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Laura Flores Shaw Headshot

The Right Way to Train Attention

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The controversy over what we should do for children with ADHD just keeps going, and going. In one corner we have researchers like L. Alan Sroufe, Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, claiming in a widely read New York Times' op-ed called "Ritalin Gone Wrong" that in the long term, attention deficit drugs are ineffective. What's more, Dr. Sroufe says, ADHD is not even an innately structural disorder -- he argues that it is often brought on by family stresses such as domestic violence or frequent moving, or even a parent's tendency to taunt or ridicule a child who is frustrated in solving a problem. In the other corner, we have researchers from the American Professional Society of ADHD and Related Disorders. They swung back quickly, claiming that ADHD is, in fact, heritable and that medication is effective. As the experts debate, 3 million of our children are taking stimulants every day. One of them is my much younger brother, Mike.

Mike, now in his last year at UCLA, has been on and off ADHD medication since being diagnosed in elementary school, and so he has some insight into what the drugs can and can't do. Adderall does help him to focus on boring tasks, he says, but he doesn't think it increases his overall effectiveness. In fact, he thinks Ritalin or Adderall would help anyone focus. This is exactly what Dr. Sroufe says in his Op-Ed: "Stimulants generally have the same effects for all children and adults. They enhance the ability to concentrate, especially on tasks that are not inherently interesting or when one is fatigued or bored, but they don't improve broader learning abilities." Then there's the problem of the drugs' fading effectiveness over long periods, as the child develops a tolerance. And so, in this debate, I find myself in Dr. Sroufe's corner, especially since there's a better answer than drugs for children with ADHD who struggle in school.

Research shows that attention can be trained, and over the past few years, attention training video games have become increasingly popular, but not just for children with ADHD. Because there's research showing possible gains in IQ after training, parents are purchasing games even for children without attention issues and schools are implementing programs for all of their students. I was recently asked if I'd be interested in providing attention training games in my own school's classrooms. My answer was a resounding "no." I love technology as much as anyone, but ours is a Montessori school, and for attention training, Montessori students don't need computers. Montessori environments are specifically designed to train attention by providing children opportunities to practice deep concentration for long periods without disruption. According to Dr. Montessori, concentration development is "the most important single result of our whole work." This is why our preschool and elementary programs have 3-hour work cycles rather than a schedule that changes subject area every 30 to 40 minutes.

The periods of deep concentration Montessori students experience are what Dr. Mihály Csikszentmikály, refers to as "flow." In his now classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he defines flow as "the mental state in which a person engaged in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." It's a state that Dr. Csikszentmikály generally attributes to adults, but when he and his colleague Dr. Kevin Rathunde conducted a multi-year study comparing traditional school environments to Montessori environments, they found that "students achieved flow experiences more frequently in Montessori settings."

Montessori environments, however, are doing more than merely training attention. Flow in a Montessori classroom fosters a love of learning, something computerized attention training games can't do. A flow state is so pleasing, it literally makes you feel joyful, thus, the learning experience becomes associated with joy, not some video game. As Dr. Csikszentmikály writes, "Every teacher, whether they teach German or music or mathematics, is aware of how important it is for the kid to experience flow while learning because that would make them want to learn more."

The reason flow is so pleasing to the brain is that it doesn't require effort and self-control as it's a state of effortless concentration that emerges from innate curiosity or interest. Yet, a byproduct of attention trained via flow is that a person becomes more self-regulated and, thus, can put more effort into things in which they're not innately interested. And this is important since there are just some things you have to do - like memorize those math facts!

If children in conventional schools aren't experiencing flow states more regularly, what are they experiencing? My guess is that they're most likely experiencing a lot strain and pain in having to exercise a LOT of self-control and effort to sit still and pay attention to the person speaking at the front of the class all day.

Sometimes I wonder if Mike would have ever been diagnosed with ADHD if he'd attended a Montessori school. I wonder if he'd had the opportunity to experience flow on a daily basis, if his brain would have wired differently. I wonder that about him -- and about the 3 million children in this country who take attention deficit medication every day. Can we imagine a public school system where every child experiences flow and doesn't have to depend upon stimulants or even video games?