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This is the eighth IAE Newsletter in a long series devoted to
Education for Students’ Futures. Within the long series, this is the
second of a four-part mini series that explores one important element
of social media technology that is already profoundly changing our
culture: the use of increasingly and often distractingly present
wireless cell phone and other digital communication devices in social
settings. The article (below) suggest how to help children with severe
attentional disorders appropriately use the devices.
Education for Students' Futures:
Part 8: Developing Abilities to Cope
with and Reduce Distraction
Organization for Research and Learning
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The previous IAE Newsletter
focused on attention and on technologies that distract us from paying
attention. It suggested that portable social media devices such
as cell phones have become an increasingly disruptive force in
social settings, with the recipients' curiosity about the sender now
competing with the their current attentional focus.
I (Eamon Campbell) work individually with children who have serious
attentional disorders. I help them learn how to effectively master
attention, and avoiding distraction is thus an important part of my
assignment. In this IAE Newsletter
I'll describe interventions designed to help the children I work
with develop appropriate behavior with communication devices. Since the
children I work with also attend regular preschool or elementary
classrooms, special education teachers and teachers who work with
normally developing students may find some of the ideas and techniques
useful. The next article in this series will suggest specific
strategies with social media devices that are more closely designed for
students who attend only regular classrooms.
Distractible Objects and Easily Distractible Children
Some children are unable to sustain their attention for an
extended period, seemingly flitting from one thing to another. They may
be unable to focus on the task at hand because they're focused on a
different current stimulant in their environment.
As a therapist, my instructional task is to get an easily distracted
child to attend to a task without being distracted from it. Over time I
work to extend what initially is a typically short attentional time
frame. In this endeavor, reinforcement is an essential instructional
tool. Success itself should be the intrinsic motivation, but special
needs children often need such additional reinforcement as food or
access to some preferred object or activity to continue to maintain
focused attention. Praise and awards also provide a useful secondary
level of reinforcement, but the goal is to eventually make success with
the task itself as the intrinsic motivation.
Objects or anything else that shifts attention away from the learning
task tend to create a problem. If a child prefers access to the object
or activity but will temporarily act appropriately in order
to get access to it, I'll use that situation to enhance on-task
behavior. For example, one 10-year-old child wanted continued access to
his iPad. I hid it while we were working together at a table because
its presence was a distraction.
I then gradually inserted it into the setting along with a timer that
alerts him that he has one more minute of time with his iPad before his
instructional break is over and he then goes back to his assignment.
When the timer sounds, I leave his iPad where it was but with the
screen turned off as long as the iPad doesn't distract him from his
assignment. The strategy works. He's now reached the point at which he
can ignore his iPad while working on his learning task. If he tries to
play with the iPad during work time, I quietly remove it from his field
of vision and we resume working on the assigned learning task.
I've discovered that it's important for me to reinforce any independent
decision he makes to avoid being distracted. For example, if he's
fidgeting with an action figure instead of attending to me at the
table, I'll stop talking and give him up to15 seconds of my silence to
independently correct his behavior. My silence often prompts him to put
the toy away and attend to me. Contrast this with a less effective
approach such as, “Stop playing with that toy. Pay attention now, and I
will give you two extra minutes of break time when we finish what we
An eventual lifetime goal of this type of intervention would be to get
the student to determine which of several competing attentional goals
is currently most important. For example, I want the student to learn
to ignore a vibrating pocketed cell phone when he is talking with the
folks he's met for dinner. The aphorism, “You can't chew gum and eat at
the same time” comes to mind when considering this form of distraction.
Another type of example is a toddler who will work for Spiderman
stickers. I don't show or mention them until we're ready to begin the
activity, and then I indicate that he'll get one or more stickers if he
meets certain behavioral criteria.
Suppose the lesson focuses on brainstorming imaginative ideas or
creating story ideas. If the Spiderman stickers are in plain sight,
they are apt to bias the toddler’s ideas and the content of his
conversation. Just seeing Spiderman stickers can thus limit a child
from a task in which I'm seeking variability in response. So, I keep
them out of sight. This kind of removal intervention is used
reasonably often in special education teaching, because it helps to
prepare children for the distractions of adult life.
In preschool, the toddler has learned strategies that help to focus his
attention. The teachers taught him to orient his body towards the
person he's communicating with because we're more inclined to attend to
those we face. To support that strategy, I'll also arrange things so
that he's not only facing the person he's working with (if he's working
with a partner) but I’ll also be sure that he has limited distracting
stimuli behind his partner. The point is to physically eliminate
anything that could distract the two from the learning task. Over time,
I'll begin to add a distraction or two to build up their capability to
deal with it.
Distractible People and Easily Distractible Children
Children with attentional disorders are often distracted by other
people, especially by those who are engaged in another activity, are
speaking to someone, or are just being nearby. When working with a
child in a home environment, I try to use a quiet room and
close the door. When I work with a child in a classroom, I initially
use classroom screens or face the child away from visual distractions.
I also must consider how much distraction I really want to eliminate.
Students need to be able to function in a natural environment with all
of its social distractions. For example, if another student comes over
and asks a question, I'll help the student I'm working with determine
how best to respond—which can vary from a quick simple response to "I'm
busy now. I'll tell you later." I then take the time to discuss the
appropriateness of the response. Over time, I hope that the child will
learn that responding/ignoring a cell phone bell tone or a question
from a real person are two seemingly different situations that are
actually similar. The important thing is to always consider the context. Final Remarks
We humans have had many millennia to master such conventions of
when to speak and when to interrupt. Children should grow up in a home,
community, and school environment in which the adults know and
understand these conventions. The children learn by imitation and by
being corrected by the adults when they deviate from the standard
conventions. It's a part of the nurturing process that young folks get.
Hand-held communicative devices add another dimension to this
educational challenge. Many of today’s adults have not yet learned to
follow the cultural conventions that are being developed for cell phone
use. For example, audiences are reminded to silence their cell phones
at the beginning of performances. So, today’s children are growing up
in a home, community, and school environment in which many adults are
poor role models of appropriate cell phone use conventions.
The children are thus explorers, often developing conventions that are
commonly used within their group of friends and acquaintances. Parents
and teachers must work with them to determine appropriate and best use
of this amazing technology. Many young people have a better grasp of
the communication technology than the adults they interact with, so the
adults and children can learn from each other. The next article in this
series will explore that.
Eamon Campbell is a therapy assistant at Organization for Research and
Learning (ORL), a private practice in the Seattle area that provides
behavior services for Autistic children. He has a Masters Degree
from the University of Washington in Special Education with an emphasis
in Behavior Analysis, and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst
(BCBA). Contact information: email@example.com.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the
University of Oregon and the co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent
books are A Child’s Brain: The
Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press), The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007,
Corwin Press), and How to Explain a
Brain: An Educator's Handbook of Brain Terms and Cognitive Processes
(2005, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit four books for IAE (http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter).
He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its
entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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