How often do you hear the statement “They have trouble with attention” when discussing a child’s academic or behavioral performance? Or ” They can’t focus”, or even ” They can’t concentrate”?
While these statements may seem straightforward, it oversimplifies the complex cognitive process of attention and can hinder our ability to effectively support students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
In reality, attention encompasses several different types, including selective attention, divided attention, alternating attention, and sustained attention, all of which are crucial for academic success.
In this blog post, we will dive into these different types of attention and how they are impacted by ADHD. By understanding the intricacies of attention, we can develop effective strategies to enhance attention and improve academic outcomes for students with ADHD.
Types of Attention
Selective attention is a critical cognitive process that enables individuals to concentrate on a specific stimulus while disregarding other distracting stimuli. Selective attention is like a flashlight that illuminates one object in a dark room while leaving everything else in shadow. In the classroom setting, selective attention is crucial for students to focus and concentrate on the teacher’s instructions and learning material while disregarding the 30 other students and things going on in the classroom.
Selective attention is modulated by both top-down and bottom-up processes. Top-down processes are voluntary and are controlled by goals, expectations, and prior knowledge, allowing individuals to selectively attend to relevant information while ignoring irrelevant information. This requires developed response inhibition, prioritization, future thinking and working memory.
On the other hand, bottom-up processes refer to the automatic capture of attention by sensory stimuli in the environment, such as sudden distracting noises. Our nervous system is wired to respond to alerting stimuli to keep us safe by subconsciously monitoring all sensory information in the environment around you, it notices changes in stimuli.
Students with ADHD may struggle with selective attention due to difficulties with both top-down prioritizing and bottom-up response inhibition skills. They may process and attend to ALL sounds, sights, and environmental stimuli with the same magnitude, making it challenging to filter out irrelevant information. The teachers voice, the sounds of the pencil on paper and the almost undetectable to most lawnmower outside 5 miles away can be processed at the same level of importance and perceived volume. This is rough!
Students who struggle with selective attention may exhibit the following observable behaviors:
- Easily distracted by stimuli in their environment, such as noises or movements in the classroom
- Difficulty focusing on relevant information in the classroom
- Struggle to follow along with the lesson or attend to teacher’s instructions
- Overwhelmed with sensory input, have difficulty filtering out irrelevant information
- Difficulty taking effective notes
- Difficulty participating in “on topic” class discussions
- May miss important information or instructions
Sustained attention is a crucial cognitive process that allows individuals to focus on a task for an extended period of time without distraction, boredom or fatigue. This skill is particularly important in a school setting, where it is necessary for completing assignments and tests.
Students with ADHD often struggle with sustained attention, as they have difficulty maintaining focus and recovering from distractions. Sustained attention difficulties are well-documented in ADHD literature as having a significant impact on academic performance, social interactions, and daily functioning (Sibley et al., 2021).
These students may demonstrate difficulty:
- Staying focused on a task for an extended period of time
- Sustaining attention during lectures or reading assignments.
- Following through on instructions or completing multi-step tasks.
- Staying engaged in conversations or may interrupt others.
- Completing routine tasks, such as organizing their belongings or keeping track of appointments and deadlines.
Alternating attention is the ability to switch between two or more tasks rapidly. Like a crossing guard directing cars in different directions, alternating attention switches back and forth between tasks, keeping everything flowing smoothly.
For instance, a teacher may ask students to first read a passage, then answer some questions about it, and then complete a writing task based on the same passage. In this case, students need to switch their attention between reading, comprehension, and writing, while also monitoring their progress and ensuring they are staying on task. Alternating attention requires developed cognitive flexibility.
Students with ADHD often have difficulty with alternating attention. They may have difficulty:
- Switching between tasks, leading to errors, omissions, or incomplete work.
- Organizing their time and prioritizing tasks
- Transitions – stopping one activity to switch to another
- Shifting their attention from one task to another, causing them to feel overwhelmed and stressed.
- Remembering what they were doing before they switched tasks, leading to forgetfulness and errors.
- Finding evidence from within a text
- Correcting errors or proofreading work as they work.
Divided attention is the ability to concentrate on multiple tasks or processes simultaneously. Often conceptualized as “multitasking,” divided attention is essential for activities such as note-taking during a lecture or reading a textbook while listening to the teacher’s instructions. Divided attention requires rapid shifting cognitive effort from one task to another and substantial working memory resources.
