Attention Difficulties

If students are asked: “What does it mean when someone asks you to pay attention?” they might say, “It means to concentrate,” or “It means to look at the teacher.” When asked how they might concentrate harder on the teacher, a typical response might be: “Just pay attention more.” But attention is much more than just “paying attention.”

Attention is a system of controls that can help students with such things as working consistently each day, focusing on the right details when reading, and thinking ahead about what to say. Every day, students are expected to use their attention skills to succeed with schoolwork, control behavior, and relate well to others. Different students will show different strengths and weaknesses in this area. For example, some students might find it easy to concentrate on information that isn’t very exciting, but have a hard time staying awake while sitting still. Helping students understand the different controls of attention and ways to strengthen all aspects of attention can increase their success throughout life.

Careful observation over time can offer some insight into what a child may be experiencing and helps direct parents and teachers to appropriate responses. Many researchers are developing an understanding of how brain function contributes to attention, and what interventions may work for some students.

Attention Control Systems

Attention consists of three control systems: Mental Energy, Processing, and Production. Some children experience difficulty with all of these attention systems, while others may show strengths and weaknesses in different systems and within systems. The following tables include examples of common observations adults may make at home/school that possibly could be related to attention. They are not meant to be used as a checklist; rather they are a starting point for observing aspects of attention.

Mental Energy
The first attention control system, Mental Energy, regulates and distributes the energy supply needed for the brain to take in and interpret information and regulate behavior. Children whose mental energy is not working effectively may become mentally fatigued when they try to concentrate or have other problems related to maintaining the brain energy needed for optimal learning and behavior.

Mental Energy ControlsDefinitionsCommon Observations at Home/School
1. Alertness
Regulates the flow of energy so a child can concentrate when necessary and keep away mental fatigue At home: Has difficulty finishing homework without exhaustion; can’t sit still on car trips, at church, at the table, etc.
In school: Yawns, fidgets, contorts the body during class
2. Sleep and arousal balance
Affects the brain’s ability to promote a good night’s sleep so a child can stay fully awake during the day At home: Resists going to bed; cannot fall asleep at a regular time; has a hard time getting up in the morning
In school: Does not really wake up until late morning; yawns, stretches, appears tired during class
3. Mental effort
Supplies the energy required for a student to start, work on, and complete a task At home: Requires heavy prodding to do homework or study for tests; have to “light a fire” under him to do chores
In school: Lags behind other students when starting an assignment or project; puts off tasks that are particularly hard or unappealing
4. Performance consistency
Works to ensure a steady, reliable flow of energy from moment to moment and day to day At home: Energy level and interest in tasks – even favored tasks – are unpredictable
In school: Turns in school work that’s inconsistent in quality and amount

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Processing Controls
The second attention control system is called Processing. This system helps a child select, prepare, and begin to interpret incoming information. Children who have difficulty with processing may have a range of issues related to regulating the use of incoming information.

Processing ControlsDefinitionsCommon Observations at Home/School
1. Saliency determination
Selects important information for use and puts unimportant information aside At home: When given a list of chores, cannot distinguish which are more important than others; may have a hard time making a decision when presented with many options
In school: Distracted by sights, sounds, or events happening close-by; takes detailed notes, not distinguishing between main and less important
2. Depth and detail of processing
Controls how deeply students concentrate on details in order to capture the information At home: Has to be told directions or information several times before it “sinks in”
In school: Misses critical details, like operational signs in math or punctuation in writing
3. Cognitive activation
Triggers prior knowledge and experience when students are learning new information At home: May either seem unengaged and disconnected (cognitive underactivation) or bounce around seemingly random topics (overactivation)
In school: Disengaged from classroom discussions (underactivation) or disrupts discussion with irrelevant ideas and associations (overactivation)
4. Focal maintenance
Allows a student to focus for the right amount of time on important information At home: Jumps from activity to activity without finishing; may overuse the TV remote
In school: Stops focusing in the middle of an activity; is not prepared when class begins a new subject
5. Satisfaction level
Controls how deeply students concentrate on details in order to capture the information At home: Only concentrates on things that interest him; may exhibit an extreme hunger for material possessions (the “latest” thing)
In school: Disrupts other students when bored; does not focus in class unless the topic is of great interest

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Production Controls
The third attention control system is Production. This area governs output – including what children generate academically, behaviorally, and socially.

Production ControlsDefinitionsCommon Observations at Home/School
1. Previewing
Helps students consider more than one action or response and anticipate the outcome of a choice At home: Has trouble thinking through the possible consequences of her actions, even when prompted by parents
In school: Does not use outlines to plan a paper or project; has a hard time estimating answers to math problems; difficulty in predicting events in or endings to stories
2. Facilitation and inhibition
Allows students to exercise restraint and not act immediately, to consider various options, and to choose best response or strategy in a situation At home: Tends to do the first thing that comes to mind without considering possibilities; can’t resist temptation (e.g., sneaking treats before mealtime)
In school: Blurts out responses in class discussion without being called on; says whatever is on his mind
3. Pacing
Adjusts the rate at which students complete a task; enables students to produce things at an appropriate rate At home: Either rushes through homework or never seems to allot enough time for it
In school: May do poorly on timed tests, even when she knows the content; is still completing assignments when others are done or finishes tasks far too quickly resulting in errors
4. Self-monitoring
Allows students to evaluate how they are doing while performing and after completing a task At home: Child does not check his work, leaving chores unfinished or poorly done
In school: Has trouble editing his own work; doesn’t "pick up" when his behavior is bothering other kids
5. Reinforceability
Helps students respond or act based on prior experience At home: Gets into trouble over the same problem despite past interventions or consequences
In school: Keeps making the same mistakes despite tutoring or re-teaching; is insensitive to punishment and reward

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Helpful Tip: If any of these signs occur inconsistently or in a particular subject area, they may be pointing to a different learning difficulty, such as memory or language. For example, when children struggle with reading because of a breakdown that hinders their decoding ability, it is very difficult for them to concentrate and stay focused.

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