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Attention Deficit Disorder or Simply Poor Concentration Skills? Part 1

I recently reviewed the results of a series of tests and something kept bothering me. Why did so many seemingly normal kids appear to have an attention deficit? Are we just getting better at identifying this problem or is something else going on?

In addition to measuring and testing kids for attention deficit, we need to reconsider our lifestyles and the ways we teach children. I believe that many attention problems are the result of learned behaviour.

Many kids can’t pay attention because they have not been taught the skill of concentration. I am not trying to claim that attention deficits do not exist; quite the contrary. However, many kids who have trouble paying attention do not have an attention deficit. They merely have a short attention span. I believe this is partly due to television, movies, video games and the quick pace of modern life. Our busy, busy lives have trained our cognitive processes to look for quick bites, fast answers.

It’s a learning process

So what can parents and teachers do about this? Spend quiet time with the children, read books, have long discussions uninterrupted by television or the telephone. That old advice to stop and smell the roses still holds true. We need to teach our kids how to learn and how to pay attention. In all but a few cases, paying attention is a learned skill. Children with true Attention Deficit Disorder cannot pay attention, but most kids today do not suffer from this disorder. Most of our children have not been taught how to pay attention.

Recently, my daughter filled our house with friends. It seemed as if 100 six-year-old girls had suddenly moved in. They created forts, nurseries, schools and stores. Every child was assigned a task. Some were storekeepers, some were parents, others were infants. Before assuming her role, almost every child took the time to prepare for it. Many rearranged their space while talking to themselves about whom they were and how they would act.

This was very interesting for me. They took time to reflect and consider. They prepared. They created their own space and demanded enough time to get ready to have fun! My daughter and her friends knew that they needed to concentrate, so they created an environment where that would be possible. Left to their own devices, kids seem to understand the need for quiet reflection, concentration and paying attention.

It is mostly in school-related activities that these skills go wanting. After watching these kids for a couple of hours, I thought about a typical classroom scene. There is little time for quiet reflection and even less personal space. Educational programs today are not designed for individuals; they are designed for groups.

Why is this the case? Why are our children attending daycare, kindergarten, and the primary grades one through three and not learning how to pay attention? All of these programs are supervised or taught by highly competent and well-trained individuals. Kids come and go through these delightful classrooms. They enjoy themselves. They follow the program. But what programs are they following? Where do these programs come from? Who writes them?

When your child comes home from school or daycare and tells you about the activities of the day, have you ever considered that they may not be appropriate?

Books have limited vocabulary

Every program being taught by teachers – and every textbook ever written – has an underlying set of ideas based on a philosophy. It is these ideas that determine the methods used by teachers (along with the material contained in textbooks). For example, those of us who are over 40 may remember a time when most of our reading material was found in books called readers, which had literary merit. A typical elementary school reader contained numerous stories of differing difficulty, stories to challenge and entertain pupils of various ages and abilities.

Go into a Grade 1 or 2 classroom today and you will find hundreds of small, colourful books full of simple words and pretty pictures. The books in today’s classrooms have a very limited vocabulary. Publishers strive to publish stories with “age appropriate” vocabulary. Why? Who decided this? Has it helped or hurt?

In the classrooms of the past, we were taught to read using phonics. We were able to read well in Grade 1 and 2 and we read from those old readers. Sure, the books had some pictures, yet our minds and imaginations supplied most of the excitement.

I knew what Moby Dick looked like; I saw him in my mind’s eye. That exercise in itself helped to develop concentration and attention. Using our inner eye – our imagination – helped us to develop the ability to focus and concentrate. We had to. We wanted to “see” what we were reading. We used our minds.

But there were other differences as well, such as vocabulary. We were reading from books containing literature. The vocabulary was demanding and the stories complex and exciting. (It is very difficult to make a story complex or exciting with limited vocabulary and more pictures than words.) Because we were enjoying the stories, we had to concentrate on the context of the story or we would not be able to understand what we were reading. That too forced us to concentrate.

Excerpt from Active Minds! by Dr. R. N. Whitehead, Director, Oxford Learning.

Read Attention Deficit Disorder or Simply Poor Concentration Skills? Part 2

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