Fidget Spinners: Helpful for Attention or Not?

Thursday, September 7, 2017 - 08:00
  • Dylan Hendricks

fidget spinnersAlong with smartphones and social media, fidget spinners are now somewhat of a punchline when talking about the habits of today’s kids. The small trinkets have been a consistent presence both on best-selling toy lists and in classrooms all over the country — to the frustration of many teachers who have banned or confiscated them.

Of course, neither handheld gadgets nor teachers’ struggle against them in the classroom are particularly new. What’s novel about fidget spinners, however, is that they’ve been marketed not just as entertainment but as a tool to increase focus or relieve stress for people with autism, anxiety, or attention disorders. So do these toys really have therapeutic value, or are they just another trendy distraction?

The answer is more complicated than you might think. For a long time, fidgeting behaviors like shifting in your seat, tapping your fingers, or twirling a pen wеre considered a sign of distraction, and children in school were constantly admonished to sit still. But the common wisdom had it backwards: fidgeting can, in fact, help to improve memory and concentration, though scientists still aren’t sure exactly how. A recent study by Julie Schweitzer found that children diagnosed with ADHD performed better on a cognitive assignment the more physical movement they exhibited during the test, while another demonstrated a similar correlation between movement and working memory.

These results indicate that fidgeting could be a strategy to compensate for attention deficits by occupying understimulated regions of the brain. Even for those not diagnosed with ADHD, a simple physical activity like doodling may help to keep their focus from straying away from the main task at hand, as an earlier study has shown. Furthermore, better performance by students who take handwritten notes over those who take notes on their laptops suggest that incorporating physical movement into a cognitive task may directly help with thinking and remembering.

But despite measured consensus on the potential benefits of fidgeting in general, there is little evidence that these benefits can be derived from the current toy trend. And while research has not yet focused specifically on fidget spinners, experts have their doubts. For one thing, the toy doesn’t actually require much physical movement, with most of the work being done by the spinner itself. Secondly, the ability to perform tricks with it make it more of a deliberate activity than a passive outlet for excess energy. Add to that the visual nature of the spinner and the whirring sound it makes, and what you have is not a focus aid but a conscious distraction, not just for the user but anyone else nearby. It’s no wonder many teachers hate them. Other fidget toys that are less conspicuous and more interactive, such as the fidget cube, or even a simple stress ball, might be more effective – and more acceptable in the classroom.

Still, some parents and educators have expressed support for fidget spinners, with anecdotal evidence of some children being helped by them. And unlike other fidget devices, spinners are a popular item among all types of students, so special needs children don’t feel awkward about having and using them. More broadly, the toys’ popularity can be seen as helping student integration by normalizing fidgeting and removing the stigma from neuroatypical behaviors.

Ultimately, the question of fidget spinners is part of a larger debate about how to incorporate what we are now learning about how children’s brains function into the existing educational system, with factors like the time and length of the school day and classroom management all playing a role. And while fidget spinners may provide benefits to some students, until more peer-reviewed research is available parents and educators would be wise to remain skeptical of their marketing claims. Educators seeking to learn more about improving attention in the classroom can look to programs like Fast ForWord, which has been shown to improve auditory attention in peer-reviewed research. 

Continued reading:

Pay Attention! Why It's Not As Easy As You May Think
Alternatives to Medication in the Treatment of ADHD


Fidget spinners: What is the new craze banned in schools across the nation?
Fidget Spinners: What They Are, How They Work and Why the Controversy


Listen Up! 5 Tips to Improve Students' Attention Span

Tuesday, May 2, 2017 - 08:00
  • Carrie Gajowski, MA

Paying attention 

Sounds easy to some of us. But is it really? Consider the various objects and applications vying for your attention right now. Email updates, texts, app notifications, voicemails -- each of these distractions in one pocket-sized device. Factor in your numerous daily tasks, social commitments, and family matters, and it's no wonder the average attention span continues to decline. And many of these distractions begin long before adulthood.

I recently read that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish. Intriguing, right? Goldfish apparently have an attention span of 9 seconds; humans 8 seconds. In 2000, before the advent of the internet, humans had an attention span of 12 seconds. 

What is behind this change of attention in our lives? Of course, the advent of the internet and our smartphones. Who knew 20 years ago that we would all be carrying around our phones the way we do? They have become necessities. 

Children and Smartphones  

Smartphones are becoming part of childhood. 

