What support services are available? How does she handle it if your child needs some extra help? If your child does need extra assistance, what is the school's Response to Intervention process? Is afterschool support available?
  6. Ask about your child’s reading progress. Although you may have a good idea if your child is reading on grade level (or not), find out about the specifics of your child’s reading skills. Some questions to ask include:  When working in a small group with my student in reading, what is an area of strength or weakness that you notice? How is my child’s decoding? Fluency? Comprehension? Vocabulary? How can I help support these reading efforts at home?
  7. Don’t forget to ask about cognitive skills! Cognitive skills are the foundation for all learning, which makes this conversation so important. Some questions to ask include:

How would you say my child is doing, as compared to peers, in these areas:

Memory: How well does my child learn and remember new information? Does he or she require more or less support than peers? How easily is information retained?

Attention: How is my child’s attention during different types of activities? One-on-one? Small group? Whole class?

Processing: How well is my child able to “make connections” as compared to peers? In reading, is my child decoding new words, making educated guesses about the meaning of a new word, using background knowledge, or predicting and inferring? In math, is my child showing signs of struggling during computations or retrieving simple number facts? In writing, is my child generating coherent ideas without a lot of support and putting them into words?

Sequencing: How well is my child able to organize his thoughts for writing or explain his understanding of a new concept?

8. How about social skills? Find out how your child interacts with other students in the classroom. How is he without direct supervision? How does he handle conflict with other students? Ask about how you can help to improve his social skills at home.

9. Find out about State Testing & Advancement. Is there a schedule available? Ask your child’s teacher if they have any concerns about your child’s ability to prepare for and take the state tests.

10. Ask how you can help support your child’s academic success (and how you can help support the teacher!). Are there specific ways you can stay informed about what your child is currently learning in school? Can you carry those lessons through in your day-to-day activities with your child? Some teachers have websites to keep parents in the loop; some may send newsletters home or have a specific bulletin board or binder you can check in the classroom. Coming to your teacher with supportive questions can go a long way. Keep in mind that teachers are under significant pressure and it goes a long way to acknowledge what they're doing for your child and the others in their class. You are on the same team! 

In addition to this list, you can print out our Top 10 Brain-Based Questions for Your Child's Teacher. If you have any concerns about your child falling behind or about his academic performance before Parent-Teacher Conferences, don’t wait! Contact your child’s teacher right away and arrange a meeting earlier.

Having an open line of communication with your child’s teacher is so important, both to your child’s academic success as well as to your involvement in your child’s academic career. You may also find out about parent volunteer opportunities and planned field trips, so that you can see how your child interacts with his or her peers and teachers in a natural setting. Take advantage of this opportunity to work together with your child’s teacher to set him up for a successful school year!

 

New Research Shows How to Minimize Side Effects of Chemo

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Key Points:Fast ForWord and chemotherapy

  • Regardless of age, cancer treatments impair learning, memory and attention
  • The speed of processing information can also be diminished
  • These effects can last for months, or even years, after cancer treatment is finished
  • Research study shows Fast ForWord can help prevent learning problems in cancer survivors when used during cancer treatment

The cognitive impact of chemotherapy on children

When any of us are told someone we love has a diagnosis of cancer, “The Emperor of all Maladies” so aptly named by Siddhartha Mukherjee, it is very upsetting. But, when it is a parent who learns of a cancer diagnosis in their child, time seems to stand still for months, often years, as treatments are administered.  The good news is that the overall mortality rate from cancer has decreased markedly in the last 20 years. For children diagnosed with cancer, today’s cure rate exceeds 80% for some types of cancer. Earlier diagnosis and more specifically targeted forms of chemotherapy, combined with evidence-based protocols, mean many children are now miraculous survivors of this age-old, but very complex, illness.

After cancer – what are the implications on learning?

However, the success of targeted chemo and radiation therapy does come with a price. With improved survival rates, oncologists have become more aware of the aftereffects that childhood cancer treatments have on thinking, learning and remembering.  According to Jorg Dietrich at Massachusetts General Hospital and his colleagues at Stanford University and Anderson Cancer Center, conventional cancer therapies like chemotherapy and radiology for brain tumors in patients of any age frequently result in a variety of thinking and memory of problems. These neurocognitive deficits, as they are called, include impaired learning, memory, attention, and negatively impact the speed of information processing.

