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olistic Healthcare for Children

Attention Problems in Children

© Randall Neustaedter OMD

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Holistic Healthcare for Children by Randall Neustaedter OMD. View all columns in series
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.

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About The Author
Dr. Randal Neustaedter has practiced holistic medicine for more than thirty years in the San Francisco Bay Area, specializing in child health care. He is a licensed acupuncturist and Doctor of Oriental Medicine, as well as education director of the Holistic Pediatric Association, author of Child Health Guide and ...more
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