Consider these statistics:

  • Children are now catching onto the smartphone revolution. Over half of children under the age of 12 have one. 
  • 21% of children under the age of 8 use smartphones — more than 1 in 5.
  • The average age for a child to get a smartphone is now 12. 
  • Smartphone/internet addiction could be surpassing drug addiction for young adults. More research is being done on this topic and I am certain we will see more in the years to come.

How do you think this impacts your students every day as they come to school, in a world that was very different from the one their parents grew up in 20, 30, or 40 years ago?  Imagine how they feel when they come to school and now have to turn off the phones and other electronic devices and pay attention for 40, 50, 60 minutes at a time. 

Here are some ways to increase your attention span (and your students' attention) in this age of technology, internet, and smartphones:

1. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness, aka asking your students to be aware of their breathing. Sounds simple, right? We have to breathe to live. But how many of us actually take the time to notice our breathing and how we actually feel in each moment? Getting grounded in our bodies can help with paying attention.

2. Power-up your brain.

Make sure your students are alert and ready to take in information. How do you know this? Do your student appear well-rested? If your students do not seem ready to pay attention, you can try a series of physical activities to try and get them more focused. Sometimes, physical activity will help the body “wake up” and be able to better focus.

3. Attention breaks.

What are these? Take frequent “attention breaks” during the day. These are breaks to help your students understand the concept of paying attention and what you are asking of them. So instead of taking a normal break where you might let the class pick their own activities, an attention break is one that allows for students to pay attention to a certain activity for a certain amount of time. Students will get used to these breaks and you can make them longer and longer throughout your day.

4. Break tasks down into smaller pieces.

Some children can't pay attention to multi-step directions and will have the first task done just as you are saying the last step of the instructions. These students might need tasks broken down into individual steps. For these students, you might want to say, “Go get your book.” Have them get their book. Then you might say, “Turn to page 8.” And wait for them to do that. This could help build their confidence while lowering your frustration.

5. Recess.

Give more recess time to students, especially your younger ones. One school in TX has been increasing the amount of time for recess and unstructured play and seeing an improvement in their students’ focus and achievement. While it might seem counter-productive to add more “play time” to the school day given everything that students are supposed to learn, it seems that students who get more recess time might have an easier time focusing in the classroom. This is definitely a trend to watch in the coming years!

Paying attention is essential to anything students need or want to accomplish in school - and life. 

What are some ways you help yourself and your students pay attention? Share in the comments section below!


How Kids Pay Attention (and Why Some Kids Struggle With It)
Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones
Kids Wireless Use Facts
Are Teenagers Replacing Drugs with Smartphones
Texas School Triples Recess Time, Solving Attention Deficit Disorder
No Recess for Recess


What Weak Cognitive Skills Look Like in the Classroom

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 08:00
  • Linda Gajowski, M.Ed., MS


weak cognitive skills"I just don't get it!" is a phrase some of us may have heard or even used in our lives. Our brains successfully comprehend and utilize incoming information when strong cognitive skills are present. With weak cognitive skills, especially in young children, learning is a challenge. The major cognitive skills necessary for optimal learning are memory, attention, processing, and sequencing. When children are deficient in one or more of these essential cognitive tools, learning acquisition problems will occur. We all use cognitive skills every day to function successfully. Just driving to the supermarket and back requires those four cognitive skills which are so ingrained that we are often not consciously aware of them.


Let's look at memory, often referred to as working memory. This cognitive skill allows us to remember information, an essential building block of learning. Without good recall, a child will struggle in the classroom. When kindergarteners are given directions to color the apples red, the tulips yellow, and the cats black on a worksheet, those with poor short-term memory may only remember the first color. Other children may have difficulty following a first grade morning routine which may include placing homework in the inbox, clearing desktops, and getting and completing morning worksheets. Although homework is handed in and desks cleared, some students may forget the next step in the routine. It is, therefore, imperative that memory evolves to optimal levels so that children may learn to the best of their ability.


Another important cognitive skill is attention. Children must be able to attend to (listen and understand) information for learning to occur. Without this cognitive skill at a high functioning level, reading acquisition along with school success will be adversely affected. Normal classroom movements or noises may not bother most children. Those students with poor attention may find themselves watching a seat mate or looking for the noise being made on the other side of the room.  Such distractions may interfere with their ability to hear and comprehend information. When students cannot pay attention well and assimilate new information, they become frustrated and lose interest in the lesson. Even small distractions that others ignore will then become the focus. Let's build good attention skills in the early grades to optimize children's school success!


