Adolescence. Such a pivoting time in the lives of youth is known for manifestations of rebellion, struggles for autonomy, and self-advocacy by teens worldwide. Careful scrutiny and research are necessary because one may be prone to discard the characteristic of the normal descent into adulthood as symptoms of social and cognitive abnormalities (Armstrong, 1995). According to Santrock (2001) psychologists are continuously studying adolescent thinking and social matters.
The writer of this research works in the high school environment; thus, witnesses first-hand accounts of the continuum of emotions, identity crises, and social commotions of this age group. This comes from just observing the “average” teen. The reader sees these conditions heightened for individuals with learning exceptionalities. These are the students who parents quote, “Well, my child does have this condition…”, to offer a suggestion for their child’s failures or their own shortcomings. These are often the same frustrated adults that confess they, themselves, had the same social or learning condition of which their child struggles.
Having a learning deficit in adolescence may still cause frustration for the individual in adulthood. Many adults remember the learning gap opposing their desire to learn as a frustrating part of their growth process. Exploring these frustrations and impairments to guide future research and practices, proves a beneficial adventure for researchers, concerned parents, professionals, and the individuals themselves (Orenstein, 2001).
The Information Processing Process
How information is stored, retrieved, and processed are essential elements to adolescent information processing (Santrock, 2001). Santrock states information processing is “…both a framework for thinking about adolescent development and a facet of that development” (p. 114). According to Thomas (2000) the process seeks to explain the happenings from the moment the child receives the stimulus from the environment, to the moment the child responds with visible actions to the environment.
Thomas compares the process of information processing to the functioning of a computer. Data is entered into a computer (input), processed by the system, and delivered as output. Thomas states “information-processing theorists attempt to specify components of the child’s internal mechanisms for manipulating information and to delineate how these components interact to produce the child’s behavior” (p. 331).
Disorders of the Brain
Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD) illustrates a cognitive deficit that challenges the development of adolescent mental processes and socialization. Lamson (1996) contests that ADD challenges the structure of social and educational environments.
Millichap (1998) reports that ADHD is referred to as a heterogeneous disorder, due to the mixture of symptoms and various causes. According to Millichap, the disorder is referenced as early as 1904 with documented medical references published in the British journal Lancet. Armstrong (1995) claims further gains in the field developed in the 1940’s following a study on the psychological effects of brain injury on students with mental retardation conducted at Wayne County Training School in Northville, Michigan. Bain (1991) suggests however, defining the disorder continues to baffle scientists. Cherkes-Julkowski, Sharp, and Stolzenberg (1997) propose attention deficits are:
…neurobiologically based disabilities that have pervasive,
variable, and potentially lifelong effects. Implicated areas
of human functioning include self-regulation, organization,
neuromotor integration, coordination, judgment, rule-governed
and reward-response behaviors, self-worth, school, work, and
interpersonal performance. (p. 26)
According to Johnston (1991) neurological examinations indicate the involvement of cranial [brain] nerves associated with stimulus and response. Johnston reports these nerves govern actions of movements and sensory functions; thus, problems in any area, or combination thereof, lead to possible abnormalities. Still, other perspectives are offered to explain the onslaught of ADD/ADHD conditions in youth.
According to Lamson (1996) other studies indicate brain functioning (injuries and deficits) produce the symptoms associated with ADD. Lamson states that the right hemisphere of the brain controls aspects of decision-making, processing of stimulus, and spatial ability. The author continues that deficits in this area may cause inattentiveness and disorganization, which are characteristic of ADD. Lamson writes “Studies have revealed that the brains of people with ADD transport less chemicals from this lower area to the frontal area. The frontal area processes knowledge and sensory information, coordinates attention function, and initiates courses of behavior” (p. 22).
Speculation suggests ADD/ADHD are conditions, supported by a wealth of myths, sought to explain some children’s inability to attend and behave (Armstrong, 1995). Armstrong continues that these youth may not be the product of ADD, but rather a manifestation of family, school, or social problems. Armstrong contends, “…instead of searching for “the A.D.D. brain,” researchers ought to be more concerned about describing the interaction of different kinds of brains to stress, parenting styles, classroom structure, and other environmental influences” (p. 21). Regardless of the cause of the disabling condition, individuals will suffer if they do not possess the skills necessary for achievement (Orenstein, 2000).
