Written by Ms. Rosette Gatt – Inspire Foundation Advisor. First published in The Sunday Times on Sunday 6th March, 2016.

 Currently more and more children are being diagnosed with ADD “Attention Deficit Disorder”. Parents and teachers alike, report difficulties with attention, concentration, and discipline. ADD affects individuals in general but is even more present when the person has a specific learning difficulty or a special educational need. Teachers and parents state that this behaviour is causing problems with normal, healthy development as it affects everything, from motivation to learning to the ability to function in society.

Causes of Attention Deficit

Research states that genetic factors and a hereditary tendency, toxins, drugs and alcohol abuse, as well as prematurity, do put children more at risk. However ADHD, or Attention Deficit (with or without Hyperactivity) Disorder, is controversial and some testing procedures are rather misleading. Although sometimes drugs are prescribed, these are not a ‘cure’ and long term outcome is uncertain. If treatment is to be effective, behaviour management strategies with on-going monitoring need to be in place.

Recent studies discuss factors that may mislead parents and educators into thinking that the child has as an attention problem when this is purely a situational one. Sometimes normal active youngsters start manifesting this behaviour once they start formal schooling that restricts them to sit at desks doing pen and pencil activities for long periods of time. Activities that allow them to move around at intervals are sometimes described by teachers as ‘distracting the children’ and ‘making it difficult for them to re-direct their attention to tasks given’. A full day at school, after-school activities, and television and video games are all restricting children’s opportunities for free play.

Also children with language or reading problems are more prone to experience attention difficulties. In other cases, as opposed to being passive, children will react hyperactively when they do not feel confident with topics presented.

But what can parents and educators do to anticipate and deal with these problems once they arise? Professionals working in the field can guide the child, parents and school staff to increase the attention span and sitting tolerance of the student. Many children with ADHD are very bright and creative and sometimes treating the underlying condition makes it easier for the person to focus on learning.

Constructive attention habits should begin as early as possible and definitely before age seven, especially when a child is distractible, impulsive and showing signs of lack of attention.

– Parents need to be firm but considerate, loving, willing to listen to the child and to negotiate rules. The child needs to learn the meaning of ‘no’, not through punishment but through consistency. This approach will help the child to be more positive and motivated. Parents who are excessively domineering are more likely to encounter problems with the children. Situations that place unrealistic demands or are excessively strict can be easily detrimental as children are always afraid that they will make mistakes.

– Clear rules for behaviour should be discussed and set with the child. Consequences to make up for any unreasonable behaviour need to be set. All caregivers must be consistent and working towards the same goals

– Routines need to be established. Set up a routine of story or “talk” time before bed and insist on a regular bedtime and adequate rest as insufficient sleep can cause attention problems.

– Children do not ‘know’ when they are over-stimulated. When they become over-whelmed, they may react by becoming over-excited or withdrawn. Make sure a comfort space is available for the person to go to at any time. An over-excited child may respond to a gentle but firm touch.

– Background noise needs to be moderate or eliminated. The noise level in the home should be reasonable. TV viewing needs to be limited as this makes it harder for a child to concentrate. Computer-use should be supervised and restricted. Even many so-called educational software programs may cause problems if overused.

– Children should participate at outdoors [preferably] physical exercise both during and after school hours. Individual not group sports activities may be beneficial. After school your child needs to have some quiet time as this will help him her settle down and relax.

– Eye contact whilst giving direction is important. Check that understanding has taken place. Prepare the child for changes in situations.

– Allergic responses to food or environmental substances, excess sugar or sugar substitutes in a child’s diet may all contribute to “hyper” activity and mood swings.

– Language regulates attention and helps build good social relationships, which are often jeopardized because the impulsive child is uncooperative during learning situations. Children of all ages should be encouraged to talk themselves through situations before engaging in an activity. An example of this would be ‘I need to brush my teeth. Do I have toothpaste, the toothbrush etc?’ Communication skills are addressed by speech therapists.

If you think your child has an attention deficit that is inconsistent with age and seems to be persisting, you may decide to consult your Paediatrician or a Psychologist. Treatment plans usually allow for a behaviour modification programme before resorting to medication. At Inspire different professionals support individuals and their families on a one to one or group basis, to address the needs that relate to attention. One such programme is the Alert Programme. The primary focus of this group-based programme is to help children aged between 5 and 11 years old learn to understand, monitor, maintain and change their levels of alertness so that it is appropriate to a situation or task. The group is designed to teach children and parents how to recognise arousal states as they relate to attention, learning and behaviour and assists children to recognise and expand the amount of self-regulation strategies they use in a variety of tasks and settings.

Changes are possible at any age, especially if the individual is highly motivated. Remember that if your child has a real self-regulation problem, he is not doing this on purpose.

For more information contact Charlene Borg on 20981000 ext.120 or email on charlene.borg@inspire.org.mt