Next, the cognitive skill of processing allows our brains to understand and assign meaning to incoming information. Most information is received either visually or aurally.  Students with poor visual processing skills may find themselves interpreting visual cues inaccurately. As a result,  math computation, hand writing, and oral reading may be adversely affected. Children with poor auditory processing skills may be unable to accurately discriminate between sounds. They might appear reluctant to answer a question since their brains are busy trying to figure out what was asked of them. Reading and comprehension as well as math then become very real challenges for students with poor cognitive processing ability.


Lastly our brains arrange information in a particular order with the cognitive skill of sequencing. Students need this skill to alphabetize, count, and organize information. When children's brains meld new information with previously stored Information, they have a solid base for learning. Children with weak sequencing skills may not be able to compose or outline a story. Even doing a simple word search game depends on good cognitive sequencing skills. Some children who are weak in sequencing may become disinterested in the lesson, perceiving it as "boring" or too difficult. On occasion disruptive behavior may occur due to a child's academic frustration.

Memory, attention, processing and sequencing are the major cognitive skills necessary to become a successful learner. When one or more of these cognitive skills is deficient, children will experience a difficult time in school. Without these essential cognitive skills working at an optimal level, intervention is required for children to learn. The Fast ForWord program is a well-documented educational program geared toward improving these essential cognitive skills.


APD: What It Is and What You Can Do About It

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - 08:00
  • Kristina Birdsong

What is APD?What is Auditory Processing Disorder?

APD stands for Auditory Processing Disorder, a disorder that affects about 2-5% of the population.

Auditory Processing Disorder occurs when the ears send imprecise information to the brain. This may mean a mixing up of similar words like “fair” and “hair” or “let” and “wet.” It may also mean an inability to filter out other sounds. Imagine hearing only the last part of the word. You may not immediately understand, and you will need some time to use contextual clues to figure out the speaker’s intended meaning.

Auditory processing difficulty may result in the inability to remember the first part of a sentence or a list. Especially if there are distractions, listening can prove difficult and overwhelming. Imagine being in a loud, crowded room. A fan whirring nearby or a blender grinding fruit, or even a collective buzz of other voices can interfere with reception of sound. While people without APD can target the specific sound they want to hear, those with APD hear everything at once and at the same decibel, like a carnival of noise where no one sound can be isolated or deciphered. Children with APD haven’t yet learned how to cope when all the sounds are muddled or when information gets lost before it can be stored properly in the brain for immediate retrieval.

APD can be especially challenging in conversation because someone with APD may not receive extra time from others, which often creates feelings of frustration and confusion. A child with APD may stop listening altogether if it proves too difficult, time-consuming, or overwhelming. They simply avoid the burden of asking questions to understand a conversation that’s moving much too fast.

What Auditory Processing Disorder is not

Because of the particular challenges APD presents, it often goes undiagnosed. Also, commonly, a child’s auditory processing deficits are mistakenly attributed to other disorders or are dismissed as intentional poor behavior. Here is a list of some of the most common assumptions made about a child's behavior that is undiagnosed with APD.

A child with APD may be (mistakenly) thought to have:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Lack of intelligence
  • Willful stubbornness
  • Voluntary defiance

A child with APD may also possess any of these problems, but it is important to consider these symptoms as signs of APD so we can properly diagnose APD and work to minimize its effects.

A child may have APD if he or she exhibits the following signs:

  • Trouble paying attention
  • Trouble following directions
  • Low academic performance
  • Behavior problems
  • Poor reading and vocabulary

What should you do if you suspect APD?

If you suspect that a child or student has APD, you can have them tested by an audiologist and also rule out some of these other issues. The American Speech Hearing Association indicates most APD testing requires children to be at least 7 or 8. Often, audiologists recommend retesting around age 12 because test results can be skewed by younger childrens' brain variability. The important thing to remember is that with an accurate diagnosis, even despite the challenges APD presents for children, there are viable treatments and accommodations available.

What can you do about APD?

