Using mirrors may help ADHD kids retain focus in school-related tasks:
One of the major goals of this blog is to examine as many different treatment methods as possible for ADHD, with the hopes of informing individuals with the disorder and parents and teachers of ADHD children to allow them to make the best possible decision for them and their child. This search has brought me to some interesting treatment methods, including the one described below. We will be examining the theory and potential effectiveness for the use of mirrors in treating ADHD. The majority of this information comes from a 1998 study done by Zentall, Hall and Lee, entitled Attentional Focus of Students with Hyperactivity During a Word-Search Task.
Please note: Psychology and behavioral modification strategies are not my personal forte, this blogger's strengths typically lie in the chemical, genetic and physiological aspects of ADHD and treatment of the disorder. Nevertheless, I was so intrigued by this paper, I have decided to give my best stab at reviewing the study and explaining the effects and overall practicality of its findings.
Some major highlights of the study are as follows:
- Earlier studies suggest attempts to regulate ADHD behaviors using self-control methods often fail. This is likely due to a number of factors, such as the relative differences in ADHD children to be motivated by delayed rewards or gratification (although I personally have seen several cases to the contrary. At my school, we offer a special ski trip which must be earned by behavior, and a number of kids, including those with ADHD are able to modify their behavior to remarkable degrees to earn a trip five weeks away. Nevertheless, rewards of less magnitude, especially ones further down the road have often been largely ineffective, at least based on my personal experiences). However, physiological studies do suggest some sort of absence or difference in the intrinsic reward system and motivation in ADHD children.
- Instead, ADHD children typically respond better to external stimuli, either good or bad. In other words, a child with ADHD will often show an improvement in response if he or she can see his or her behaviors or actions partly regulated from an outside source.
- The use of mirrors is geared towards this externally-driven stimulus method, by allowing the ADHD child to observe or see themselves from a third-person perspective. They are essentially taking cues from an external source in lieu of self-regulating their behaviors. In other words, they may perceive reinforcements better from the "child in the mirror" than internal reinforcements from themselves.
- The study even hints that children with ADHD may have a type of delay in the development of self-awareness. While this blogger's opinion is currently neutral on the validity of this assertion, the fact that neuro-developmental and cognitive delays are so prevalent in children diagnosed with ADHD, it is entirely possible that the rewiring and brain maturation processes responsible for developing a mature sense of "self" may also be behind the curve age-wise in ADHD children. If this is the case, then we would expect the mirror trick to lose effectiveness as the child ages and finally develops this sense of "self".
- Boosting states of arousal, including through the use of emotional states has been shown to increase a child's attentional focus. Several theories for hyperactivity, such as those by Zentall, support this assertion, claiming that excessive activity (beyond the perceived age and gender-appropriate amounts) may be a way for the child to achieve these heightened levels of arousal necessary for the performance of cognitive tasks, including school work.
If this is the case, attempting to merely calm this hyperactivity via behavioral or pharmaceutical treatment may, in essence, be detrimental to the ADHD child, as it robs him or her from achieving a state of arousal necessary to achieve the desired state of focus. This may even play a significant role as to why a number of children with ADHD are predominantly kinesthetic learners (as opposed to the more "passive" auditory of visual learning styles). **Please not that the previous two italicized statements are simply personal opinions and musings of the blogger at the moment, however, note the potential effects that medication may have on this mirror treatment at the bottom of this post.
- Numerous adult studies confirm what may seem intrinsically obvious (but relevant to our current discussion): the presence of external "observers", including an audience, cameras, or even mirrors, significantly increase attentional focus (and subsequent self-control) in the individual being observed. However, limited study has been done on this phenomena in children. Nevertheless, it appears to make inherent sense that a child who is under the "watchful eye" of someone (even if that someone is their personal reflection in a mirror), may exhibit higher levels of attentional behaviors.
- The study highlights a work by Carver and Scheier called Attention and Self-regulation: A control therapy approach to regulating human behavior (1981) in which the use of mirrors increased the effectiveness of academic-related methods such as copying letters (which has practical uses in note-taking), persistence in problem-solving tasks (which has direct uses in academic areas such as math and science), and the extent of response generation exercises (which have direct implications in brainstorming activities and subjects such as creative writing assignments). Thus, the possible benefits of mirror usage are far reaching for the ADHD child.
- The experiment comprised of giving both ADHD and non-ADHD children a word puzzle (which was unsolvable, as a handful of the words the child was instructed to find did not exist in the puzzle. The children were notified of this fact, but were not notified on the number of words that were missing. When the child believe that he/she had found all of the words in the word search, he/she notified the experimenter and stopped the task. In other words, this study was tailored to track attention and persistence for a particular task). Both the ADHD and non-ADHD children worked on the puzzle in either one of two conditions: in front of a mirror (approximately 2 feet by 3 feet in size, on a wall in front of the table where the child was performing the word-finding task), or without a mirror.
- ADHD children showed noticeable improvements when working in front of the mirrors (i.e. finding more words). In contrast, the non-ADHD children who worked in front of mirrors were either unaffected or showed decreased levels of performance on the word finding task.
- Additionally, the study examined when a child looked up at the mirror or ignored it. It appears that looking up at the mirror improved the performance of the ADHD group but either did not effect or decreased the effectiveness of the non-ADHD'ers. Therefore perception of being "watched" appeared to improve the focus of the ADHD group, but may have overwhelmed the non-ADHD group. Interestingly, several of the ADHD children who were placed in front of the mirror but did not look up at it had significantly lower levels of performance than those that did look at the mirror. The study suggested that these children may have already developed strong "internalizing" behaviors of self-focus, such as vivid daydreaming.
- These findings may be interesting, due to a number of reasons. In previous posts, we have recently alluded to the fact that a particular region of the brain called the basal ganglia, which essentially governs how fast an individual "idles" (i.e. a "type A personality" such as a workaholic, obsessive-compulsive individual typically has higher basal ganglia activity, while individuals with ADHD often have lower levels of activity in this brain region).
The basal ganglia activity is also increased when there's a sudden change in external stimuli, especially when the sudden change is perceived as dangerous or harmful. Under conditions such as these, the basal ganglia can become so overwhelmed, that the individual temporarily "freezes". Under a highly unpredictable or stressful situation (such as witnessing a traffic accident, crime or heart attack), ADHD individuals are often the first ones to react to the situation. It is believed that this is due to the fact that they have lower baseline levels of activity than their non-ADHD counterparts, and therefore have more capacity to accommodate to this new-found stress before either freezing up or becoming overwhelmed.
Tying this in with our mirror discussion, the difference in response to the feeling of being "observed" by the mirror, may be due, at least in part, to heightened basal ganglia activity, which may begin to overwhelm the non-ADHD group but help optimized the basal ganglia activity in the ADHD group of children. This assertion remains the blogger's personal hypothesis, and was not mentioned in the study, however, I believe that there is sufficient groundwork to warrant a mention of this possibility.
- The results of the word-finding task may extend into other academic areas as well. The authors cited another study in which mirrors used as part of a larger classroom setup experiment (such as music, color settings, activity breaks, etc.) significantly improved performance, accuracy and completion on math assignments.
- Finally, there was a small side-study involving children who did not fit into either the ADHD or non-ADHD group (often due to medication). It appears that for the medicated group, the presence of the mirror was actually detrimental to performing the word finding task at hand. Therefore, the combination of mirror and medication for ADHD, especially in the academic or classroom setting, needs to be further investigated.