The three things no one else will tell you about your child’s attentional deficits.

The three things no one else will tell you about your child’s attentional deficits.

“School is Stupid”  

The most common quote from children I work with when asked how they like school.

If you really want to know why children have attentional challenges in epidemic numbers than you will want to learn about occupational deprivation, the value of meaningful tasks and true intelligence.   

  1. Occupational Deprivation.
  2. Meaningless tasks.
  3. High Intelligence.  

Attentional challenges have become the norm in childhood today, and yet, it doesn’t need to be this way.  The following story is about a young boy I will call Allan. Allan came to us after his parents were asked to consider medicating him so that he could participate in school.  

Allan had been in the frigid water for more than 15 minutes, the same water that only hours earlier had a surface of ice.  When I first met him, he was in second grade, silently peering from behind his father’s legs. His eyes studied my face until I made eye contact, then he quickly diverted his gaze. His parents were told he couldn’t focus, attend or learn.  His eyes were dim and his posture forlorn.  The school administrators strongly urged against him missing school, but his parents disagreed and instead followed their hearts.  One Wednesday a week for the second half of the school year, Allan’s parents “called him in sick” and sent him with my program.  His elementary school used a behavioral management system where they gave red cards for negative behavior.  Before his time with us, Allan was the recipient of red cards multiple times daily. After only two weeks with our program, his parents reported that he completely stopped getting red cards for negative behavior.  He was only in first grade but easily articulated to his mother that “nature school makes it so I can deal with school.”  When he first came to us, I pictured his parents sitting on the other side of the long conference table, preparing their nervous systems once again for the “medication” conversation.   

Earlier this day, before I found him in the water, he sat quietly outside the edge of a circle of children.  As he dug in the sandy river bank with a stick, it was clear he was listening intently by the way he periodically stopped, cocked his head to the side, stared as if through something I couldn’t see, and then continued with his digging task.  The story he listened to from the ‘edge zone’ was what we call a hero story in which the ‘hero’ could catch wild things with his bare hands.  The story lasted 25 minutes.  He attended from outside the edge for all 25.  

I found him now, the boy who couldn’t focus or attend for “even a minute,” kneeling, still as a stone in the frigid waters, holding both his hands in a cupped position under the icy water.  When I spoke to him, his glistening eyes responded with a slight nod towards his hands. Upon looking closer, I see small fish swimming just above his hands. He moves with the swiftness of an egret and snatches a fish out of the water.  His eyes triple in size as a smile splits his little face in half. He pops to his feet, body electric, fish in hand, and finally begins to shiver.

Allan’s attention span wasn’t the problem.  The real problem was that most things asked of him had little or no meaning for him.  The human neurological system is built through giving attention to highly meaningful things; things that make neurological sense through active multi-sensory experience.  The human neurological system is a complicated masterpiece of environmental nuances, attempting to attach to essential stimuli.  Allan’s emotional regulation and attentional challenges were a byproduct of the entire environment of disconnection surrounding him; including random bits of meaningless information such as marks on paper, disconnected science facts, random environmental noise such as car engines, and even his mothers stress while pregnant.  “When childhood experience does not support evolved needs, it creates species-atypical outcomes.” (Narvaez, 2014. Pg.xxvii)

You might be wondering what this story has to do with attention and how this is relevant today.  

Allan is an indicator species.  The first to sound an alarm when the environment heaves a profoundly difficult shove in the wrong direction.  Indicator species are those that scientists pay attention to for the first sign that something is amiss or is threatening the life within an ecosystem.  At a minimum, one out of every five children born today will be part of the indicator species group. They are the ones who are often labeled, drugged, and if lucky, allowed to attend therapies: occupational, physical, speech, social-emotional, behavioral.  If they are fortunate, they will land in a school like Outside Now; where the challenges are minimized and the gifts grown.  

Allan has no real structural deficit, just a lack of neurologically meaningful, sensory-motor opportunities and therefore a general disinterest in participating with school.  

He has a highly intelligent and incredibly energetic composition and was bored nearly to death by a lack of functional and meaningful activity.  Allan was suffering from a form of deprivation. He was being deprived of a neurologically meaningful childhood which can be described as occupational deprivation.  

Occupational deprivation is a term which describes “a state in which people are precluded from opportunities to engage in occupations of meaning due to factors outside their control” (Whiteford, 2000).  A child’s job or ‘occupation’ is to develop and grow. Occupational deprivation is a term that often refers to adults, but one that should be in all conversations about childhood development today.  Humans are intrinsically motivated to develop and learn through play activities, and I contend, through active, relational interaction with the sights, sounds, movements, patterns and sensory expressions from the natural world.  

To be deprived in childhood of the very thing that wired our neurology is the epitome of occupational deprivation.  Everything in nature is neurologically meaningful to a child when given the opportunity.  Demanding that children learn random bits of disconnected information, detached from the natural world and prior to engaging in the affordances and opportunities of meaningful, developmental experiences that their neurology requires to develop the underlying systems necessary for higher cognitive tasks, is a strategy that is short-sighted and lacks any scientific backing.  We can do much, much better for our children by allowing for a Nature-Led childhood that will guide the greatest developmental potentials and grow a new generation of problem-solving leaders.

To stop tantrums, emotional meltdowns, and defiance, and increase attention and cooperation, especially for a child with high intelligence, the child needs regular access to activities that are intrinsically motivating, and that will remediate underdeveloped skills.  To integrate or maintain what they learn through those activities, they need to understand themselves in relation to those activities, which is also known as meaning. Nature is wired into our mainframe as both a meaningful and motivating instigator of learning opportunities.  What if we reimagined school to include one full day a week of ‘nature school’ for all kids? How many less kids would be medicated? How many more teachers would find relief?

If you want to learn more about how you can help your child or the children you work with through meaningful, activities outside, sign up for one of our workshops, mentorships or schedule a free 15-minute consultation now.  Click here to schedule a free consultation. 

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: evolution, culture, and wisdom. New York, NY: Norton.

Whiteford, G. (2000). Occupational Deprivation: Global Challenge in the New Millennium. British Journal of Occupational Therapy,63(5), 200-204. doi:10.1177/030802260006300503