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ADHD: The High Cost of Attention Problems

If you’ve ever seen a child struggle to sit still and pay attention (or strive to get attention!), you’ve got a general idea of the kinds of behavior associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). But beyond the squirminess and lack of focus, there may be a deeper issue: weak cognitive skills.

While weak cognitive skills may not seem like a big deal in second grade, it’s important to understand that attention deficits don’t generally fix themselves. Some families turn to tutoring for help, but tutoring is designed to redeliver information that wasn’t grasped the first time, not necessarily train the weak skills that are keeping the information from being absorbed. In other words, tutoring is a good option when a child is struggling because something—such as missed classes due to illness, injury, or recent move—has interfered with the delivery of information. But if information is being delivered well and a child continues to struggle class after class or year after year, weak cognitive skills may well be to blame.

Understanding what’s behind ADHD

ADHD is now the generally accepted umbrella term for the three types of ADHD, including what used to be generally referred to as ADD. The three forms of ADHD are:

  • Inattentive Type – people with this disorder have trouble focusing, but they are not overly active and usually don’t display disruptive behavior (formerly called ADD).
  • Hyperactive/Impulsive Type – people are fidgety and can’t control their impulses, but they are better able to pay attention.
  • Combined Type – applies to people with poor attention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity.

An attention deficit could mean one, two, or all three types of attention: sustained, selective, and divided.

Sustained attention is the cognitive skill that allows your child to stay on task for a long period of time. Selective attention is the cognitive skill that prevents the child from being easily distracted. Divided attention allows them to do more than one task at a time.

In children with ADD and ADHD, it’s not always just attention that’s affected. Other cognitive skills often suffer as well. In addition, studies show that, in many cases, the frontal cortex of the brain in someone with ADHD has less blood flow and more difficulty using glucose. This is bad news, especially considering that the frontal cortex inhibits impulses, initiates behavior, and controls working memory. “When the frontal cortex is underactive, the brain’s ability to screen out irrelevant stimuli is decreased,” says Tanya Mitchell, co-author of Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake up the Smart in Your Child ( “This causes the child to pay attention to everything, which obviously makes staying on task very difficult. For children with ADHD, immediate reward is often the only way they can stay on task. The constant stimulation provided by video games, for example, can keep kids with ADHD engaged for hours.”

The high cost of not treating ADHD

In their younger years, children and teens with ADHD may get in trouble for yelling in the library or not turning in math homework. But consider the long-term risks of not addressing the weak cognitive skills associated with ADHD. Here are some of the ways ADHD can impact life throughout school, college, and even into adulthood:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor grades
  • Difficulty getting into college
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Significant time-management challenges
  • Difficulty managing money
  • Chronic disorganization

Untreated ADHD has also been linked to unemployment, divorce, bankruptcy, substance abuse, and chronic health problems.

And here’s another interesting fact: Contrary to what many believe, production of dopamine, which regulates things like movement and balance, is actually decreased in children with ADHD. This explains why stimulants (like Ritalin and caffeine) work well for many children with the disorder, as they increase the production of dopamine. It may also explain why adults with ADHD have a much greater risk of abusing stimulant substances like cocaine, nicotine, and methamphetamine, all of which improve dopamine function, making the user “feel better.”

“We’re not talking about little nuisances,” says Mitchell. “The long-term consequences of attention problems can’t be shrugged off and ignored.”

Targeting weak attention skills

So where does that leave the child with attention problems who may be struggling at school and home? The answer is not accommodation, as many well-meaning school administrations have done in attempts to reduce workloads and remove distractions. Instead, consider the benefits of one-on-one brain training.

Studies show that many learning disabilities are rooted in weak cognitive skills. Personal brain training incorporates immediate feedback, intensity, and loading, among other features, to target and train those weak skills. Effective brain training customizes programs based on the results of an initial cognitive skills assessment and uses exercises founded on years of clinical and scientific research.

The cause of ADHD is still up for debate. There is no one known cause of ADHD. There is also a genetic factor, as ADHD tends to run in families, and children with attention deficits usually have at least one close relative who also has it. An “ADHD gene” has also been identified that brings a greatly increased risk of having ADHD. ADHD has also been linked to environmental factors, like food dyes and toxins, and children whose mothers smoked while pregnant with them are twice as likely to develop ADHD.

Regardless of the combination of causes contributing to ADHD, brain training can target the weak attention skills that are associated with the disorder. For families of children with ADHD, the cost of doing nothing can be high. Training weak attention skills is one approach that has benefited thousands of families.