Glancing out the window as the school bus rolled by, Miriam noticed her daughter, Riki, trudging up the walk with the look of someone carrying the world on her shoulders.

What now? Miriam thought, her stomach tightening. A bad mark on a test? A fight with her best friend? Sixth grade was really turning into the pits for Riki. Never a very good student, Riki’s overall performance had taken a dive. She hated school and did not get along with her teachers.

Miriam sighed as she thought of the tension this situation caused at home. A few nights ago she had been trying to help her daughter study for a social studies test. Riki had no patience to look inside the book for answers; she wanted to be spoon-fed.

Ma, what colonies were in New England? I have to fill in this map.”

Doesn’t it say in the book?”

No, it just says New England.”

Riki, the information is right there on the very page you’re looking at.”

But if you know it, why can’t you tell me? I have no patience to read this whole thing.”

See if you can find the names of the colonies on your own.”

Forget it.” She shoved the map away from her and it fluttered to the floor. “I’ll do the map later. I’ll do the Boston Tea Party first. At least that one I know.”

She turned quickly to the pre-test questions about the Boston Tea Party, brightening up as she related the drama of the colonists who had dressed up like Indians and dumped crates of British tea in the harbor, infuriating the king of England.

But when it came to the questions about why the colonists did such a thing or how they were punished, Riki became deflated.

“I don’t remember learning that. Maybe I was absent,” she said.

So they spent hours reviewing this information. Where in the world was she when all this was being taught, Miriam wondered. Soon it was ten thirty, the younger kids were not yet in bed, and the information was just not sticking. At her wits’ end, Miriam lost herself. “We’re stopping right here!” she barked at her daughter. “Learn to pay attention in class and you won’t have to cram like this before every test!”

Riki jumped up, shouting, “I do pay attention! My teacher is a liar, we never learned this!” Then she burst out crying and ran upstairs.

“If I flunk the test, it’s because you wouldn’t help me,” she sobbed.

Now, watching her daughter’s forlorn profile through the window, Miriam thought, “Riki was once a good, happy kid. I don’t know what’s going on but I’m going to find a way back to that place. There has to be a way.”

The way back to “that place” began with a long overdue screening by an educational psychologist who found Riki to be a child of above- average intelligence with attention deficit symptoms that showed up as “weak processing control.” That diagnosis was the beginning of a new chapter in Riki’s life, as her parents began to finally understand what their daughter was struggling with.

“Processing control” refers to the brain’s ability to select and then distribute data to the relevant brain regions that deal with such functions as language comprehension, visual processing, and the interpretation of social cues.

Children with weak processing control are likely to have shallow concentration. Even when reasonably alert in the classroom, they are not thinking hard or intently enough to register information effectively in the brain. These students often develop only a partial or vague understanding of what is being taught, and their retention is usually poor.

Children with superficial or weak attention control often have problems with short-term memory. They have no patience for fine detail and are highly distractible. They much prefer the big picture or the broad concept.

Riki fit this profile. Her problems with concentration greatly interfered with her ability to stay focused long enough to grasp a piece of information in its entirety. She could relate the drama of the Boston Tea Party, but lost the thread of the story when it came to piecing together cause and effect, and identifying key points in the story’s aftermath.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

On the other hand, children who are highly distractible often focus on trivial or secondary details to the exclusion of important ones. A teacher might tell a class, “Now, look carefully at the next couple of paragraphs and you will discover an important clue to the identity of the mysterious stranger.” Most children will immediately snap to attention and find the clue.

A child like Riki, on the other hand, will focus for a few seconds on the task, and then become distracted by the stranger’s unusual name, or some interesting detail in the illustration at the bottom of the page. By the time she has wrenched her attention away from these details and refocused on the task of finding the clue, the class will have discovered the stranger’s identity.

“I feel so dumb in class,” Riki told me when we met. “I try to cover it up by being the best in sports and being good in singing and dancing. I just want to be a regular kid.”

Like many children affected with attention deficits, Riki was imaginative and artistic. She could draw very well, was adept at arranging flowers and decorating a table beautifully for a celebration. By carefully observing her grandmother, had picked up knitting and crocheting. Because she seemed to have no problem concentrating on activities of this sort, her parents felt that if only she tried harder, she could apply herself similarly to her studies.

This is a mistake many people make. The regions of the brain that deal with tactile and manual skills such as drawing and painting, carpentry, surgery and sewing, are different from those that process visual and auditory data related to conceptual learning. One cannot form expectations about a child’s performance in classroom learning based on his superior abilities in areas involving manual and tactile skills.

In other words, it would be foolish to ask a carpenter, “If you can build a house, why can’t you write a novel?”

Can Parents Make A Difference?

There is a great deal parents can do to give their child tools to compensate for their attentional problems. Some of the following suggestions have been adapted from a lengthy treatment on attention dysfunction by Dr. Mel Levine, in his widely acclaimed Educational Care.

  • It is vital for a child with distractibility to have a work environment where noise, certain kinds of music, conversation and ringing telephones have been filtered out.

  • When assisting with homework, parents may need to repeat instructions to a child with attentional dysfunction. Afterwards, have the child repeat what he or she just heard. Most important, maintain good eye contact when giving directions.

  • Children with superficial processing may read an entire chapter of a book and have no idea what they just read. Encourage such a child to underline, to keep summarizing, to whisper important ideas under their breath, and to have opportunities to discuss what they are reading.

  • If there is an intellectually superior sibling, that brother or sister should not be allowed to monopolize the conversation at home.

  • Parents should set limits on passive processing experiences such as watching television, listening to music or playing electronic games. These activities in excess may prevent children from becoming more active thinkers.

  • Children with a tendency to tune out or daydream excessively need periodic reminders (offered in a low-key manner) to return to reality. A parent might say, “There goes your active mind again. It took off on a tangent. Should we get back to the subject?”

  • Children with problems maintaining a focus can benefit from being told in advance how long they will have to concentrate. Using a clock or a timer may be an immense help in stretching a child’s attention span in small but steady increments.

  • Parents should try whenever possible to link subject matter that a child is studying in school with real life experiences or everyday situations. These associations will make dry “inert” material come to life and help to fix the information in the child’s memory.

  • Often, there is too much parent-child tension for a parent to be able to work productively with a child who has weak processing control. Instead, a tutor, or someone with experience in working with attention problems should be brought into the picture.

  • When passive processing is only one aspect of a picture of overall attention dysfunction, stimulant medication like Ritalin given under a doctor’s supervision may be helpful.

In Riki’s case, homework sessions lost their negative, tension-filled atmosphere when Riki worked with a family friend. Mother and daughter were gradually able to regain their former close relationship.

Most important, learning about her attention difficulties lessened the shame and guilt she felt for not being a top student. She began to show a much greater willingness to invest the extra effort required to manage the challenges facing her.

“As long as I know it’s not my fault,” she told me, “I don’t mind having to try harder than most kids to get a good mark. “As long as my teachers don’t think I’m lazy. Just a regular kid that happens to have a problem.”