By Glenda Thorne and Alice Thomas
Alertness and Arousal
Deficits in alertness and arousal to having a reticular activating system can be compared to a “stuck” thermostat. The alert and arousal thermostat will not turn completely up in the morning so that we are optimally alert and aroused and will not turn down sufficiently at night so that we can get to and remain asleep.
Students who have trouble with alertness and arousal may have difficulty getting to sleep at night and awakening in the morning. They may appear tired and sleepy throughout the day, particularly when they are required to perform tasks that do not especially interest them. Sometimes they describe this feeling as “bored” because they just can’t seem to get with it and focus their attention on anything. When they sit in a classroom at school, they feel kind of mentally sluggish, have trouble getting started on their work, and, at times, they might even fall asleep in class. At other times, they feel really restless and move around a lot.
Students having difficulty with alertness and arousal may become fidgety or physically active in order to increase their level of arousal and alertness in much the same way that adults move around and squirm in their seats when listening to a boring lecture and trying to stay awake. Another strategy used by students who have difficulty with becoming alert and aroused is to wait until the eleventh hour to start on a task or assignment. When they do this, they actually increase their level of adrenaline that leads to mental alertness. They appear to need potential imminent disaster to motivate them to act!
Sometimes students who fall asleep in class or who move around too much get into trouble. Their teachers might complain about their wiggling or squirming. Their teachers may not understand that they may need to move around to stay alert. Their teachers and parents may tell them that they must not care about school, that they are not motivated or that they are lazy when it comes to schoolwork. They may also be told they are not working up to their “potential” or making the grades they are capable of making. Sometimes they are told they would do much better in school if they would only try harder. These comments can be pretty discouraging to students who have problems with feeling alert and aroused.
Selectivity and Saliency Determination
Students who have trouble with selectivity or determining saliency always seem to be tuned in to the wrong thing at the wrong time – they are tuned in to channel two when they should be tuned in to channel nine. They may be reading their book when they should be listening to their teacher give directions. If asked to give an oral summary of what they did on their summer vacation, they may retell every activity in great detail instead of hitting the highlights (salient events or activities). We can all probably think of someone we know whom we would describe as wordy or verbose – they just can’t come to the point with a few words. You may often feel the urge to say, “Just get to the point; I don’t have all day.” Students who have this problem may have difficulty picking out the most important facts or highlights when summarizing what they have read or when trying to outline a book chapter. They might have trouble deciding what the main idea is in the paragraph they have just read. When taking lecture notes, they might try to write down everything the teacher says and run out of time, or they may notice that a fellow student has on two different colors of socks instead of paying attention to the right answer the student is giving to the teacher’s question. It often takes them longer to complete their work than it does others because they are focusing on unimportant things, and their grades don’t really reflect the effort they have put into a task. An adult problem in saliency determination is packing three suitcases for a three-day trip and coming home with two bags that were never opened.
Students who have trouble with distractibility attend to the person who is walking down the hall or the person mowing the lawn outside their classroom window when they should be listening to their teacher give the direction for an assignment. They usually do not make a conscious decision to do this; it happens before they realize it. These same students are also more easily distracted by any talking by other students in the classroom.
In addition, students who are distracted by their own thoughts or who are in free flight may not hear what is going on in the classroom and may miss important information. For example, the topic of class discussion may be the political climate in Russia. A student who is thinking about Russia may then think about their parent’s trip to Russia, and then about the neat shoes that their parents brought them back from Russia, which then leads them to think about the track meet that is on Saturday, which leads them to think about their friend Sam who is also on the team, and so on. Also students engaged in free flight may make statements that are not relevant to the present situation. Instead, their statements are related to the topic of their free flight.
Students who are distracted by their own desires have been referred to as insatiable. In other words, they have trouble being satisfied with what they have or are doing and want to have or do something else right now; they cannot wait.
Duration of Attention
Sometimes when things take so much mental energy, a student (or adult) might decide that it just requires too much effort. When this happens, they often quit soon after beginning, or they may not begin the task at all because they know they will never have enough energy to finish it. A student once described this as similar to how he would feel if someone told him to run a 30-mile race right away. His immediate response would be, “Forget it, no way! Can’t do it.”
