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Teaching Strategies: The Link Between ADHD, Electronic Devices

James Paterson

Attention issues can be consuming in the classroom. There's new research and new ideas about handling them.

While we've assumed it for some time, there is now significant research supporting a much-discussed idea about child and adolescent behavior: Electronic devices cause increased attention issues.

Researchers this summer from the University of Southern California were the latest to find that there was a "Significant" connection between digital media use and attention issues based on a two-year study of more than 2,500 adolescents.

Meanwhile, a recent survey found adolescents spend about one-third of their day — nearly nine hours — using online media, according the USC researchers. A separate survey published last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 43 percent of high school students used digital media three or more hours per day.

Electronic media, no matter what you think of it, is changing the way students think and behave. And while research now has shown this connection, experienced teachers have been aware of it for several years.

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And beyond that, many teachers will say that whether it is their cell phones, video games, their diet, the lack of exercise or the environment in which they live – getting and keeping attention in the classroom is a significant issue they need continually to address.

Maggie Jackson, author of the book Distracted, a new edition of which is due out this month, says research shows that a lack of attention is part of our culture. She says research has shown that even a phone that is turned off “Undermines focus and problem solving.”

Beyond that, she notes that students are surrounded by things besides electronics to take their attention and others who are similarly distracted. When households were followed all day on video, researchers found 40 percent of American families eat meals separately, and are together in a room only about 16 percent of the time – and mostly ignore each other.

Beyond the lack of time for connections and repeated daily patterns that allow those patterns to develop, she says getting and keeping a youngster’s attention is then challenged by a steady stream of potential diversions.

“Presence has become dramatically splintered,” she says. “They experience overlapping, often-conflicting commitments, and have trouble choosing the nature and pace of their focus.” That, she says, changes how they act and learn.

The Science Behind It

Salience is key, says Neal Rojas, a pediatrics professor at the University of California in San Francisco who has studied the adolescent brain and attention issues. He says it is more difficult for students today because that complex process where our brains determine what should get and keep attention has gotten more complex as so much vies for students' attention. So teachers have to try even harder.

He says the “Salience ratio” has to be pretty high to get a student to focus or change their attention. “If I tell my kids with my back turned to them while washing the dishes after dinner ‘OK, time to wrap up that game’, but I don't engage them and watch for their response in situations like this, I might as well be talking to the cat.”

He says even when they aren't looking at a screen, to gain salience from students may be harder today. So, he says, teachers have to recognize they need to make an extra effort to engage students (see tips below).

Thomas Armstrong, psychologist and the author of several books on adolescence and attention issues, believes that a young person’s ability to be attentive varies on a spectrum ranging from children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to those who can “Hyperfocus” and others with various levels and styles of focus unique to each one. Attention involves neurodiversity, he says, or a neurological difference that “interacts with the environment to either create a strength or a disability, depending upon how the environment meshes with their underlying biological variation”.

So, Armstrong says, every child will be different naturally because of how they are wired and then affected by their environment – by everything from phone use to parent rules.

Two Separate Concerns

Educators have to consider, however, whether a child should be treated for serious attention issues, says Russell Barkley, a professor of psychiatry at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children and Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the leading experts in ADHD. There are attention issues in children, he says, but he disputes the idea that all attention issues are the same, or that students with attention issues just haven't been well-trained or managed.

"For some time there has been a conflict between the clear scientific understanding of ADHD and public perception of it as simple misbehavior. Some think it is an issue of management and not biology. That is incorrect and it is a damaging thinking," he says.

He says the 5-8 percent of children have diagnosable ADHD and need treatment and perhaps medication.

And he is not convinced that there is an uptick in the number of diagnosable cases, whether or not attention is a bigger problem generally. He notes that ADHD, which is overwhelmingly seen most often among boys, is simply identified more effectively today. He says it is now increasingly seen in girls and adults because we are better able to diagnose it and understand the various ways it can manifest itself.

It is important that educators understand the issue, says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a consultant who works with parents of children with attention issues. “There is this attitude that if the kids would just try harder, or that if the parents or teachers would just discipline kids they wouldn’t have such problems," she says.

