Attention Problems in Children

Excerpt from Child Health Guide: Holistic Pediatrics for Parents, North Atlantic Books, 2005


Attention and attentiveness are somewhat paradoxical when
viewed by adults. We expect children to pay attention. We
expect them to be alert to subtle differences in similar
written statements and visual presentations, carefully
noting mistakes and inconsistencies. We expect them to sit
still for extended periods of time, applying themselves
quietly and diligently to written materials. Distractibility
and impulsiveness would seem to interfere with these skills
that require focus and concentration. We also encourage them
to excel at sports, which often require them to continually
scan their environment, take quick evasive action, and
maintain a high level of constant motion and aggressive
behavior. Children with strong drives who trust their
instincts and impulses receive praise and positive
reinforcement on the playing field, but are frequently
reprimanded in the classroom. We also encourage children to
be inventive and creative, traits that depend on spontaneity
and impulsive hunches. It’s a lot to ask, and often a
confusing message for kids.

Consider the advantages of
sensory vigilance, distractibility, and ceaseless activity
for animals in the wild. A bird whose fitful attention
diverts quickly from one moving object to another is likely
to avoid being someone’s dinner. Consider the survival
capabilities of a hyperactive monkey constantly scanning the
environment for predators compared to his lethargic and
passive sibling. The studious, methodical monkey may
discover survival strategies that far exceed those of his
hyperactive cousin—but only if he lives long enough. Most
children are not concerned with survival. Individual
attention styles vary, and the child who has persistent
focus, flexibility of thinking, and discernment for salient
detail is at a distinct advantage in the academic jungle.
Restless, energetic, future-directed behaviors can build a
corporate superstar, but these qualities earn your typical
ten-year-old boy the label of hyperactive, or of actually
having an attention disorder.

Attention as an issue has
become a focus for our culture in recent years. In fact,
there is now an entire industry devoted to attention
problems with departments in university medical centers and
their affiliated programs dedicated to treating this
disorder. Children are labeled with the disorder, the
pharmaceutical industry supports research on the various
corresponding drugs, scholarly books are written on the
subject, parent support groups are formed, catalogs of
educational materials are published specific to this
disease, and regular conferences are held on the disorder.

My fundamental assumption is that children are naturally
inquisitive, explorative, demonstrative, and sensitive. If
this is the natural state of a child, then an environment
that confines the child in some way is contrary to her
fundamental nature. Although children are expected to learn
certain rules of social interaction and respect others in
their environment, it is not reasonable to expect that most
children will thrive in an environment as restrictive as a
classroom. Admittedly, there are some schools that respect
the individual child and her learning style, providing
opportunities for creative discovery and freedom. The
majority of schools, however, demand that children conform
to more or less rigid expectations for behavior and admonish
any significant deviations.

A child may choose one of
several styles of reaction to a classroom that suppresses
her fundamental nature. Often children learn to repress
their natural inclinations and seek styles of behavior that
will win them praise and recognition. When a child chooses
some other reaction, such as rebellion, or simply cannot
repress a natural exuberance for learning and social
interaction, then the whole industry of academic
disciplinarians, psychologists, and physicians is brought
into the game.

The irony is that the industry sees itself as
humanizing the treatment of children. Instead of blaming
children for their antisocial behavior, this new field seeks
to identify a disorder that underlies the symptoms. The
identification and labeling of Attention Deficit Disorder
(ADD) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
provide a mechanism for its chemical investigation and
chemical treatment. When our children are distracted by the
world around them, impulsive in their pursuit of creative
ideas, and craving active exploration of the world and their
own innate urges, they are given a diagnosis. This
restrictive attitude gives a clear message about what we
value. The child receives the message that she needs to be
fixed. Parents become convinced that something is wrong with
their child. Then the child’s fundamental way of being in
the world is seen as a disease that requires treatment with
drugs. The use of these drugs, however, is fraught with
problems including many side effects (sleep disturbance,
appetite suppression, weight loss, growth delays, nervous
tics, loss of creativity, and depression). Drugging children
so they can conform in the classroom setting may be
thwarting our best intentions for developing innovative,
creative thinkers who can solve problems in unusual and
distinctive ways. Conformity may be leading our students to
mediocrity.

It is much more appropriate for parents to
understand their child’s attention skills so that a
combination of demystification, self-understanding, and
natural treatment pave the way to success. The problems
created by attention disorders should not be minimized.
Children are often demoralized or identified as
troublemakers if their distractibility, impulsivity, and
restlessness create significant classroom disruptions.
Several specific areas of attention dysfunction have been
correlated with learning problems. This is not surprising
since attention skills are required to accurately perceive,
store, and retrieve information. In one study, 73 percent of
a group of 422 children with attention dysfunction had
evidence of learning problems (Accardo et al., 1990). Other
studies have shown an association between the temperament
categories describing attention problems (distractibility,
low persistence, and high activity) with grades in reading
and achievement scores in reading and math (Martin and
Holbrook, 1985).

It should also be recognized and
acknowledged that creativity and attention “problems” often
go hand in hand. The highly creative individual has the
ability to take disparate pieces of information and join
them in completely new ways. Creative people are often
dissatisfied with the mundane and seek excitement. They tend
to be enthusiastic, restless, and impulsive—the same traits
that get them labeled with ADHD or ADD. Inventors,
innovators, entrepreneurs, and artistic geniuses of all
sorts have been diagnosed with attention disorder, either
during their life or posthumously (Thomas Edison, Ben
Franklin, Mozart, Walt Disney). There may be significant
value in having ADD or ADHD traits. And there is concern
among many researchers that Ritalin and other stimulant
medications used to treat symptoms suppress creativity
(Armstrong, 1997).