ADD/ADHD presents short term and long-range impact on the development of youth. In order to provide accurate insight into the disorder, a look at the research involved in the cognitive development process is visited. A thorough explanation of the information process linked to the disorder seeks to allow readers an ability to conceptualize the information as it relates to youth with the diagnoses.
This research conducted on the cognitive aspects of ADD/ADHD is presented in two parts. Part one of this research focuses on ADD/ADHD as it relates to the process of development. This section of research explores the characteristics and diagnosis of the disorder. Further insight into the attention and memory process is viewed, and an illustration of how the ADHD mind works is summarized. Part two of this research delves into the application of the research. As well, implications for future programming are highlighted.
ADD/ADHD Linked to Youth Development
There does not exist a known cause for ADD; however it is suggested that the conditions matures from imbalances in the areas of the brain responsible for attention and activity. Neither does there exist a test to diagnose the disorder. Information concerning the condition is assessed through interviews (parent, child, and teacher), medical examinations, and results gathered from behavior and performance rating scales (Armstrong, 1995). Although the writer of this research uses the terms ADD and ADHD together or interchangeably, Cherkes-Julkowski, Sharp, and Stolzenberg (1997) highlight ADD rather than ADHD is used when the focus is centered on attention rather than on behavior. The aforementioned three researchers provide that the disorder functions from problems in regulating and controlling the fluency of attention.
ADD is characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. Children with ADD often face academic and social problems at school, low self-esteem, difficulty relating to peers, and difficulties complying with rules (Armstrong, 1995). Yet, it behooves individuals not to view the symptoms as problems, but rather focus on how behaviors can be made practical for the child and the child’s social and educational environments (Cherkes-Julkowski, Sharp, & Stolzenberg, 1997). These individuals are not acting out of spite or deliberate disregard of social boundaries or appropriateness. But, individuals with ADD often compete with their distractibility, which can disturb others and gain negative consequences from authorities (Cherkes-Julkowski, Sharp, & Stolzenberg, 1997).
Levinson (1990) states the to paint a complete picture it is necessary to add the following possible symptoms to the list of characteristics of individuals with ADD:
Difficulties in reading
Difficulties in writing
Difficulties in spelling
Difficulties in mathematics
Difficulty following directions
Lack of time
ADD continues to gain support because it provides parents, teachers and professionals with an explanation for describing students’ troublesome behaviors (Armstrong, 1995). More in-depth information concerning the characteristics and symptoms of ADD/ADHD are provided in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III-R) published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Theory attempts to explain the linkage between the developments of children with attention deficits with the processing concerns these individuals often exhibit. Fowler (1999) suggests processes in the mind are interacting from birth. According to Fowler (in normal development) from three to six months, to ages two to four, children formulate sensory and visual imagery. Between three and five years of age, children begin to internalize language; whereas, the ADHD child outwardly vocalizes what they are internalizing. Between eight and eleven, children internalize emotions; whereas, the ADHD child tends to react quickly. Fowler adds these internal, developmental differences often bring negative social and academic outcomes for the individuals with the disorder.
Bain (1991) supports that as other skills for youth develop over time, the same may prove true for youth with ADHD. According to Bain, a young child cannot be forced to fix their concentration, since youth are still in an exploring stage (mentally). Bain continues that as time progresses, the attention span should improve, and the symptom of ADHD will often diminish by adulthood.
Attention and Memory
Attention refers to the state of focusing mental efforts; memory suggests maintaining the focus of the information over time (Santrock, 2001). Santrock states that attention and memory are two important cognitive processes. The writer of this research notes these as areas of difficulty for the ADD/ADHD individual. According to Lamson (1996) understanding how the brain and attentional system works may provide readers with a more versed understanding of how the mind of an individual with ADD operates.
Knox (1989) advocates attention is essential to every aspect of learning. However, dysfunctions in attention make learning difficult. Knox indicates several kinds of attention:
There is caught attention, when something interrupts our
thoughts or “catches” our eye. There is focused attention,
which involves a deliberate choice to concentrate on one
set of instructions or one task. There is sustained attention,
which is necessary for finishing a project, understanding a
complicated list of instructions, or listening to a long story.
And there is selective attention, which allows us to screen
out anything that interferes with the task at hand. ADHD
may interfere with any one or several of these aspects of
attention. (p. 30-31)
Cherkes-Julkowski, Sharp, & Stolzenberg (1997) state to understand ADD the attention process must be understood.