Increased survival rates = increased studies on effects

Interested specifically in those effects on children treated for cancer, Raymond Mulhern and Shawna Palmer at St. Jude’s Research Hospital have reported that the neurocognitive effects of cancer treatment on children can linger for months, or even years, after cancer treatment has been successfully completed. This new understanding of the long term effects of successful cancer treatment has resulted in an increase in the study and understanding of cancer treatment-related learning problems.  Fortunately, it has also led to an increase in research on effective methods for treating the cognitive aftereffects of successful cancer treatment.

According to Mulhern and Palmer, the two most frequent types of childhood cancers that are associated with neurocognitive disorders after successful treatment are acute lymphoblastic leukemia and brain tumors.  The authors state that although neurocognitive effects of cancer therapy are quite variable – depending on the actual diagnosis and age, length and dosage of therapy – researchers generally agree that a high percentage of children will experience problems with learning and thinking, which can interfere with academic achievement after successful cancer treatment.  Oncologists have been working to change their treatment approach when possible to reduce the cognitive aftereffects, but their primary goal is first to maintain the high cure rate.

Research study: can we counteract these cognitive after effects?

Very recently, an exciting new controlled study was published indicating that the neuroscience-based intervention, Fast ForWord, provides significant improvements in learning to read after chemotherapy and radiation therapy for a kind of brain tumor called meduloblastoma. Ping Zou at St. Jude Research Hospital and his colleagues investigated whether Fast ForWord could prevent learning problems in cancer survivors when used during cancer treatment.

They studied two groups of school-aged children who either used Fast ForWord during their cancer treatment or a standard-of-care without the Fast ForWord intervention. Then, about 2 and one-half to three years after successful completion of chemo and radiation therapy for this type of brain tumor, the survivors received functional measures of brain function as well as a series of educational tests. A control group of 21 typically developing children with no history of cancer were included for comparison. The education tests included assessment of phonological skills (known to be a critical component of reading skill) and a variety of reading measures.  Their brain function was evaluated by using functional brain imaging (fMRI).

The results

During the time of the brain imaging, the researchers found that the tests of phonological skills were significantly higher among the cancer survivors who had received the Fast ForWord reading intervention during their cancer treatment, than among those who received standard-of-care. Even more important, the measures of functional brain activation across those brain areas recognized as important for reading showed a trend towards normalization among the children who received the Fast ForWord intervention.  This led the authors to conclude that the results of the study provide evidence for the long-term value of this type of reading intervention in children after surviving a serious form of brain cancer.

A diagnosis of cancer in a child is frightening and overwhelming, but fortunately the cure rate of many childhood cancers is now very high. With the high cure rates, doctors now recognize that these very effective cancer therapies may have long term aftereffects on learning and thinking. However, the best news is that there are interventions, such as the Fast ForWord programs, specifically designed by neuroscientists to normalize brain functions for learning that can prevent and/or remediate some of these learning problems.  

References:

Dietrich, J.Monje, M., Wefel, J. and Meyers, C. Clinical Patterns and Biological Correlates of Cognitive Dysfunction Associated with Cancer Therapy. The Oncologist. 2008;13:1285–1295

Mukherjee, S. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Scribner; 2010

Mulhern, R. and Palmer, S. Neurocognitive late effects in pediatric cancer. Current Problems in Cancer. July–August 2003, Pages 177–197

Zou, P et al. (2015) Functional MRI in medulloblastoma survivors supports prophylactic reading intervention during tumor treatment. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 2015. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11682-015-9390-8. Accessed July 27, 2015.

 

Parent Checklist: Is My Child At-Risk for Learning Issues?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015 - 08:00
  • Kristina Collins


parent checklistWe developed the following parent checklist to learn what concerns parents see in their children and to help them decide if their child is in need of help. Choose one answer for each question and indicate how often the behavior is exhibited in your child’s daily life with the following options: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, or Always.

  • Misunderstands what you say
  • Needs instructions repeated
  • Misunderstands jokes
  • Has difficulty understanding long sentences
  • Needs questions repeated
  • Has difficulty retelling a story in the right order
  • Cannot finish long sentences
  • Has trouble saying the same thing in a different way (rephrasing)
  • Has trouble finding the right word
  • Pronounces common words incorrectly
  • Gets confused in noisy places
  • Has difficulty engaging in conversation with others
  • Has behavior problems
  • Lacks self-confidence
  • Avoids group activities
  • Has trouble paying attention
  • Has trouble sounding out words
  • Has trouble reading
  • Has trouble spelling
  • Cannot tell you about the events of his/her school day

If you answered Sometimes, Often or Always to several of these, your child may be at-risk for a language-based learning disability and will likely require intervention to prevent these issues from affecting him/her academically in the future.   Why are we posting this now? Because summer is one of the best times to tackle these issues.