  1. Use an evidence-based intervention to build processing speed. Studies have shown that the Fast ForWord program actually changes the brain’s ability to process auditory information, which results in lasting and meaningful achievement.
  2. Use visual cues to aid in understanding. Providing some context by using another learning mode can soften the stress a child may feel since words are often overwhelming.
  3. Give time to think and answer. Patience goes a long way in helping children understand because it gives them a moment to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
  4. Read aloud regularly. Have your child or students follow along and practice sounding out the words after you say them. By reading aloud and using clear language, you can have a direct role in the improvement of language acquisition, reading ability, and auditory processing.
  5. Enunciate words and check for understanding. Often, parents and teachers make assumptions about why a child won’t answer a question or why they seem obstinate. APD can be especially challenging because it is impossible to truly know what the child hears. By asking a child to repeat your request or to answer in context, you can know whether or not he/she hears you accurately.

Most kids want to please, and they are truly trying their best even when that may not appear to be the case. By giving each child the benefit of the doubt and choosing kindness first, you will build a loving connection. An emotionally safe environment encourages children to put fears aside, and when they do this, they will be better equipped to focus on learning.


How to Improve Auditory Processing Speed Using Fast ForWord

Tuesday, June 28, 2016 - 08:00
  • Ann Osterling, MA CCC-SLP

Sky GymDr. Paula Tallal, one of the premier cognitive neuroscientists in the nation, started out researching the cause of language impairments in children. As most parents and specialists in language know, language is a naturally acquired skill, similar to walking. All a baby needs is to hear language spoken around them and they will begin talking. But some children are not able to do this easily or naturally. Dr Tallal was interested in why that might happen. She originally hypothesized that children who develop language slowly might have problems with underlying sequencing skills, since words and grammar depend on getting the sequence correct – for example perceiving the difference between spot and pots requires putting the /s/ sound into the word in the correct sequence. To test this she had children with and without language problems sequence tones to see if that could be a basic skill that would differentiate children having trouble learning language. She noticed that learners with no language difficulties could sequence two sounds very easily no matter how quickly they occurred in time, but children with language problems had difficulty sequencing sounds only when they occurred quickly, not slowly. This blog post explains how Fast ForWord can train struggling learners in rapid auditory sequencing tasks through exercises called Sky Gym and Jumper Gym.

What are Sky Gym and Jumper Gym?

Sky Gym and Jumper Gym are the names of exercises in Fast ForWord that help improve the speed at which a participant identifies and understands rapid, successive changes in sound (listening accuracy), and the ability to recognize and remember the order in which a series of sounds is presented (auditory sequencing).

The object of these exercises is to correctly identify sequences of two to five sound sweeps.

Struggling in Sky Gym/Jumper Gym? That’s actually a good sign.

These exercises are incredibly powerful and important training tools – but they're also considered two of the hardest exercises in Fast ForWord. These exercises were the topic of many discussions (online and in person) in the early days. It's easy for some of us, like me, to forget that there are many new Fast ForWord providers and coaches who don’t have this background. I truly know of no other way to improve the speed of auditory processing skills. 

A little background.

The inclusion of these tone-sequencing exercises in the Fast ForWord products goes back to the 1970's when Dr. Paula Tallal did research that showed how individuals with a Specific Language Impairment (SLI) had problems processing auditory information if it was presented for too short of a time and/or presented too soon after another auditory stimulus. But, if the auditory stimulus (a tone) was given for a longer period of time, these people could get it.  Their errors on the rapid tones weren't a cognitive or “not smart enough” issue, but due to the fact that the information was presented too quickly. Kind of like when we hear people speaking a language that is not our native language, we always think they speak "too fast.” Another way to make these listening tasks easier for a person with SLI (which is probably an auditory processing problem) is to present one tone, and then have a longer period of time in between the first and second tone. So, Dr. Paula Tallal's research in the 70's identified a core underlying problem for people with auditory processing issues. 

Meanwhile, in Dr. Michael Merzenich's labs, more and more research was being done that proved neuroplasticity existed beyond the initial critical window of development. He was also in the process of discovering the most efficient ways to train the brain to learn new information. 

In the 1990's, Tallal and Merzenich began discussing how to improve the ability to understand spoken language if you had SLI, auditory processing problems or dyslexia. Dr. Tallal wondered if a device could be worn that would stretch out the speech to make it longer. Dr. Merzenich told her that the brain could actually be trained to learn to process these rapid sounds by using the principles of neuroplasticity. These conversations led to the early trials of Fast ForWord at Rutgers in 1994 and 1995.

That is the story of how these exercises came to be.

