Is your child easily distracted?
Does your child have difficulty staying focussed and on task? At the Developmental Learning Centre, we offer a FREE Online Learning Difficulties Symptom Test and we found that of all the issues listed, the one ticked by parents more often than any other was “Easily distracted, short attention span”. It does appear that many students today are finding it much harder to concentrate than previous in generations and at the far end of this spectrum we have the explosion of children being diagnosed with disorders such as ADHD and ADD and put on medication to treat this.
However many children do not meet the diagnostic criteria for these conditions and yet suffer the frustration and consequences of being easily distracted and continually “losing” the content of new material being taught by their teachers. The content of concepts being taught might be understood by this child in the moment, but because he is so easily distracted, this understanding does not get a chance to find its way first into his short term memory and then into his long term memory. The child who highly distractible never really gets a chance to complete his learning tasks to the best of his ability and is often underachieving as a result. We all know as adults how difficult and frustrating it is to be interrupted repeatedly when we are trying compete a task which requires our full attention. This is how it is for the distractible child.
So what causes this distractibility?
Here are the main “culprits” which we look for in our Developmental Movement and Auditory Processing Assessments:
Retained Primitive Reflexes
These are reflexes which are present at birth and are in the baby’s neurology to ensure that he can scream for help if he is falling, gets moving once he is on the floor, rolls over, gets onto his tummy, then up on all fours to crawl, and eventually gets upright and able to walk. These reflexes are small automatic movements, triggered mostly by movements of the baby’s own head.
While essential in the first year of life, these reflexes, if still present when the child gets to school, cause a sudden loss of attention whenever they are triggered. This is because they originate in the primitive part of the brain which has to do with survival. If the primitive brain is triggered, the prefrontal cortex, where learning and memory processes occur, is tuned out.
The primitive part of the brain is not at all concerned with academic learning. The head moves, the reflex is triggered and tells the child to move (just a little bit) in order to survive. The new spelling word or mathematical strategy on the board is no longer important. The new concept, perhaps perfectly understood in the moment, does not have a chance to get into the child’s short term memory and by the next day he has forgotten it.
A classic and easily observed primitive reflex is the Spinal Galant, which causes loss of attention and restlessness. It is triggered by touch on the lower part of the spine. This can be from the back of the child’s chair or from a belt or other clothing item. It causes the child to become wriggly and restless and is often called the “Ants in the pants” syndrome. The Spinal Gallant child will struggle to stay seated. He is often found by his teacher out of his seat, totally off task and wandering around the room. The older child will be spotted sliding down in his chair (so his spine is away from the irritating touch of the back of the chair) and gazing into space, also completely off task.
Another is the Moro or Startle reflex. This can be triggered by the child’s head suddenly falling backwards which causes a rush of adrenaline, a sudden increase in anxiety and a scream or cry for help. This reflex can also be triggered by several other stimuli, including a sudden or unexpected touch, a sudden, unexpected movement in their peripheral visual field or a sudden or unexpected noise. This child is distracted every time someone makes even a small, unexpected noise in the classroom, or walks past the window, or a curtain begins fluttering in the breeze, seen out of the corner of his eye. His primitive brain is telling him he might be in danger, so he has to look. The flight or fight repose is triggered, sometimes only a little bit but enough to increase his anxiety levels and distract him from the learning task at hand.
In our Developmental Movement Assessment we test for 8 of these primitive reflexes, all of which on their own can cause distractibility and result in inconsistency of learning (learning which is “There today, gone tomorrow”).
GOOD NEWS! Once identified, these can all be reduced and many completely removed by a Developmental Movement Therapy programme.
Auditory Processing Difficulties
Auditory processing is what our brain does with what we hear. Assuming that our hearing is normal, there are a number of different auditory processing skills which our brains need to perform in order to understand spoken language. If these skills are not working well the child will frequently mishear what is being said. It is very difficult to pay attention, concentrate, and complete a task when what you are hearing does not make sense.
Here are some of the problems we find in our Auditory Processing Assessment which contribute to distractibility, loss of focus and off task behaviour:
Hypersensitive Auditory System
Many distractible children have auditory hypersensitivity. Their hearing is very acute and often they can hear all sounds, from very low to very high, well before most adults can hear them. Their auditory systems have not matured as they should have by the time they reach school, so that the speech frequencies do not stand out over the background sounds in their environment. The rumble of a truck or traffic passing by outside on the road, the scraping of furniture on the floor, the squeak of a door opening, or the chirping of birds and cicadas in summer can all easily distract these children from the tones of their teacher’s voice.
In our Auditory Processing Assessment we often find that distractible children are particularly hypersensitive to high pitched voices as well, so that they can much more easily listen what their classmates are saying than to the lower tones in their adult teacher’s voice. They are much more easily caught up in other conversations and easily lose the thread of what their teacher is trying to teach them
Poor Competing Sentences Skills
Some cannot understand at all what their teacher is saying when they can clearly hear what another child or person is saying at the same time. Subsequently the two sentences can get completely mixed up so that what they hear does not make sense any more. It is very hard to pay attention when what you are hearing is nonsense or does not make sense.
Auditory Figure Ground Difficulty
Many children who are distractible struggle to understand what their teacher is saying when others are talking in the room at the same time. They may not be abl ewto hear what other people are actually saying, but they cannot pull the sound of the teacher’s voice, which they are trying to listen to, out from the background sounds of other people talking. They mishear what is being and often what they “hear” does not make sense.
GOOD NEWS! Auditory Retraining Therapy can greatly improve your child’s auditory processing so that he can accurately process spoken language and he is no longer so easily distracted by other sounds in his environment.
If your child is experiencing any of these difficulties, a Developmental Movement Assessment and an Auditory Processing Assessment will pinpoint some of the underlying causes of this distractibility.