For millions of children across the world, inattention has become a desperate situation. Even under attack by psychostimulants, inattention seems to flourish. Why? How has inattention become a virus increasingly resistant to the most potent medications science has to offer?
Clue: Rather than living withinus, the colliding atoms of inattention exist in the space between us. To solve the riddle of inattention, we have to embrace the social-situational space of inattention. We have to have the vision and courage to think inside that box.
But according to official diagnostic protocol, there is no disorder that is situational rather than individual. Entertaining a social- situational perspective of disorder seems to invite chaos; it is an idea that synchronizes poorly with the cultures of mental health and education. In both cases, a broad revisioning of inattention, and its ecology, is overdue. This is a shift we could collectively manage if only we weren’t stifled by convention and an inclination to assignindividual responsibility for inattention, wherever it might drift.
Focusing on Inattention
Our current philosophy of inattention holds that the syndrome is a matter of an undisciplined, disordered mind. (Here, disorder does not refer to illness, so much as a crisis of sequence. An inattentive mind refuses to bend to priorities; it prefers pleasure to pain, and daydreaming to productivity.) With this perspective in mind, we risk concluding that the person who is the “identified problem” has some type of moral deficit such as not caring about their indifference to situational priorities, or maybe “he doesn’t try hard enough.”
An alternative scenario:
What if the roots of inattention had less to do with a moral failing than young minds having evolved in such a way that attention in some environments, particularly those that provide minimal sensory stimulation, was essentially impossible?
Forgive my blasphemy. In mental health, we pledge allegiance to a philosophy of individual disorders. Where situational distress emerges, we move to locate the cause within individuals, and then get busy trying to fix it through counseling, medication, or both.
The “crazy” thing about this approach is that the disorder of inattention lies elsewhere for a sizable group of kids. What is in dire need of reordering is how we relate to inattentive kids. I don’t mean pleading, complaining, yelling, or ignoring.
Think multimodal sensory engagement. Think of vocal tone and body-based energy as the instruments that can be heard above the cacophony of distraction. Think of attention as an ecology that is sustained by synergy.
And, think of distraction as stimulation that fills a cognitive void. We cannot make the void disappear (unless, of course, we radically, and communally alter our interactions with children from infancy, reconstruct our relationships with nature and technology, and change the social and economic realities of our time); we can only decide how the void will be filled.
(Innumerable cases of so-called ADHD are preventable, no matter how much money “Big-Pharma” spends to spread the dominant mental health mythology of our time – chemical imbalance.)
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I’ve written books and frequently give workshops on helping individuals succeed in the classroom, transition to high school, and communicate effectively. You may well ask, am I contradicting myself by emphasizing synergy as a primary strategy for managing inattention? I certainly hope not. Schools are filled with all kinds of students, and it has always been my commitment to help students and schools navigate the situations and systems that we have, as humanely as possible. You simply can’t be an effective therapist or educational consultant without being willing to engage the practical realities we face.
However, these roles have also reinforced how critical it is to address the larger social, economic, and scientific issues influencing our approach to human development. When we think about economic issues, let’s be clear, inattention is not a problem of too few laptops, outdated books, or diminished field trips. Rather, inattention is a crisis of shrinking time.
Most parents or teachers struggle to find the time required to orchestrate such a synergy. Along those lines, one key reason we cling to inattention as a matter of personal disorder is that revisioning the problem as a lack ofsynchronization between systems is so stressful and unsettling as to be morally repugnant.
Partitioning disorder as a matter of individual responsibility is a philosophy that can coexist with the harried way in which most of us live. Even recognizing that life tempo may cause inattention, we choose to battle individual aspects of distraction, rather than disrupt the splendid havoc of unsustainable overconsumption.
Inattention may disrupt families and classrooms, but it’s great for business. The consumption of retail goods is a reliable “hit” of stimulation for adults, and our peace offering to kids is a plethora of handheld electronics.