So, what about the students who struggle with these exercises?

Typically, if a participant is struggling with these exercises, it means they really do need to be doing Fast ForWord – particularly this type of exercise.  Don't let the fact that there are no speech sounds, words or language mislead you (it did me, in the beginning). Slow progress on these exercises are usually not because the learners aren't motivated or aren't listening hard enough (how exactly does a person "listen harder" anyway?). It's usually because the brain is not able to process rapid information quickly, efficiently or accurately. 

Coaching strategies for Sky Gym/Jumper Gym

It is very important that these participants complete their training time on Fast ForWord in a quiet and distraction-free environment. They should be wearing enclosed headphones and the volume should be loud enough for them to hear clearly. There are a number of activities that can be done to try to motivate the person to really work hard – such as the “10 in a Row” challenge, where the goal is for a student to achieve a minimum of 10 correct answers in a row. You can also try a “Beat the Teacher” challenge, where students compete with their provider, coach, or fellow participant by earning points for being consistently accurate.  You can find these and other intervention strategies in MySciLEARN.


Get Outside, It’s Good For Your Brain

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - 08:00
  • Kristina Birdsong

cognitive benefitsWhen it comes to ways of improving cognitive ability, much of our discussion centers on complex interventions. But additional avenues for broad-based cognitive improvement could be as simple as a walk in the park. While spending more time outside may sound like practical folk wisdom, research shows that natural environments provide real and measurable psychological benefits. Let’s look at some of the findings.

Two kinds of cognitive attention

It has long been accepted among psychologists that attention and concentration are a finite resource that is depleted throughout the day as we perform cognitively demanding tasks. But research on this topic makes a crucial distinction between two different ways that our attention can be engaged.

Much like the cognitive tasks we are faced with at school or at work, urban environments deplete our resources by demanding “directed attention”, where one must focus on processing specific stimuli while filtering out others and suppressing physiological or emotional distractions. There is traffic that must be avoided, signs that must be read, and street grids or transit systems that must be navigated among constantly moving crowds, all of which leads to mental fatigue

Natural environments, on the other hand, interact with our cognition in the radically different manner of fascination or “effortless attention”. Stimuli like a beautiful sunset or a green meadow capture our attention involuntarily and non-threateningly, without requiring conscious focus or demanding a response. Like stretching muscles between workouts, such natural environments engage our cognitive function in a way that restores rather than drains their capacity.

Research proposed in the 1980s by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan has consistently validated the benefits of exposure to nature. In multiple studies, exposure to natural environments significantly improved participants’ performance on attention, memory, and cognition tests when compared to either urban or indoor environments. Amazingly, these benefits appear to extend to more artificial substitutes such as indoor plants or even just looking at nature photographs.

Mental and physiological health

Natural environments have also correlated with reduced stress and better mental health outcomes. According to Stanford researcher Gregory Bratman, “nature scenes activate our parasympathetic nervous system in ways that reduce stress and autonomic arousal, due to our connection to the natural world.” For example, office workers with windows facing natural scenery have reported higher job satisfaction and less workplace frustration. When a recent study added brain scans into the mix, nature walks were shown to reduce activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with depressive rumination.

Exposure to nature appears to have physiological benefits as well. Nursing home residents suffering from dementia showed improved mobility after spending time in a garden, and hospital patients with green window views recovered faster from surgery.

Social and behavioral intelligence

Supporting the age-old refrain of being told to go play outside, studies suggest that nature has even greater significance for children. The variety of objects and patterns found in natural landscapes encourages imaginative play, which is linked to social as well as cognitive development. A study focusing on inner-city children found that, at least for girls, greener home surroundings correlated with greater impulse control and self-discipline. Likewise, playing in natural spaces was associated with a reduction of symptom severity in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. In a broader sense, the open and unstructured nature of outdoor natural spaces encourages social cohesion through group activity and cooperative problem-solving. And this benefit of green spaces also extends to adults, especially those belonging to marginalized urban populations.


Something as simple as exposure to nature can be an additional avenue for improving learning outcomes alongside more targeted cognitive interventions. However, access to natural spaces is already scarce in the areas where many educationally disadvantaged children are concentrated, and the issue is becoming more pressing as the rate of urbanization increases worldwide. Given what we know about the interlocking relationship between cognitive, behavioral, and emotional development in early childhood, it behooves educators to lend more consideration to environmental factors, so that we can provide children with the best possible space in which to grow.