We hear from countless parents like you who are looking for help for their bright child who struggles with reading, writing, attention, or other issues. You’re in the right place. We can help you help your child this summer.  

Related Reading:

Preventing Summer Brain Drain with Dr. Martha S. Burns

What’s on Your Kids’ Summer Reading List?

 

Alternatives to Medication in the Treatment of ADD

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Options for treating attention problems

ADD MedicationIn this op-ed in the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, discusses the urgent need to address the needs of students with attention problems.  Given the dramatic recent increase in the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses in school-aged children [according to the Centers for Disease Control, the lifetime prevalence in children has increased to 11 percent in 2011 from 7.8 percent in 2003 — a whopping 41 percent increase], Dr. Friedman argues for a need to find more natural (non-medical) ways to help these students. In his op-ed he states, “In school, these curious, experience-seeking kids would most likely do better in small classes that emphasize hands-on-learning, self-paced technology-based assignments, and tasks that build specific skills.”

Whereas many parents and educators consider medication as a first approach to management of disorders of attention, the recent dramatic increase in the incidence and the call for consideration of non-medical interventions for school-aged children is important for parents and teachers to consider when managing learning issues within the classroom. One important type of attention disorder that has been treated successfully without medication is auditory attention disorders associated with some types of learning disabilities. Research conducted by Courtney Stevens and her colleagues at the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon has shown that children with specific language learning disorders have problems with auditory attention. Parents and educators rarely use the term “auditory attention”; however, the Stevens et al. research is increasingly supportive of its important role in learning.

We all recognize students who have problems with auditory attention: those who cannot stay focused on listening long enough to complete a task or requirement (such as listening to a class discussion in school). In fact, when educators use the term “listening skills,” they are referring to auditory attention.  It is virtually impossible to imagine a classroom where paying attention to the teacher for sustained periods of time is not critical to academic success.  According to the International Listening Association (www.listen.org), 45 percent of a student’s day is spent listening, and students are expected to acquire 85 percent of their knowledge through listening. Auditory attention skills mature over time, and like many other skills important for learning (memory, thinking skills), students vary in their ability. Children with ADHD have a known diagnosis of significant auditory (and visual) attention problems. However, according to the Stevens et al. research, even across typical learners there is a variation of ability ranging from those with average auditory attention skills to those with excellent auditory attention skills. And like with other cognitive skills, independent controlled research indicates that Fast ForWord training can significantly improve auditory attention and/or reading skills in a variety of students:  typical students and those with specific language impairment.

For those interested in the specifics of the Stevens et al. study, she and her colleagues examined whether six weeks of Fast ForWord Language training would influence neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention previously shown to be deficient in children with specific language impairment (SLI). Twenty 6-8 year old students received Fast ForWord Language training, including 8 students diagnosed with SLI and 12 students with typically developing language skills. An additional 13 students with typically developing language received no specialized training but were tested and retested after a comparable time period as a control group.  Before and after training, students received a standardized language assessment as well as a highly objective electrophysiological neural measure of attention using Event-Related Potentials (ERP).

Compared to the control group, students receiving Fast ForWord Language training showed increases in standardized measures of receptive language as well as an improved effect of attention on neural processing. No significant change was noted in the control group. The enhanced effect of attention on neural processing represented a large effect size (Cohen’s d = 0.8, indicating that the average child in the experimental group is comparable to the child at the 79th percentile of the comparison group). These findings indicate that the neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention, previously shown to be deficient in children with SLI, can be remediated through training and can accompany improvements on standardized measurements of language development.

Other controlled research, presented by Deutsch et al. at a CHADD conference several years ago, also showed improvement in attention among those students with a diagnosis of ADHD or ADD plus language impairment. In fact, if one considers Dr. Friedman’s finding that children with attention disorders benefit from “self-paced technology-based assignments and tasks that build specific skills,” there are no better designed self-paced e-learning programs than the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant solutions. The Fast ForWord Reading products and Reading Assistant tasks are self-paced online tasks that require sustained auditory attention.  The tasks in Reading Assistant especially require activities that include listening to modeled reading, reading aloud while receiving corrective feedback through listening, listening to your own reading, and then answering questions about what was read.  Answering “think about it” comprehension questions further exercises both auditory memory and executive function skills.