What About Inattention and Life Beyond School?
Shouldn’t we take a hard line with inattention, so that we prepare students to pay attention in college and in the workforce? Short answer – no.
Universities have already equipped themselves to cope with this situation. They no longer associate inattention with intellectual deficiency, as reflected by busy, sophisticated learning centers. As for work, you can safely bet that those students who require a highly interactive environment to stay focused will naturally gravitate toward jobs that provide high levels of stimulation. And in fact, vast sectors of our economy reflect – and require – this orientation. Arguably, this ship has already left the harbor.
Human beings have had this self-sorting instinct for generations. If anything, the real crisis for some kids is the pressure to do white collar, sedentary work, even when it is a poor choice for their temperament, tempo, and need for kinesthetic stimulation. As increasing numbers of college students elect to do internships on farms or the sea, we can be assured that rebellion against the century-long bias that has devalued the practical intelligence of manual work is in full swing.
It may be hard to accept, but when we meet a young person who finds reading and reflection boring, in all likelihood he or she will shun a desk job like it’s the plague – no matter how intelligent he or she is. To read more about this phenomenon, and the sublime pleasures of handwork, I strongly recommend the bestselling Shop Class as SoulCraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford.
Can we make body-based learning a core aspect of school curriculum?
I’m not referring to physical education, so much as opportunities to perceive, organize and retain knowledge using the body; a body that at present does little more than prop up heads so that eyes can see the smartboard.
Is it unthinkable that some classrooms would have no chairs? Might some topics be taught on the move – perhaps walking through the woods, playing basketball, or kayaking on a pond? Can we imagine assessment methods that emphasize the physical expression of knowledge and attainment of cognitive competence?
[Are you thinking what I’m thinking? How would such assessments fit in with district or state-wide expectations? And how would teaching such classes fit with traditional preparation in the field of teacher education? Am I alone in feeling more excited than worried about these questions?]
A Cooperative Ecology
Managing inattention is inherently a group activity. Within schools, it involves redrawing the boundaries of responsibility. It means translating good intentions into programmatic changes that address the global problem of inattention. North America may be in the most desperate shape, but my colleagues suggest that Australia, Asia and Europe are also feeling the stress. As we cooperatively redraw the boundaries, everything from curricula, to instructional style, to school architecture should be in play.
Naturally, there are many students who don’t require such changes. This is good for them, but the balance is tilting the other way. Shouldn’t we design education to meet the evolving needs of students? Our energy and presence may be more important to educating the current generation of students than our intelligence or educational pedigree.
Please accept my apologies if I’m preaching to the choir here. Still, my sense is that the hook on which many of us hang our hat is some form of content expertise. Yet even the most knowledgeable teacher of literature will fail to focus attention on Huckleberry Finn without strategic performance skills at his or her disposal. Those thinking about becoming a teacher should ask themselves how comfortable they feel with this aspect of the job description. In addition to sharing content, am I willing to animate my lessons with the energy that binds attention to instruction?
Achieving this kind of adhesion leads to the harmony that is the essence of a well- balanced classroom. It not only supports a sustainable ecology of attention, it is an attitude of empathy that leads children toward feelings of belonging – an opportunity for bliss. Yet attention, empathy, and bliss are not always moments of quiet reflection. Within the new ecology of attention, adults may need to orchestrate such moments with a turbo boost – the will to defeat boredom. And caffeine alone may not do the trick.
The most powerful tool we have for overcoming the desynchronization that separates us is not a drug – it is the recognition that connecting with the people we care most about requires a range of tempos. Dig deep, think creatively, shift gears when circumstances warrant, and the reordering of inattention will be well on its way.
A new study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry reports that almost 15 percent of preschoolers have atypically high levels of depression and anxiety. This finding is the result of a five- year investigation by researchers from the Universite de Montreal, the Universite Laval, and McGill University in Canada, as well as the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale in France, Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. and University College Dublin in Ireland.
