Thursday, September 13, 2012

Where's Waldo?

Reading is a complex behavior and a dyslexic diagnosis can mean a variety of visual-spatial attention problems. So what signs can you watch  for in a preschooler to catch dyslexia early?

Try doing what University of Padua psychologist, Andrea Facoetti, did in a study of children ages 4 to 7 years old. Ask them to name colors, remember a list of objects, complete a Where's Waldo type puzzle. If they have more difficulty with these simple tasks than seems normal you may want to approach their teacher and request some formal testing. Here is what they will look for during the tests. The ability to distribute visual attention across the field to search for a target, the time required for attention to recover from being directed towards a target, and the number of objects to which attention can be simultaneously allocated. Sounds complicated I know but put simply they want to see if your child can find a target object in a visually stimulating area, like the page of a book with text and illustration. How quickly they can recover from a distraction while trying to concentrate and how many items the child can keep track of visually.

Dyslexia seems to not be a problem with reading specifically but with a deficit in visual attention. Dyslexic children may find it difficult to filter out unnecessary cues when trying to complete a task, whether it is reading a book or solving a visual puzzle.

Ms. Facoetti suggests that children who are diagnosed with dyslexia may be better served with treatments addressing the root problems of visual attention than the conventional phonics training that has been used for nearly three decades. Treatment that hones their ability to identify and pay attention to relevant parts of text or illustrations show better results.

So what can you do to help hone your young child's visual attention skills? First, before we can expect a child to sit down and look at our materials, we need to make sure that the child has been given opportunities to participate in sensory activities that will cater to his sensory needs. For example, play with some play dough or in the sandbox before you begin. Similarly, if there are any factors in the environment that the child is hypersensitive to, we need to try and eliminate them. Quite and calm areas work best. Second, choose a spot where you will teach the child every day for a short period of time. It could be a particular table in one quiet corner of the house. Ensure that this space is free from other distractions.This familiar location will cue the child that it is time to concentrate.  Lastly, try these tricks: Place the learning materials under the lamp. This will focus the attention of the child to the learning materials. Reading and writing, often require them to look at the whole and follow words and illustrations in a sequence. Thus, the child will need to be introduced to activities that require him to scan the whole area, follow lines and also to interpret the whole picture. Some examples are dot to dot activities, marking off a certain letter on a page and interpreting cartoon illustrations. Try tracing patterns or outlining simple pictures. Stacking cups in either towers or pyramids, sorting activities like sorting coins or different color buttons. Any type of puzzle is beneficial especially those that need to match a picture up to completed. For an easy make-at-home activity try this--Draw a heavy black line on a piece of paper, then give your child some dried beans or buttons and have them place the beans side by side across the line.

Finally, remember that the ability of children to pay attention is quite limited early in development and will increase with age. Attention skills will improve and allow for better on-task focus and improved performance as your child grows. Little is known, however, about the factors that promote this development and its exact time line. So be patient with your child. Assist them but don't push.

Michele Schumann
Children's Librarian

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