In conclusion, the effort to find more natural, non-medical ways to help students with attentional disorders is at hand.  Self-paced technology programs like the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord series provide one proven alternative for improving attentional skills in students with language-based learning issues as well as those diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. 

Further Reading:

Stevens, C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & H Neville (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, 1205, 55-69.

Students Show Improved Auditory Attention and Early Reading Skills After Fast ForWord Intervention

Related Reading:

Improved Auditory Processing With Targeted Intervention

Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot

 

10 Questions to Ask Your Child’s Teacher This Year (Don’t Forget Cognitive Skills!)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014 - 17:15
  • Norene Wiesen

It’s back to school…again! Your child is getting to know a new teacher and facing a host of new expectations. How can you be sure that you are prepared to help your child navigate the school year and get the most out of every day at school? It helps if you know what questions to ask. Here’s a list you can use as a starting point for talking with your child’s teacher.

Parent Night Questions

Many teachers provide a Parent Night handout or a website with detailed information about classroom expectations or procedures. See what your child’s teacher has prepared for you, and if it doesn’t answer the following questions, be sure to ask them yourself.

  1. Student Feedback & Support - How do you like to provide feedback to students? Are there any interventions to help children who need a little extra attention? When are you available if my child needs extra help?
  2. Home Support - How can I support you, as a parent, so that my child gets the most out of this school year?

Conference (or “As-Needed”) Questions

  1. Reading – When working in a small group with my student in reading, what is an area of strength or weakness that you notice? How is my child’s decoding? Fluency? Comprehension? Vocabulary?
  2. Writing – What are my child’s specific strengths and weaknesses in writing?
  3. Math - What are my child’s specific strengths and weaknesses in math?
  4. Cognitive Skills – How would you say my child is doing, as compared to peers, in these areas:
    1. Memory: How well does my child learn and remember new information? Does he or she require more or less support than peers? How easily is information retained?
    2. Attention: How is my child’s attention during different types of activities? One-on-one? Small group? Whole class?
    3. Processing: How well is my child able to “make connections” as compared to peers? In reading: decoding new words, making educated guesses about the meaning of a new word, using background knowledge, or predicting and inferring. In math: during computation (is it labored or slow?) or retrieval of simple number facts. In writing: able to generate coherent ideas without a lot of support and begin to put them into words (orally or on paper, depending on grade).
    4. Sequencing: How well is my child able to organize his thoughts for writing or explain his understanding of a new concept?
  5. Expression of Thoughts & Language Skills – How often do students have an opportunity to share their thoughts with the class (i.e., “think out loud”)? What do you notice when my child participates (or not)?
  6. Motivation – What does my child find motivating? What can I do to support this?
  7. Social Skills – How does my child do without direct supervision? How does my child handle conflict with other students? What one thing could my child do to improve his or her social skills?
  8. State Testing & Advancement – Do you have any concerns about my child’s ability to prepare for and take the state tests? Or his or her advancement to the next grade?

If you have concerns about your child’s cognitive skills or academic performance, don’t wait until conference day to let the teacher know. Use the teacher’s preferred method of communication to request a special meeting. For any area where extra help might be needed, or even if your child has reached proficiency, be sure to ask, “What can I do to support my child at home?” And then really do it. That school-home connection can make a huge difference in student achievement. Here’s to a great school year!

Related reading:

The Parent Trap: Getting Your Struggling Learner to Do Homework Independently

Instilling a Love of Reading: What Every Teacher and Parent Should Know

 

The iPad® and Student Engagement: Is There a Connection?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski, MA

iPads and student engagement

When students at ACS Cobham International School (UK) got iPads, Richard Harrold saw an opportunity. As an assistant principal at the lower (elementary) school, he had been hearing glowing reports from other educators about students seeing remarkable gains when using iPads. Were the gains real? And was the effect due to something special about the iPad, or were students just responding to the newness of the technology?

Harrold decided to find out. With the help of his school’s “Project i” team, he launched a formal study with 1 stand 2 ndgraders to see if they would experience the same increases in engagement and understanding that he had been hearing about from other educators.