The study examined the behavior of 1,758 children, all of whom were born in Quebec. The key predictor of depression in preschool was the presence of a “difficult temperament” at five months of age. Another important predictor was the mood of mothers. One researcher noted, “Our study is the first to show that infant temperament and lifetime maternal depression can lead to a high trajectory of depressive and anxiety problems before school entry.”
Naturally, everyone involved in the study advocates for early identification of indicators for depression. That much we can likely accomplish. But what about treatment? Most of us will not want to give preschoolers antidepressants. My own work with families of very young children causes me to wonder how receptive parents will be to a diagnosis of depression in someone too young to tie her or his shoes. And that’s before I begin explaining how the nexus of the problem is social- situational.
Ask Dr. Cox
|Q: I have an 11 year old son who has always had difficulty in expressing himself, and who seems unable to make inferences from text. That is, he seems to see everything in black and white and does not have a deeper understanding of many subjects. He is fairly successful at school – in the top group at math and science, and can just about get by in English; but as parents, we feel that there is much more going on beneath the surface that needs releasing. He can be very empathic and sensitive but never seems to understand the bigger picture. We have tried to encourage him to read in order to increase his vocabulary but this is always a struggle, and when he talks he often finds it difficult to express himself and can sound quite unintelligent. Is there anything that we can do to help him?
Wendy L., U.K.Dear Wendy,
The situation you are describing is unfortunately a common trait among many boys your son’s age. In part, it stems from an underactive right hemisphere. This critical part of the brain accounts for our ability to see the “big picture: in a variety of situations. As a parent, you can help your son exercise his right hemisphere by asking him to create stories about the interactions he might observe between people in public places.
At the park or grocery store, ask him to make up a story about how people are related, or what they are talking about, based on what he observes. The goal is to help boys turn on their powers of social observation – and relate those observations to big picture insights. This intervention works especially well when families do it often enough to build reflex and memory – the essential elements of a new skill.
Finally, when you carry out this type of exercise, make sure to do a bit of debriefing afterward. Ask your son to rate how hard it was to think of a particular story, and why. Ask him to evaluate alternative explanations for social situations, and to the best of your ability, integrate humor and cajoling. As his confidence improves, gradually orient him to doing more of the same in personal situations. Perhaps he’ll be asked to give a brief report on a holiday dinner, school activity, or a news event he saw on television. Big picture skills are not easily acquired, but they can be improved by strategic cognitive training. Good luck!
Q. My ex-husband and I share joint custody of our two sons, age 11 and 9. For a variety of reasons, the boys have a complicated schedule where they spend some parts of the week at his house, and some parts of the week at mine. During the summer this is manageable, but it is a problem during the school year. Both of our sons go to a wonderful but very competitive school and our youngest needs extra help to keep on track. With structure and support he does very well. But last year his grades plummeted because his father refuses to coach him with his school work. He says it’s our son’s responsibility, and argues that our oldest son never needed such help. He seems to think that all our son needs to do is “try harder.” I’m afraid that the youngest can’t go to the same school as his older brother which would really hurt his self- esteem. How do I convince my husband to help my 9 year-old, and what can I do to help when I’m not there?
That doesn’t mean you should give up on your son, but you will need to enlist the support of others who care for your son, and who have a better relation with your ex, to help. Friends, grandparents, or a therapist that your ex chooses could be possibilities. Rather than seeking a total transformation in how your ex interacts with your son, perhaps you could agree on one or two tangible accommodations to start.
It will also help to develop interventions that are routine and portable – email reminders and homework rituals that he (perhaps with his elder brother’s help) can implement independently. For example, rather than remembering 8 assignments, your son can remember to look at his assignment list each day. That’s moving from 8 separate memory tasks to one. You might also want to revisit your custodial arrangements. Most kids thrive with structure and routine. Constantly going back and forth between homes often works better for parents than children; family judges should take learning disabilities into account when approving custodial arrangements.
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