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The Factors of Attention -
Processing and Sequencing Information

By Valerie Maxwell Ph.D.

The area of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex takes responsibility for the "executive functioning" of the brain. This is the "thinking brain" which must make decisions, keep track of time, assimilate what is being told, seen or taught, and organize information with prioritization in order to be processed by the brain. This is how we "think about thinking" so we can function efficiently in the world. Efficiency in our lives helps to create happiness in ourselves and respect from others.

In order to fulfill these executive functions, the brain must have accurate input. Paying attention to what is seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted is that way the brain receives this input. According to experts (Reid Lyon) there are 5 parts of paying attention:

1. Focused or Selective Attention
We need to be able to select the most important information and to ignore the input that is not needed at that time. For example, listening to the teacher's directions and ignoring a friend kicking your chair is vital to success.

2. Sustaining Attention
Maintaining awareness is essential to helping us focus on our goal or task. Sustained attention is critical to completing the job, whether that is homework or cleaning your room.

3. Shifting Attention
Flexibility of attention is key to our ability to change, to grow, and to multitask so that we get everything done that we need to do. Playing Nintendo for 20 minutes and then getting back to the homework is not possible without this flexibility.

4. Attention for Action
We need to be able to route the input to the appropriate brain sites in order to put all the information together so that it comes out at the right time, in the right order, and in socially appropriate ways. This function involves SEQUENCING and PROCESSING the information.

5. Divided Attention
Bring able to attend to several things at the same time without getting distracted is key to keeping all the balls in the air that modern life demands of us. The child must remember his study-buddy's phone number, focus on his internet project, and listen with acknowledgement to his mother asking him to call his father in for dinner. "Although there is a solid core of scientific evidence indicating that speaking and listening have a biological foundation, the human capacity for reading and writing does not." (Maureen Argus, The ADHD Challenge March/April 2000) In order for a child to speak, read, listen to the teachers, or write, that child must have developed the ability to pay attention in all ways. Children with ADHD and many with learning disabilities related to cognitive deficiencies have attentional problems. Without proper attention, reading and writing cannot be assumed.

There are 5 senses (i.e., hearing, vision, touch, smell, and taste) that need to be in attention at all times. However, most often in school the child must rely on her ability to hear and see. When we talk about a child's auditory or visual processing skills, we are talking about a child's ability to use all of the above 5 attention functions in order to understand, think critically, and to produce results. This is processing.

Getting all the input out (whether it's on paper or in an oral report) is not enough. The output must be in the right order. This is sequencing.


When parents of ADHD children are told that their children cannot sequence or process information well enough, they often find that the schools are not equipped to offer direct training in those areas. Increasingly, private centers are offering direct and special training.

Children benefit with sensory-integration tasks on a mini trampoline or a balance board so that their bodies can learn to function better and more efficiently with their brain. In this way, they "tune up" the senses and how they work together, and, thus, the children become better at processing and sequencing data (whether it relates to school work or social skills). The vestibular part of the brain is responsible for this integration.

Workbooks (paper and pencil exercises), based on the Structure of Intellect (SOI) model of training intelligence, are used to teach processing skills (e.g. comprehension and memory) while at the same time training sequencing (e.g. systems thinking).

Vision therapy and auditory processing training is accomplished through the use of computerized programs such as Earobics and Fast ForWord.

The end result is increased attention in all of the above 5 ways as the mind and body are trained to coordinate at a higher level of functioning.

Dr. Valerie Maxwell is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of ADD SOI Counseling and Testing  in Manhattan Beach, California. Dr. Maxwell has also been a speaker at a number of  C.H.A.D.D. meetings.

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