Harrold's study confirmed the benefits of iPads in schools:

  • iPads benefit learners of different ages, sometimes in different ways
  • iPads have special benefits for learners in the very early grades
  • The iPad makes typing easier for 1 stand 2 ndgraders

More generally, results indicated that:

  • iPads improve student engagement
  • “iPad buddies” collaborate more
  • iPads boost perseverance

The effects discovered were more than a reaction to a fun, new “toy.” In fact, to ensure that their results were not due to a honeymoon period, the team delayed the study until learners had been using their iPads for a full eight months.

These findings are exciting, especially for learners requiring intervention. Struggling students can be harder to engage and may have trouble enduring learning challenges. Giving them the opportunity to use an iPad-based intervention can motivate learners to persevere and achieve.

In a time where “grit” is getting a lot of attention as a key indicator of future success, anytime that perseverance goes up – as with iPad use – educators would be wise to take notice. But don’t rule out the appeal of classic technologies. Early-grade learners would still rather read a bound book than an ebook on iPad.

References:

Harrold, R. (2012). Measuring the Effect of iPads in the Classroom. The International Educator.Retrieved from: http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/74482139/measuring-effect-ipads-classroom

Harrold, R. (2012). The iPad Effect: Leveraging Engagement, Collaboration, and Perseverance. The International Educator. Retrieved from: http://www.tieonline.com/view_article.cfm?ArticleID=100

Related reading:

10 Big Benefits of Using iPads in Schools

Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn and Grow

 

How to Tell When Neuroscience-Based Programs are Well-Developed

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

 5 key elements to look for in brain exercisesNeuroscience-based programs

I am sure you have noticed that there are many technology programs out there that claim to “build,” or improve your brain function. Every week I receive emails from companies advertising brain  games that promise to train attention and memory skills. You may have wondered, do “brain games” really work? A recent article in The New York Times entitled "Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn't Sure," actually asked that very question as well.

How would a memory brain game that I purchase from a website be different from a card or board game like “Concentration”? How is an attention game different or better than the concentration required to read a good book or play a card game that requires focused and sustained attention to cards played or discarded each round? Do good old fashioned paper pencil activities like crossword puzzles help with brain function? How about Bridge or Chess? Does watching Jeopardy on Television help your memory? Wouldn’t any challenging video game help us with attention if we had to stay focused for long periods of time to get to a new level?

The answers to the above questions are all “yes, to some degree.” The brain is the only organ of our body that changes each day based on our experiences. And if we do any activities that challenge memory or attention for extended periods of time it will likely be beneficial for improving those capacities. If I play bridge, for example, many hours a week, I will likely get better at the game and boost my short term (working) memory as well. But, neuroscientists who study brain plasticity, the way the brain changes with stimulation (or lack of stimulation), have determined there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And, controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

So, for example, researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70's who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014).

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be "built-in" so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our "noggin" in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals.

Here are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low - Exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (like exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et el, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect - you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability - Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules - The relevant ‘skills' must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (ie, quasi-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing - In order to maximize enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards - A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema, 2010).

So, parents may ask, ”This sounds fine for making our average brains work better but what about my child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or other issues like autism spectrum disorder?” According to Ahissar et al. (2009), for our children (or adults) with learning issues, distortions or limitations at any level will create bottlenecks for learning and the changes we want from brain exercises. But, according to the authors, if the exercises have sufficient intensity and duration on specific sets of activities that focus on lower-level (perceptual) and middle-level stimuli (attention, memory and language) tasks, brain changes will enhance higher level skills and learning will be easier and more advanced.

So for parents, or anyone wanting to understand which brain exercises are worth the investment of valuable time and money, a rule of thumb would be to avoid products that advertise themselves as "brain games" - because that is what they probably are. Rather, seek out programs or products that contain "exercises" that focus on specific high and low level skills like language, reading, memory and attention, and those who have research evidence to support their value when used by children like yours.

References

Ahissar, M., Nahum, M., Nelken, I., & Hochstein, S. (2009). Reverse hierarchies and sensory learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364,285–299. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0253

Loosli, S.V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W.J., & Jaeggi, S.M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children, Child Neuropsychology, 18, 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H.Y., King, J.W., . . . Willis, S.L. (2014). Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62,16-24. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607

Roelfsema, P.R., van Ooyen, A., & Watanabe, T. (2010). Perceptual learning rules based on reinforcers and attention, Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 64–71. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.11.005

Vinogradav, S., Fisher, M., & de Villers-Sidani, E. (2012). Cognitive Training for Impaired Neural Systems in Neuropsychiatric Illness, Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews,37, 43–76. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.251

Related reading:

Brain Fitness Is Not A Game

Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators

 

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