Students who have difficulty with sustaining mental effort often exhibit inconsistency in their performance – they tune in and out. In fact, often their only consistency is their inconsistency. They often hear their teachers say, “I know you can do this work; you did it yesterday.” These students become easily mentally fatigued and burn out quickly when performing tasks that are not particularly interesting to them or that require sustained mental effort. They may miss important information and/or hear only parts of directions. At other times, they may be over focused or maintain focus too long on a given task, especially one that does not merit this amount of attention. A problem that is related to difficulty with maintaining focus is called depth of processing. At times, students maintain focus but they may not be actively processing the information on which they are focused. They process it in a very superficial way, and thus may not sufficiently consolidate it in memory. They may forget what they have just heard or fail to remember what they studied the night before a test.
Previewing and Planning
People who have trouble with previewing skills are often called impulsive. They do not stop and think before they say or do something; they act before they think. Students with poor previewing skills may say what everyone else thinks but knows not to say. They may blurt out things in the classroom rather than raising their hands and waiting until the teacher calls on them.
They often act so quickly that they deny their behavior because there was no real intent present – it happened so fast they didn’t realize they were doing it until after it was done. When performing academic tasks, they may not consider all the possibilities before stating an answer or performing a task. Thus, they may not solve a problem the most efficient way or read all of the choices on a multiple-choice test before selecting an answer. They often display an outburst of temper or behave aggressively toward peers. These are the children who most often get into trouble in school and who frequently have the lowest self-esteem. They do not mean to do the things they do. Russell Barkley states that these children have trouble doing what they know rather than not knowing what to do. They have difficulty with rule-governed behavior. That is, they have trouble following rules even though they know the rules.
Self-Monitoring and Self-Regulation
Students who have trouble with self-monitoring often make careless mistakes. They are not “watching” themselves while they are doing something. When they do make mistakes, they do not notice them so they cannot correct them. They might say something that hurts another person’s feelings, but they do not notice because they are not really “looking” at what is going on. They may be doing something that annoys their peers, but again, they fail to notice their peers’ responses to their behavior. They do not self-regulate. Poor self-monitoring and self-regulation can cause problems both with other people and with schoolwork.
Students who have problems with regulating the speed or pace of their work often work too slowly or too quickly. They may rush through their work and make careless mistakes because they are not taking enough time to do the work the right way. They may also not be very good at estimating how long a task will take. They frequently underestimate how long a task or parts of a task will take to complete. For example, they may begin their homework at 8:00 p.m. thinking it will take them an hour to complete. At midnight, however, they find they are still working because their speed of processing does not match the demands or requirements of the task. Often they may be late for things that they want to do because they thought it would take them fifteen minutes to get ready and it really took them an hour and fifteen minutes. Students with self-regulation problems may frequently feel up tight because it seems like they are always being told to hurry up, or they may get reprimanded for turning in work in which they made careless errors because they were not taking adequate time to complete the task.
Need for Stimulation and for Body Movement
Some students who have a high need for stimulation find the traditional classroom situation intolerable. They often create chaos or stir things up in order to increase the level of stimulation around them. They usually know they will get in trouble for creating the chaos, but the experience of getting in trouble actually provides the needed stimulation. Their optimal level of arousal is above the norm. They thrive on a level of arousal that some of us would experience as anxiety.
Some students have a hard time sitting still in school. They may frequently get up out of their desks. They may squirm or fidget in their seats. They might sit on their feet in their desks or shake their legs while they are seated. Other things that they might do to move around include tapping their pencils on their desks, doodling on their papers, twisting their hair or playing with an object in their hands. Often they will report that they actually think better when they are moving. Teachers and family members may not like this movement, though. They may not understand that some people think better when they are in motion, so students who move around a lot may get into trouble. Students who need to move around a lot may also report that they often feel restless or uptight. They may put off doing things they know they need to do because they cannot stand the thought of sitting still for that long.
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