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How to win the battle for our children's attention?

Perhaps the proposed decline in childhood behaviour shares its roots with the rapid rise of the controversial and contentious psychological condition known as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

Mariam raises her voice, an instinctive but vain attempt to drown out the extra-curricular conversation disrupting her classroom. She speaks urgently, in over-punctuated utterances, hoping that her hyper-animated delivery will divert student eyes and thumbs away from their clandestine (under-the-desk) BlackBerry activities. Her cause is hopeless. In the battle for young hearts and minds, she fails to capture even their eyes and ears.

This could be a classroom anywhere in the world, it just happens to be in the UAE. One recently proposed solution to the disrupted classroom is the introduction of CCTV in schools. An article in The National last month, All UAQ schools to have cameras, detailed the plans by education officials in the Emirate to use video at the start of the next academic year to confront declining standards of behaviour. This will undoubtedly make the identification of misdemeanours easier, and the age-old protestation of "it wasn't me" verifiable in glorious Technicolor, or at least, in black and white. The practice may even deter objectionable classroom behaviour. But as many psychologists are fond of saying, this treats only the symptoms, not the cause.

A contemporary - if not timeless - global lamentation is that "kids these days" are out of control, no respect for teachers, dressing inappropriately, disruptive at worst, and inattentive at best. This is obviously a generalisation and a caricature. There are and always will be good pupils. For some, this perceived behavioural degeneration even has eschatological significance; in other words, it's always been seen as a sign of the end of time. An oft-quoted Islamic tradition suggests, in the last days "children shall be filled with rage".

Perhaps the proposed decline in childhood behaviour shares its roots with the rapid rise of the controversial and contentious psychological condition known as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The condition is characterised by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattentiveness; it's hard to describe the symptoms of ADHD without at least half the audience thinking - "I have that". For example, one diagnostic symptom is: "Often loses things needed for tasks and activities (such as toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools)" or, "Often talks excessively", and who hasn't met at least one person who: "Often has trouble waiting one's turn." In ADHD however it's really about the frequency, severity, and the extent to which such behaviours interfere with home, school and social life. ADHD is classed as a disruptive behaviour disorder, alongside Oppositional Defiant and Conduct Disorder, both of which are also alarmingly common in children experiencing ADHD.

The symptoms of ADHD are viewed as being on a continuum with "normality". Where we choose to draw the line between normality and disorder is socially determined. If you follow the North American diagnostic system, a diagnosis of ADHD is far more likely, than when applying the international diagnostic system, commonly used in Europe. The data suggest the diagnosis of ADHD has increased steadily over the past few decades. Perhaps this increase in cases is part of a more general, societal increase in the disorder's constituent symptoms: inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.

The significant increase in ADHD diagnoses, however, is a hotly debated issue. Some suggest physician over-diagnosis, the vested interests of drug-companies, and the "psycho-pathologising" of childhood as key factors in the diagnostic-spike witnessed in the past few decades. However, alongside over-diagnosis, and greater awareness/reporting of ADHD, there may also be environmental factors implicated in the disorder's rising incidence. Diet must also be examined as a potential cause.

In a landmark study published in the Lancet, in 2007, a rigorously controlled double-blind experiment demonstrated a definitive link between certain food additives and hyperactivity in young children. The findings prompted the British government to intervene, and the UK's Food Regulatory Agency encouraged food manufactures to refrain from including the problematic ingredients in their products, with an eventual phase-out scheduled for 2009. Similarly, the European Commission stipulated that any product containing the hyperactivity inducing ingredients must carry a warning label by 2010.

Perhaps in addition to, or even instead of CCTV in the classroom, we would do well to consider the school food environment. It may also help to actively promote a greater awareness of the cognitive and behavioural implications of certain dietary items (a vibrant research area). Pacifying the disrupted classroom, and cultivating attentive, proactive students is vitally important for the UAE as it makes rapid progress developing the knowledge economy.

Justin Thomas is a psychologist in the department of natural sciences and public health at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

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