And the consequences of not resolving the problem are considerable, she notes.

"Those who do not seek proper treatment because 'It’s not real' or 'They should just try harder' end up at higher risk for injury as a result of impulsivity or accidents, higher risk of a wide range of illnesses as a result of poor self-care, disorganization, difficulty with medical compliance, difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy habits and a higher risk of troubled relationships, incarceration, substance abuse, poor work performance, and much more," she says.

Spotting the Problem

Sharon Saline, and psychologist and specialist in attention issues and author of the book What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew, says that educators need to recognize that attention issues come in various forms, but that ADHD is a specific disability that needs attention.

“It’s a neurological, genetically based disorder. It’s not a failure of will or a matter of not trying hard enough” she says. “The intensity and breadth of these deficits shows up in a spectrum of the disorder.”  Based on their challenges or impairment, somebody can have mild or severe ADHD, but it is different than the attention issues that many children may develop for other reasons, including because of the ways the growing brain develops.

Barkley says educators and parents should be concerned if a child is noticeably inattentive or off-task often, or if more than one teacher, or a coach or another parent expresses concerns about the child being impulsive regardless of the circumstances.

A child with ADHD may be “Extremely disorganized” and easily overwhelmed, says Taylor-Klaus, chattering constantly, unable to follow multiple-step directions (or directions at all) or handle transitions well, often over-reacting emotionally and, of course, unable to maintain attention no matter what the circumstances.

Some experts believe students with attention issues are not often identified in schools, or if they are, that information often doesn’t get passed along to parents (some districts are wary of such diagnosis for a variety of reasons) or parents don’t regard it. And 504 plans that can cover attention issues (or individual education plans in some cases) often take a long time to put in place or are not customized to meet the individual student’s needs.

Counselors are well-trained in the process, but their caseloads have been soaring recently and the 504 process if done correctly is very time consuming.

A key to establishing an effective plan for a student (that could travel with the student for years) is the teacher’s input – so they can help by keeping good records and trying to objectively assess the student, although attention issues can sometimes be particularly frustrating. Often they also will be required to collect information for behavior assessments and plans – and they should recognize that serious work on the research will pay off with a better plan for a student that if implemented consistently at a school can change behavior.

What Else to Do

Because attention issues – whether ADHD or what might be seen as environmental and developmental attention gaps – show up most clearly in school, teachers will face the issue. Here are five ideas about how teachers can handle both.

The classroom. Armstrong says the setting, of course, matters. “A student who is in a classroom that offers mainly lecture, worksheets, and textbooks is going to manifest more serious symptoms of hyperactivity, distractibility, and impulsivity, than that same child in a classroom with lots of hands-on learning, outdoor learning, and high motivation activities, high stimulation activities,” he says.

The group. There are a host of resources for ways to get and keep a whole class's attention, but experts say there are two keys:

  • Teachers should be deliberate about researching techniques for getting attention and learn good teaching skills to keep students on task. Too often teachers rely on what they think might work (or even what they saw as students) rather then proven methods.
  • They should consciously try out methods and keep track of how they work and even record how a class responded (different techniques may work differently for each group) and change their approach to learn new skills and because students may not respond as well if the same one if it is used repeatedly.

The individual. To get an individual off-task student's attention, Saline recommends a “Rule of three”: Get close and say their name, look at them at eye level and make sure they are looking back and then give them the message and ask them to repeat it – twice.

“It may seem silly to them, but that’s OK. By repeating the directions, you know they’ve grasped what they need to do and this activates several means of connecting – sight, sound, repetition – that trigger different and simultaneous neural pathways.” Others recommend gently touching the student on the shoulder or arm.

"It’s natural to get upset when a child isn’t cooperating and things aren’t going well,” Saline says. “But agitation only adds fuel to the fire. Stop what you’re doing, take some deep breaths and pause the action. If you have to step away briefly to quietly think and re-center, do that. Then think about what might have triggered the issue and what help that student in this situation and going forward.”