Research has shown that individuals with ADHD have reduced activation in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for divided attention (Huang et al., 2020). Hence, students with ADHD often have difficulty with divided attention, making it challenging to complete tasks accurately and efficiently, especially when required to focus on multiple stimuli or activities simultaneously.
They may have difficulty:
- Processing and retaining information from lectures while taking notes.
- Remembering all the steps required to complete an assignment while paying attention to other classroom activities like the teacher or classmates.
- Processing all the steps necessary to complete a task, resulting in incomplete or incorrect work.
- Listening to and processing other students’ ideas while also expressing their own thoughts and opinions in group discussions.
Classroom Supports for Attentional Challenges
Understanding the different types of attention and their impact on classroom performance can be beneficial for both students and teachers. It can lead to the development of effective strategies and support systems to enhance academic outcomes. Furthermore, recognizing that attention difficulties may be attributed to various underlying cognitive skills can provide a comprehensive approach to supporting students with attentional challenges that is way beyond refocusing .
Strategies to Support Selective Attention.
To support selective attention difficulties school based practitioners can create environments that support the top down aspects of goals and priorities while decreasing the volume and intensity of bottom up attention grabbers.
Nudge: The environment is extremely powerful to a student with ADHD. Without well developed future thinking and hindsight, students are highly influenced by their current environment. We can use the environment to nudge the student towards attending to certain stimuli over others. Stimuli that is higher intensity, higher contrast, novel, moving or in alternate locations will better elicit and direct selective attention.
Reduce and Remove Distractions: The physical location of a student within the classroom can have a significant impact on their ability to attend to instructional material. Students with impaired selective attention may benefit from being seated in an area of the classroom that is less distracting, such as the front of the room or away from windows or doors. Additionally, providing a study carrel or quiet space can also help minimize distractions and increase focus. Using sound blocking headphones is a highly effective support.
Breaks: Students who require support for selective attention may struggle more towards the end of the day . Our executive functions and self regulatory strength fatigues. Therefore, it is important to provide regular breaks throughout the day to allow them to recharge and refocus. Breaks can take many forms, such as stretching, deep breathing, or a brief walk around the classroom or outside.
Visual Design: Teachers can be mindful of the visual design element in written text. Using visual aids such as charts, diagrams, highlighting and graphic organizers can help students with impaired selective attention to better select, understand and retain information.
- Strong fonts and colors can help direct attention to relevant information.
- Breaking information into smaller chunks with clear headings and bullet points can help students stay focused and avoid becoming overwhelmed.
- Less is more on a page so there is less information to select from with smaller paragraph sizes and increased spacing.
Strategies to Support Sustained Attention
Sustaining attention to tasks despite motivation or will is a hallmark complaint of children and adults with ADHD. School based professionals can provide scaffolds and supports to mitigate the impacts of poor sustained attention on learning.
10/3 Chunk and Chew: Students with sustained attention challenges do well with 10 minutes of one style of teaching, followed by a 3 minute reset , break or different style of teaching , ie. turn and talk.
Chunking/Task Breakdown: One strategy for students with impaired sustained attention is to break tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. For example, a lengthy writing assignment can be broken down into smaller sections with specific goals for each section. This can help students to stay focused on the task at hand , increase behavioral momentum and avoid becoming overwhelmed. Providing a checklist or visual aid can also help students to stay organized and focused.
Frequent Movement Breaks: Students with impaired sustained attention may benefit from frequent movement breaks throughout the day. These breaks can involve physical activity such as stretching, walking, or jogging. Movement breaks can help to stimulate blood flow to the brain and increase alertness, which can improve sustained attention. Teachers can incorporate movement breaks into their lesson plans or encourage students to take functional movement breaks during independent work time by having them get up frequently to check work, run an errand, retrieve a supply or interact with the lesson. .
Alternative/ Flexible Seating: Providing alternative seating options can be a helpful accommodation for students with impaired sustained attention. For example, students may benefit from sitting on a therapy ball, a standing desk, or a wobble cushion. These options allow for subtle movements that can help to stimulate the brain and maintain alertness. Additionally, allowing students to choose their own seating option can provide a sense of autonomy and increase engagement.