Managing Attention Problems
The first step when addressing attention functions is to
understand them in the individual child. Parents who
discover and describe their child’s attention styles will
have a tremendous advantage in developing strategies that
improve attention and define when apparent problems may
actually be strengths. For example, once parents understand
that a child’s impulsive style is the very nature of the
creative process and that most breakthrough ideas are
impulsive, they can achieve a deep appreciation for the
exuberance that has previously been so frustrating. This can
lead them to develop ways to enhance and enrich their
child’s experience of her own impulsivity. The cure then
lies within the awareness. Then their understanding becomes
a spark to develop solutions that can take the form of
enrichment, bypass strategies, and advocacy in the school
system. When parents see the child’s emotional reactions to
frustration in their true light, they can take steps to
correct the situation rather than continue in their own
emotionally charged responses to the child.

This
understanding occurs in the child as self-awareness. As soon
as a child is told, possibly for the first time, that
distractibility is a tremendous advantage, she is freed from
her previous negative reinforcement and empowered to achieve
a higher level of self-confidence. Distractibility and
hyperattentiveness to the environment can lead to constant
discovery and personal evolution. Daydreaming can open the
doors to dimensions that are hidden behind the mind’s
limiting control mechanisms. If creativity and intuitive
understanding are the keys to reality, a child with
free-ranging association is at a distinct advantage for the
process of discovery. The problem is that these qualities
are usually only admired in accomplished adults who have
rejected many of society’s values. Our culture is so intent
on rationality as the most valuable commodity of mind, and
children’s creativity is constantly suppressed. Those
qualities that foster natural creative expression deserve
our recognition. A child who feels this admiration for her
true nature will blossom. Then areas of attention that are
weak can be addressed. But they must be seen in perspective
and the child must feel validated for who she is as a
creative being.

The correct homeopathic medicine can free
the child. This is especially true in the area of attention.
Since attention problems reflect an imbalance in the body,
they will usually normalize under the action of a remedy.
For example, in a child who cannot remain still long enough
to focus on a task, the homeopathic medicine will enhance
the natural ability to calm the mind and willfully bring
motor activity under control. This is an ability that a
homeopathic medicine encourages in the same way that immune
system function improves after homeopathic treatment.

Similarly, Chinese medicine views attention problems as an
overactive response to an energetic deficiency state. For
example, the underlying deficiency of Kidney yin allows
Liver yang to become excessive. Stated another way, the lack
of controls allows unwanted, random energy to rise up,
causing the syndrome of restlessness and impulsivity. The
treatment principle in Chinese medicine is to tonify the
deficiency while calming the disturbance using stimulation
of acupuncture points and herbs. Dietary interventions that
improve attention include eating foods high in
phosphatidylserine (eggs), taking a fish oil supplement with
vitamin E, and avoiding the food triggers that interfere
with concentration and efficient brain function.

Several
studies have demonstrated that children with lower levels of
omega-3 fatty acids in their bloodstream have significantly
more behavioral problems, temper tantrums, and learning,
health, and sleep problems than do those children with high
proportions of those fatty acids (Mitchell et al., 1987;
Stevens et al., 1996). In a similar study, fifty-three
children with ADHD had significantly lower proportions of
key fatty acids (AA, EPA, and DHA) in their blood than did
forty-three control subjects. Children with lower omega-3
levels had lower behavioral assessment scores (Conners’
Parent Rating Scale) and teacher scores of academic
abilities (Stevens et al., 1995). The researchers speculated
that an inefficient conversion of polyunsaturated fatty
acids to AA and DHA may have been a significant factor in
the lower levels of those fats in ADHD children.

In one
study, researchers showed that children with ADHD were
breastfed less often as infants than were the control
children. They assume that the high levels of DHA in breast
milk could be responsible for better performance later in
life since infants are inefficient at converting
polyunsaturated fats from other sources into the valuable
omega-3 fat DHA that is essential for brain development.
Even the duration of breastfeeding has been associated with
higher intelligence and higher academic achievement in later
childhood, and with higher levels of high school attainment
(Horwood and Fergusson, 1998). A study published in 2002
also showed a significant association between intelligence
levels in adults and the duration of their breastfeeding as
infants (Mortensen et al., 2002).

The take-home message from
these reports is to breastfeed your children and maintain
adequate levels of DHA throughout childhood to encourage the
best potential for successful academic performance and to
reduce the possibility of learning and behavior problems.

Accardo, J P, et al. Disorders of attention and activity levels in a referral population. Pediatrics 1990; 85 (Suppl., Part 2):426–431.

Armstrong, Thomas. The Myth of the A.D.D. Child: 50 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion. New York: Plume, 1997.

Horwood, L J, and Fergusson, D M. Breastfeeding and later cognitive and academic outcomes. Pediatrics 1998; 101:1–7.

Martin, R P, and Holbrook, J. Relationship of temperament characteristics to the academic achievement of first-grade children. Journal Psychoeducational Assessment 1985; 3:377–386.

Mitchell, E A, et al. Clinical characteristics and serum essential fatty acid levels in hyperactive children. Clinical Pediatrics 1987; 26:406–411.

Mortensen, E L, et al. The association between duration of breastfeeding and adult intelligence. Journal American Medical Association 2002; 287:2365–2371.

Stevens, L J, et al. Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. American Journal Clinical Nutrition 1995;62:761–768.

Stevens, L J, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids in boys with behavior, learning, and health problems. Physiol Behavior 1996 Apr-May; 59(4–5):915–20.

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Avatar Written by Randall Neustaedter OMD

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