There is great excitement about the potential of new technologies to help kids with ADHD. Some of these tools are popular technologies such as apps that help with relaxation and emotional regulation or video games that promote problem-solving. Many innovative brain-training tools, often described as “neurotechnologies,” have been designed to improve executive functions, working memory, slow processing, and attention skills. Some of the buzz derives from flashy new technologies, but more often it is due to the engaging, personalized, and adaptively challenging nature of the new tools. Some of the excitement is also a result of technologies that are overhyped and oversold.
Critics view most of these neurotechnologies as improving “game-trained,” but not necessarily broader, real-world skills. Users get better at mastering the skills practiced with the tool, but not necessarily at related real-world skills. For example, memory trainers help you to remember more things in the training program and similar game-like tasks. You might even remember a bit more in similar neuropsychological tests of memory that are often administered as proof of the efficacy. But when these new memory skills are applied to something different, they show little improvement. These criticisms have some merit. We have a long way to go to make these neurotechnologies a standard intervention for kids and adults with ADHD. However, it is best to view current brain training technologies in its experimental phase. The reason that technology won’t help your kid with ADHD is often due to the misapplication of these tools.
I want to describe five reasons that technology won’t help your kid with ADHD, but then help you to see five ways it can be made helpful.
- The goal of generalization, or far transfer (the ability to use a skill learned in one setting in a different setting, so that people are fully able to use the skills they have learned in one environment in other settings, with other people, and with different materials), is very difficult and does not readily occur in most other learning environments – for example, in a classroom or via psychotherapy. Practice alone is often not enough to know how and when to apply a skill.
- Many brain-training programs focus on one narrow skill in order to demonstrate clinical effectiveness. While this approach is useful for studies, abilities such as attention or memory are not simple skills. Most skills, such as sustaining attention to a classroom lecture, are based on a combination of factors such as energy level, working memory, interest in the topic, the presenter’s skill, and the ability to ignore distractions.
- Many programs underestimate the amount of training needed to make a skill automatic and therefore to free up other cognitive resources for problem-solving. In addition, few ongoing practice or maintenance strategies are built into brain training. It’s like training for a marathon, running it, and never training again, then expecting to run a marathon a year later.
- Improving a skill requires sustained effort. The motivation and focus engendered for current brain-training programs are assumed to be strong because they are done on a screen, but most of these programs are not much fun or sometimes not engaging enough to produce the necessary amount of practice to improve a skill.
- Having a new skill does not ensure that one knows how, when, and where to apply it. Most brain-training programs operate in isolation of the real world.
Now that you know why technology will often not help your kid with ADHD, I want to tell you what you can do to make it a powerful tool for your child.
- Choose carefully. Find a program that fixes a problem and addresses a weakness. For example, if following directions is a struggle, determine if your child needs to put more energy into paying attention to what he hears or if he attends well, but readily forgets. Based on this observation, choose a tool that helps with auditory processing or with memory.
- Make sure it is fun if you want your child to put in the necessary practice. It’s not good enough just because it’s delivered on a screen or has some game-like features. Think about what your kid is already doing on screens. While most of the current neurotechnologies will not be as much fun as playing Minecraft or watching YouTube videos, there are some newer ones that understand the commercial competition.
- Broaden the training. Work on recognizing and practicing related skills, as real-world applications will not always be the same. Consider it as you might learning an athletic skill. For example, when learning to hit my forehand in tennis, I repeated a basic stroke for days and then began to try it with different paces, heights, speed, and spins. This slightly varied practice helped me to apply the training to an actual game of tennis.
- Find complementary activities that practice and use the skill. One of the shortcomings of many of the neurotechnologies is that they are beholden to the scientific method in order to gather evidence for their product. But since parents, educators, and kids are more interested in something that helps, combining a few tools may be best. Think about this as how one might combine distance running with flexibility training to make your child a better soccer player.
- Use the LW4K method of Detect, Reflect, and Connect. This strategy helps with all types of learning. Learn how to identify (detect) real-world situations when you use the trained skill, consider (reflect) how it is helpful, and then apply (connect) the trained skill to new activities.