Strategies to Support Divided Attention
Students with ADHD often struggle with divided attention, making it hard to complete tasks accurately and efficiently. This is especially true when they have to focus on multiple stimuli or activities simultaneously. To support them in the classroom, it’s best to encourage monotasking – doing one thing at a time.
In other words… avoid multitasking , period!
Task Assembly Line: Reducing the divided attention demands of a task by completing all similar tasks before moving on to another type. For instance, if students are working on a cut-and-paste matching activity, they can be guided to cut out all the pictures first and then glue them to the matching items, rather than completing a sequence of different actions. This helps avoid overwhelm and keeps students on track. Teachers can provide clear instructions and expectations for task prioritization, and encourage students to break down large tasks into smaller, more manageable sequences .
Overlearning: Another useful technique is overlearning. This means practicing routines and rituals to reduce the amount of attention needed to complete a task. When a task becomes automatic, it doesn’t require as many cognitive resources, which can be helpful for students with ADHD. Is the student performing at the automated level of performance for the classroom procedures and routines?
Reduce Note Taking: In today’s classrooms, smart boards and other technology make it much easier for educators to reduce the demand for divided attention. Gone are carbon paper classmates, hooray! Provide all students with copies of class notes so they can annotate, highlight or fill in blanks to free up cognitive resources for processing, attending and learning.
Checklists: Instructions and checklists can be an invaluable support for students with ADHD. Whenever possible, visual representations of the steps, instructions, and directions can decrease cognitive load and increase task completion.
Strategies to Support Alternating Attention
To support students with difficulty alternating attention teachers and parents can provide strategies, scaffold and accommodations that remind the student where they left off and what is coming next.
Providers can keep in mind that each time the student has to change tasks they have to stop, change and start a new task , which may tax existing executive function challenges . Task initiation and cognitive flexibility are very often areas that students with ADHD may need additional support.
Predictable Schedule: Schedule tasks in a consistent and predictable manner. This can help students to develop a routine and become more comfortable with transitions between tasks. Teachers can provide a daily or weekly schedule with clear expectations for each task, and can allow for breaks or transition time between tasks.
Visual Supports: Visual supports can help to provide a visual cue for task transitions and can help students to stay organized and focused. For example, teachers can use visual timers, checklists, or graphic organizers to help students transition between tasks and stay on track.
External Place Holders: Out of sight out of mind is an understatement for students with ADHD. Students will often forget what they were just doing before they switched tasks. Provide a system with highly salient reminders of what the student has to go back and finish. This can be a specified location for work that needs to be completed, a bright sticky note, a bracelet or a digital alarm set for the location the incomplete task.
ADHD can have a significant impact on a student’s ability to regulate and execute different types of attention in the classroom. This blog post has explored the different types of attention, including selective attention, sustained attention, divided attention, and alternating attention, and how ADHD can impact each of them.
By understanding these different types of attention and their implications, teachers and parents can develop effective strategies and supports to improve academic outcomes for students with ADHD.
It is important to recognize that difficulty with “attention” encompasses a broader range of prerequisite skills for classroom performance. Teachers and school based practitioners can modify the environment and tasks to support difficulty with selective and sustained attention and minimize the demand for divided and alternating attention within the school day . By understanding the intricacies of attention, we can develop more effective strategies to enhance attention and improve academic and behavoiral outcomes for students with ADHD.
- Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T. P. (2008). Working memory and learning: A practical guide for teachers. Sage Publications.
- Huang, S. J., Yu, Y. H., Yang, C. J., & Tsai, M. H. (2020). A systematic review and meta-analysis of functional MRI studies of sustained attention in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. NeuroImage: Clinical, 28, 102428.
- Rubia, K., Alegria, A. A., Cubillo, A. I., Smith, A. B., Brammer, M. J., & Radua, J. (2020). Effects of stimulants on brain function in ADHD: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 5(8), 778-791.
- Sibley, M. H., Graziano, P. A., Kuriyan, A. B., Coxe, S., Pelham, W. E., Rodriguez, L., & Chronis-Tuscano, A. (2021). Predictors of academic and social impairment among children with ADHD: a 5-year longitudinal study. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 49(4), 603-616.