Information Age Education
   Issue Number 139
June, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the eighth IAE Newsletter in a long series devoted to Education for Students’ Futures. Within the long series, this is the second of a four-part mini series that explores one important element of social media technology that is already profoundly changing our culture: the use of increasingly and often distractingly present wireless cell phone and other digital communication devices in social settings. The article (below) suggest how to help children with severe attentional disorders appropriately use the devices.

Education for Students' Futures:
Part 8: Developing Abilities to Cope
with and Reduce Distraction

Eamon Campbell
Therapy Assistant
Organization for Research and Learning

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

The previous IAE Newsletter focused on attention and on technologies that distract us from paying attention. It suggested that portable social media devices such as cell phones have become an increasingly disruptive force in social settings, with the recipients' curiosity about the sender now competing with the their current attentional focus.

I (Eamon Campbell) work individually with children who have serious attentional disorders. I help them learn how to effectively master attention, and avoiding distraction is thus an important part of my assignment. In this IAE Newsletter I'll describe interventions designed to help the children I work with develop appropriate behavior with communication devices. Since the children I work with also attend regular preschool or elementary classrooms, special education teachers and teachers who work with normally developing students may find some of the ideas and techniques useful. The next article in this series will suggest specific strategies with social media devices that are more closely designed for students who attend only regular classrooms.

Distractible Objects and Easily Distractible Children

Some children are unable to sustain their attention for an extended period, seemingly flitting from one thing to another. They may be unable to focus on the task at hand because they're focused on a different current stimulant in their environment.

As a therapist, my instructional task is to get an easily distracted child to attend to a task without being distracted from it. Over time I work to extend what initially is a typically short attentional time frame. In this endeavor, reinforcement is an essential instructional tool. Success itself should be the intrinsic motivation, but special needs children often need such additional reinforcement as food or access to some preferred object or activity to continue to maintain focused attention. Praise and awards also provide a useful secondary level of reinforcement, but the goal is to eventually make success with the task itself as the intrinsic motivation.

Objects or anything else that shifts attention away from the learning task tend to create a problem. If a child prefers access to the object or activity but will temporarily act appropriately in order to get access to it, I'll use that situation to enhance on-task behavior. For example, one 10-year-old child wanted continued access to his iPad. I hid it while we were working together at a table because its presence was a distraction.

I then gradually inserted it into the setting along with a timer that alerts him that he has one more minute of time with his iPad before his instructional break is over and he then goes back to his assignment. When the timer sounds, I leave his iPad where it was but with the screen turned off as long as the iPad doesn't distract him from his assignment. The strategy works. He's now reached the point at which he can ignore his iPad while working on his learning task. If he tries to play with the iPad during work time, I quietly remove it from his field of vision and we resume working on the assigned learning task.

I've discovered that it's important for me to reinforce any independent decision he makes to avoid being distracted. For example, if he's fidgeting with an action figure instead of attending to me at the table, I'll stop talking and give him up to15 seconds of my silence to independently correct his behavior. My silence often prompts him to put the toy away and attend to me. Contrast this with a less effective approach such as, “Stop playing with that toy. Pay attention now, and I will give you two extra minutes of break time when we finish what we are doing.”

An eventual lifetime goal of this type of intervention would be to get the student to determine which of several competing attentional goals is currently most important. For example, I want the student to learn to ignore a vibrating pocketed cell phone when he is talking with the folks he's met for dinner. The aphorism, “You can't chew gum and eat at the same time” comes to mind when considering this form of distraction.
Another type of example is a toddler who will work for Spiderman stickers. I don't show or mention them until we're ready to begin the activity, and then I indicate that he'll get one or more stickers if he meets certain behavioral criteria.

Suppose the lesson focuses on brainstorming imaginative ideas or creating story ideas. If the Spiderman stickers are in plain sight, they are apt to bias the toddler’s ideas and the content of his conversation. Just seeing Spiderman stickers can thus limit a child from a task in which I'm seeking variability in response. So, I keep them out of sight. This kind of removal intervention is used reasonably often in special education teaching, because it helps to prepare children for the distractions of adult life.
In preschool, the toddler has learned strategies that help to focus his attention. The teachers taught him to orient his body towards the person he's communicating with because we're more inclined to attend to those we face. To support that strategy, I'll also arrange things so that he's not only facing the person he's working with (if he's working with a partner) but I’ll also be sure that he has limited distracting stimuli behind his partner. The point is to physically eliminate anything that could distract the two from the learning task. Over time, I'll begin to add a distraction or two to build up their capability to deal with it.

Distractible People and Easily Distractible Children

Children with attentional disorders are often distracted by other people, especially by those who are engaged in another activity, are speaking to someone, or are just being nearby. When working with a child in a home environment, I try to use a quiet room and close the door. When I work with a child in a classroom, I initially use classroom screens or face the child away from visual distractions.

I also must consider how much distraction I really want to eliminate. Students need to be able to function in a natural environment with all of its social distractions. For example, if another student comes over and asks a question, I'll help the student I'm working with determine how best to respond—which can vary from a quick simple response to "I'm busy now. I'll tell you later." I then take the time to discuss the appropriateness of the response. Over time, I hope that the child will learn that responding/ignoring a cell phone bell tone or a question from a real person are two seemingly different situations that are actually similar. The important thing is to always consider the context.

Final Remarks

We humans have had many millennia to master such conventions of when to speak and when to interrupt. Children should grow up in a home, community, and school environment in which the adults know and understand these conventions. The children learn by imitation and by being corrected by the adults when they deviate from the standard conventions. It's a part of the nurturing process that young folks get.

Hand-held communicative devices add another dimension to this educational challenge. Many of today’s adults have not yet learned to follow the cultural conventions that are being developed for cell phone use. For example, audiences are reminded to silence their cell phones at the beginning of performances. So, today’s children are growing up in a home, community, and school environment in which many adults are poor role models of appropriate cell phone use conventions.
The children are thus explorers, often developing conventions that are commonly used within their group of friends and acquaintances. Parents and teachers must work with them to determine appropriate and best use of this amazing technology. Many young people have a better grasp of the communication technology than the adults they interact with, so the adults and children can learn from each other. The next article in this series will explore that.


Eamon Campbell is a therapy assistant at Organization for Research and Learning (ORL), a private practice in the Seattle area that provides behavior services for Autistic children. He has a Masters Degree from the University of Washington in Special Education with an emphasis in Behavior Analysis, and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Contact information:

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon and the co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press), The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press), and How to Explain a Brain: An Educator's Handbook of Brain Terms and Cognitive Processes (2005, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit four books for IAE ( He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information:

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