New research suggests nature walks are good for your brain

Just looking at nature can help your brain work better, study finds

Mental Health and Function


10 Ways to Help Your School-Age Child Develop a “Reading Brain”

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP
reading brainAs children start their summers, it’s important to keep in mind that a number of activities can be done at home to help children develop a ‘reading brain’ and become more fluent readers. “We take reading for granted, and yet numerous statistics find that too many of our nation’s students, regardless of age and background, struggle with reading,” said Dr. Paula Tallal, a world-recognized authority on language-learning disabilities and a founder of both the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University and Scientific Learning. “What scientific research tells us is that the ability to read is one of the most complex skills we can learn in our lifetime. It also shows us that the brain can change and learn at any age and, in effect, be rewired for reading.” According to the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, National Reading Panel, National Institute for Literacy and other research organizations, the reading skills of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension as well as the cognitive skills of memory, attention, processing and sequencing are critical to reading fluently.
Dr. Tallal provides the following ten pointers on how parents can help their school-age children develop and fine-tune these essential skills at home:

1. Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the sounds of spoken language and to understand that words are made of sequences of phonemes, the smallest units of sound that make a difference in the meaning of words. Students with developed phonemic awareness skills can judge whether two words rhyme, for example, and are able to isolate and substitute the beginning, middle and ending sounds in a word.
How to work on phonemic awareness at home: By teaching rhymes, songs and short poems and playing simple word games (e.g. “How many words can you rhyme with sat?”).

2. Phonics

Phonics are the understanding that there is a predictable relationship between phonemes (the sounds of spoken language) and graphemes (the letters and spellings that represent those sounds in written language).
How to work on phonics at home: Parents should help younger children practice the alphabet by pointing out letters whenever they see them and teaching them their name and other everyday words. Playing games like, “How many words can you make using the letters in spaghetti?” works well with older children.

3. Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately and quickly. Fluent readers can recognize words automatically and understand their meaning at the same time.

How to work on fluency at home: Children should be encouraged to read aloud to their parents and even re-read the same story several times. Parents should read to their children as well as have them follow along as they read.

4. Vocabulary

Vocabulary consists of the words readers must know to communicate effectively.
How to work on vocabulary at home: Parents can help children build a strong vocabulary by teaching them the meaning of important words and promoting the use of a dictionary. They can also teach their child how to use context clues while reading to figure out unknown words and learn base words and affixes to decode words.


5. Comprehension

Compehension is the ability to derive meaning from text. Good readers have a purpose for reading.
How to work on comprehension at home: Parents should help their children find time to read for pleasure and find interesting books that they want to read on their own. Parents who discuss with their children what they’re reading are also helping them read for meaning.


6. Memory

Memory is the ability to store information and ideas, which is essential for word recognition, comprehension of complex sentences and remembering instructions.
How to work on comprehension at home: Engaging children in memory games like ‘Concentration’ and encouraging them to re-tell stories help improve memory skills.

7. Attention

Attention is the ability to focus on information and tasks, while ignoring distractions. Fluent reading requires sustained and focused attention.
How to work on attention at home: To increase attention span, parents should have children set time goals for sticking to a task, like doing homework or reading quietly. Children should also learn to read or study in a quiet room, free from television, radio and other distractions.

8. Processing

In the context of reading, processing is the ability to distinguish and associate individual speech sounds with their corresponding letter and word forms.
How to work on processing at home: Listening games, such as identifying sounds in words that sound like something else (e.g., the 's' sounds like a hissing snake), help train the ear to capture and interpret sounds clearly and accurately.

9. Sequencing

Sequencing skills are used for maintaining order, such as the order of letters within words or words within a sentence.
How to work on sequencing at home: Creating picture stories in which the order of the images is used to tell the story is an effective way to develop sequencing skills in young children. For those learning how to spell, mixing up letter tiles and having them unscramble the letters to form a word also helps.

10. Early intervention

“The final and perhaps most important thing that parents can do to help their kids develop a reading brain is to recognize that reading problems require intervention,” Dr. Tallal added. “Early intervention is important, especially with the aid of scientifically-based reading intervention programs that target different areas of reading instruction, but it’s never too late to help children become better readers.”
Download a PDF of the 10 Ways Parents Can Help School-Age Children Develop a "Reading Brain" by clicking here.

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.


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.


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.


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!


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.



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