September is National ADD/ADHD Awareness Month. It’s also back to school month for kids across the country. As a result, much of the national dialogue has focused on the needs of school aged children who struggle with attention and focus. But, ADD/ADHD don’t just go away on its own.  After students graduate, the same struggles follow them into the workplace. That’s bad news for employees and employers alike. But what’s the solution? Ignore it? Make allowances? Or overcome it?     

Kelly* will be the first to admit she’s got Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). She jokes about it with her coworkers at the magazine where she works as an advertising sales rep and falls back on it when she forgets to get her sales contracts in on time. Her boss, Marie*, who has kids, is well aware that ADD is real; she’s seen it among her teen’s friends. Besides, she’d hate to lose Kelly as an employee. “She does, after all, sell a lot of ads,” says Marie. “She just isn’t very organized when it comes to paperwork.”

Marie is like many bosses with employees who suffer from ADD. She’s so focused on the part of the job that Kelly’s doing right (sales) that she’s letting the other responsibilities of the job (paperwork) slide. The argument is that Kelly is still making money for the company. That logic is flawed though - Kelly is also losing money for the company. After all, who has to call Kelly with reminders to get her contracts in on time? Who has to follow up with clients when Kelly forgets and goes out of town? Who ends up picking up the slack when Kelly says, “I’m finishing up another sale. Can you fill out that paperwork for me?” Other employees are taking time away from THEIR work to finish Kelly’s loose ends. Not to mention, because Kelly is so bad with details, who pays for an ad when it runs – but the client refuses to pay because Kelly forgot to get the contract finalized?  Not Kelly.

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About 8 million adults display the symptoms of ADD, which typically show themselves to others in the form of disorganization, an inability to pay attention, and an inability to effectively multitask.

Although we tend to refer to attention as a single catchall term, in fact, there are three different types of attention: sustained attention, divided attention and selective attention. Sustained attention allows someone to stay on task for a long period of time, selective attention prevents someone from being easily distracted, and divided attention allows someone to multitask.

For someone with ADD, the frontal cortex of the brain has more difficulty utilizing glucose and has less blood flow than the brain of someone without ADD. The frontal cortex inhibits impulses, initiates behavior, and controls working memory. When underactive, the ability to screen out irrelevant stimuli is reduced, and the individual pays attention to EVERYTHING. This results in poor regulation of the motivation system and makes staying on task difficult without immediate rewards.

“Video games provide rapid, constant feedback and stimulation and tend to be very engaging for people with ADD,” explains Dr. Russell Griffiths, a Licensed Educational Psychologist. “Neuroscience shows that by targeting and stimulating the underactive region of the brain responsible for the characteristics of inattention, attention can be strengthened. Therefore, the correct approach (to ADD/ADHD) is the opposite of the usual accommodations used (in the workplace) – like removing distractions, reducing workload, or isolating employees into quiet areas.”

So, if accommodating ADD employees’ weaknesses isn’t the answer, what is? While many might be quick to answer Ritalin, Adderol or a host of other common attention medicines, there is an alternative to the traditional prescription pad – brain training!

Also known as “cognitive skills training,” brain training is one of the fastest-growing methodologies in the education – and business – sector. Research over the last 30 years has conclusively demonstrated the neuroplasticity of the brain. In a nutshell, the research proves the brain is not fixed, but is capable of change at any age. This is good news for people of all ages who struggle with ADD/ADHD. But how exactly does it work?

 “Cognitive skills are the underlying tools that enable us to successfully focus, think, prioritize, plan, understand, visualize, remember and create useful associations, and solve problems,” explains Dr. Ken Gibson, author of “Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart in your Child.” “A person’s cognitive skill set is made up of several cognitive skills including auditory processing, visual processing, short and long-term memory, comprehension, logic and reasoning, and attention skills. In people with ADD or ADHD, the weakest cognitive skill is attention, although other areas tend to suffer as well.”

Adults with ADD can see significant improvement in all three forms of attention after undergoing intense specialized brain training like the cognitive skills training program at LearningRx Warren. Unlike tutoring, which focuses on specific academic topics, such as math or history, cognitive skills training pinpoints a person’s weakest cognitive skills and strengthens them through specific exercises.

One exercise might include having an employee work to solve a specific problem while the trainer tries to distract him.  Another might include sessions where an employee is trained to multitask. At LearningRx, the results are measurable because there are a series of evaluations before, during and after the multi-week training program. For many, LearningRx brain training enables them to reduce or even eliminate their dependence on medicine to control the effects of ADD/ADHD. 

Tanya Mitchell, Director of Training for LearningRx, is quick to point out that cognitive skills training isn’t just for those with ADD. “We’ve trained people who are already high-functioning, but want to improve in certain areas, such as memory, processing speed or reading. While companies may originally see a need for cognitive skills training for one particular employee, the results might lead them to later train everyone at the company. Boosting employee performance is the best way to increase productivity and therefore revenue.”

*Names changed for anonymity.