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Learning and concentration

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Learning is continuous

We may think about learning as something that children or young people do at school or college but we learn right through life. Learning isn’t just about what we know. It can also be about:

  • What we believe (eg faith).
  • What we value (eg being kind to others).
  • What we like or enjoy (eg tomato soup or going to the cinema).
  • The skills we have (eg swimming or woodwork).
  • How to act in different places (eg going to the shops, sitting in class).
  • Coping with everyday life (eg getting ready for school, making lunch).
  • Coping with events that happen less often (eg. hospital visits, a bereavement).

Learning is gradual and happens over time. It is complex and uses lots of the brain’s resources and processes. You can read more about how learning happens by clicking here.

This section looks at what an observer might see and why they might think a child or young person with hydrocephalus has difficulty with learning and concentration.

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Comparison with peers

At school children learn in groups and are often matched with others who seem to be learning the same sort of things at the same rate. When compared with their classmates a child or young person with hydrocephalus might progress at a different speed. Watching children socialising or at play might show that a young person with hydrocephalus is less included or doesn’t cope well with fast paced, changing situations.

A child with hydrocephalus who isn’t progressing at the same pace as classmates may have issues with the way the brain works (processes) during learning. Children with hydrocephalus may learn at a different pace for a variety of reasons.

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Learning seems slower

The brain needs to bring existing knowledge and new information together to learn. You can read more about how learning happens here. For now it is enough to say that the brain needs to do a lot of work: a lot of processing. Hydrocephalus can have an effect on the brain’s processes so that they may not work as well as they should.

Because of changes in the brain, processing can be slower. This might mean that it may take longer for all or some of the stages of learning to happen.

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Lots of repetition is needed

Hydrocephalus changes the brain’s way of working (processing). Not only does this make processing slower (see above) it can mean that it is harder to make new links or connections. Connections link different bits of information together and this happens as we learn.

Repeating things helps to strengthen connections. It’s a bit like creating a path in wet sand: you need to keep going over it or it will start to disappear. This is why it can take us a little while to remember something we haven’t thought of in a while (like someone’s name): the path (or connection) needs to be found again. A child or young person with hydrocephalus may need to repeat something more times than usual to create working paths or connections. They may need to ‘overlearn’.

Example 1

Susie, aged 7, always has difficulty keeping up in class. Not just with class work but at getting packed up or ready to go out at break. When she first started school it took Susie a while to get into the class routines. This made Susie quite anxious and she’d get upset sometimes.

Susie’s teacher and the classroom assistant know that Susie needs a bit longer to do things and often needs more reminders than the other children. They’ve also noticed that she needs more practice to learn something new.

All of these things have been put into Susie’s learning plan. This means she gets a bit more time to get organised for break and lunch. Susie likes working in groups but the classroom assistant always spends time with Susie before and after group work. They go over new material and Susie gets to practice it during her one to one time.

Susie can work better with groups once she’s had the one to one time. She also benefits from doing things over and over again. Susie may not work at the same pace as many of her classmates but she feels fairly confident and happy that she is doing the best she can do.

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Concentrating is difficult/poor concentration

When someone talks about poor concentration they usually mean that someone has difficulty staying on task. They may be easily distracted so don’t get work finished. Or, it might mean that they don’t seem to listen to or act on things that are said to them.

‘Concentrating’ is about paying attention to the right things at the right time. It’s also about paying attention for long enough to:

  • Take in all the information that is needed to complete a task.
  • See the task through to the end.

As well as paying attention, the person may need to keep different pieces of information in mind to help them concentrate. The first bits of information need to be held until all the information is received or a task is complete (even just writing instructions down). A child or young person with hydrocephalus may have difficulty holding information. So by the time a long instruction is finished, the beginning has been forgotten. This means they won’t be able to complete the piece of work. In this case, telling someone to ‘pay attention’ will make no difference, they simply can’t hold information in mind long enough to use it.

Example 2

Chris’ teacher was worried that Chris (aged 8) seemed to have problems getting his work finished. The class always went over new things lots of times in different ways but Chris just didn’t seem to pick things up as quickly as some of the others.

Chris’ teacher asked the classroom assistant to spend a bit of time with Chris. They realised that Chris quite often got distracted or seemed to lose track part way through a task. He was often quite ‘fidgety’ too. Once he’d lost track, he wouldn’t know where or how to get started again.

Instead of long instructions or a full worksheet, Chris now gets his work given to him in small ‘chunks’. These are written or photocopied for him. Chris completes one section of work then collects the next bit from his teacher or classroom assistant.

Chris manages much better with small pieces of work. Being allowed to move from his desk now and again also seems to help. Chris’s teacher finds that doing small bits at a time is helping Chris to pick-up new things better than he was doing before. It has also helped with his self-esteem as he is able to complete each piece of work rather than feeling like he’s falling behind his classmates.

Young people with hydrocephalus may struggle if left to deal with lots of information at one time, eg if they are just given a text book. Highlighting the bits they need to pay attention to, or giving a shortened or ‘abridged’ version may help the young person to focus on and learn key pieces of information.

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Easily distracted

Being able to focus on (attend to) one thing for a while is something children get better at as they grow. Most children will learn not to react to distractions when they are supposed to be concentrating on what Mum or Dad say, for example. Distractions could be anything that ‘grabs’ someone’s attention, like:

  • Suddenly hearing a favourite TV programme starting or knowing it starts in 5 minutes.
  • Looking forward to seeing their best friend after school.
  • Noticing a toy on the floor that they’d really like to play with.
  • Remembering a great action scene from the film they watched last night.
  • Thinking about how they’re going to get to the next level on their favourite game.

Sometimes thoughts just pop into our heads whether we want them to or not. Most of the time we can work out whether we should stop (inhibit) the thought. A child or young person with hydrocephalus may not be able to stop themselves from being distracted by a thought or desire. They can’t stop or inhibit it. When this happens, they might also find it difficult to switch back to what they were supposed to be doing. They might get ‘stuck’ on whatever it is they want to do, right at that moment.

Example 3

Mum often found it frustrating when she needed Beth to listen to instructions. Beth often ‘drifted off’ or sometimes she would interrupt and change the subject. It often meant that Beth didn’t take in the information she was supposed to.

Mum realised that she needed to do things a bit differently when she had something important to tell Beth. She hoped Beth would like it if she made special ‘Mum and Beth’ times. She agreed with Beth that this would be when they both had time to talk and share things. To make it different, Mum tries to:

  • Set aside time in a quiet place.
  • Get eye contact and start a sentence with Beth’s name when she needs to know that Beth is really paying attention.
  • Try and keep things short and to the point (when she needs Beth to take it in).
  • Try and make it a ‘discussion’ instead of a ‘tell’ conversation. This might mean asking Beth questions or asking for her opinion about something.
  • Checking Beth has heard and understood by asking her questions.
  • Mixing in time for Beth to talk about what’s on her mind.

They don’t always have time to do this but Mum tries to make sure it happens often enough.

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Want more ideas?

If you think your child might need some extra support in their learning it’s always a good idea to talk things through with their teacher or guidance teacher (at High School). If you’re unsure about doing this or would like a bit of support and advice, you might find it helpful to look at the Enquire site.

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