Levinson (1990) recalls that consciously and unconsciously selective attention poses the ability to filter out irrelevant information in the thought process. Lamson (1996) adds the attentional system rules actions, reactions, and consciousness; therefore, as suggested with individuals with ADD, impairment in the attentional system renders deficits in the individual’s perceptions and functioning.
ADD/ADHD Applications and Future Implications
Thinking Processes and Decision-Making
Critical and creative thinking are processes involving reflective and productive evaluation or finding new ways to make solutions practical. These methods prove helpful in adolescent decision-making (Santrock, 20001). Lamson (1996) writes that biochemical interactions are taking place in the brain constantly, directly affecting who we are as individuals. However, these interactions are different in the brains of individuals with ADD.
Johnston (1991) mentions it is important to realize students with ADHD are not necessarily making the choice not to attend, concentrate, or participate in the academic environment. Johnston states adults are often frustrated by a child who can’t complete a worksheet, yet spends countless hours playing video games. However, the individual’s attention threshold must be taken into account. According to Johnston the threshold means “A person can concentrate on a task as long as the number and intensity of distractions does not exceed a critical level” (p. 56). “One more slight distraction tips the scales, exceeds the threshold, and concentration is completely lost” (p. 57).
Metacognition and Self-Regulatory Learning
Metacognitive activities and self-regulatory learning are valuable processes in adolescent development. Metacognition is thinking about the process of thinking to manage and solve problems. This skill parallels the ability to monitor one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions to reach desired (social or academic) outcomes (Santrock, 2001).
According to Fowler (1999) problems with ADHD often become more evident when the individual is subjected to increased self-responsibility. Schools place high demands on the need for attention and focus. As the student gets older, these demands increase and the level of support often decrease (Cherkes-Julkowski, Sharp, & Stolzenberg, 1997). However, Armstrong (1995) interjects that children with ADD usually exhibit optimal attention when engaged in activities that are new, interesting, or stimulating. Cooperative and group learning activities help students guide attention and often provide a model of appropriate learning behavior (Cherkes-Julkowski, Sharp, & Stolzenberg, 1997).
It is difficult to speculate when universal diagnosing criterion will be manifest. Unlike in the past, more parents, professionals, medical personnel, and administration are beginning to work together to find answers and solutions (Bain, 1991). Lamson (1996) states, “No one will deny that there are rebellious children unfit parents, and frustrated educators, but couldn’t there also be some truths concerning ADD behaviors that could enable us to grow in our ability to guide and nurture our children” (p. 17).
The attention disorders can be treated, but no known cure exists. Knox (1989) states that although doctors are now more confident in diagnosing ADHD, much is still unknown about this disorder. However, individuals are receiving meaningful assistance through the ADD/ADHD diagnosis. Through medical intervention, behavior modification, parental education, and environmental structure, individuals with ADD/ADHD find some organization in their world of chaos (Armstrong, 1995). Fowler (1999) is convinced “…ADHD can be assets for the child and adult who learn how to channel them. A positive outcome is best accomplished through diagnosis and proper management of the symptoms of this disorder” (p.15). As research and further investigation continues, a better understanding of the disorder’s theories will begin to emerge (Lamson, 1991).
Armstrong, T. (1995). The myth of the a.d.d. child: 50 ways to improve your child’s behavior and attention span without drugs, labels, or coercion. New York: Dutton.
Bain, L. (1991). A parent’s guide to attention deficit disorders. New York: Dell.
Cherkes-Julkowski, M., Sharp, S., Stolzenberg, J. (1997). Rethinking attention deficit disorders. Cambridge, MA: Brookline.
Fowler, M. (1999). Maybe you know my kid: A parent’s guide to helping your child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (3rd ed.). Secaucus, NJ: Carol.
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Knox, M. (1989). Learning disabilities. New York: Chelsea House.
Lamson, T. (1996). ADD: The facts…the fables…hope for your family. Lafayette, LA: Vital Issues Press.
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Millichap, G. (1998). Attention deficit hyperactivity and learning disorders: Questions & Answers. Chicago, IL: PNB.
Orenstein, M. (2001). Smart but stuck: Emotional aspects of learning disabilities and imprisoned intelligence (Revised ed.). Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.
Santrock, J.W. (2001). Adolescence: An introduction (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Thomas, R.M. (2000). Comparing theories of child development (5th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brookes/Cole.