The Effects of Visual Stimulation on the Mathematics Performance of Children with Attention Deficit Disorder/hyperactivity Disorder

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT Two studies evaluated the effects of within-task and competing visual stimulation on the mathematics performance and behavior of 17 children, ages 8 to 14, with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In the first study, students with ADHD were exposed to both high and low within-task stimulation during a simple mathematics task. Results showed that participants completed more problems, completed more problems correctly, and were less active in the high within-task stimulation condition. In the second study, participants were exposed to both high and low levels of competing stimulation during the same high within-task stimulation condition that resulted in better performance in the first study. Results showed that participants completed fewer problems in the high-competing stimulation condition than in the low. The results of these studies provided additional support for a more contextual view of ADHD that more fully accounts for within-task and competing stimulation effects.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often demonstrate significant educational (Zentall, 1993) and behavioral deficits (Barkley, DuPaul, & McMurray, 1990). Estimates of the prevalence of ADHD suggest that 3% to 7% of school-aged children have the disorder, which is characterized by excessive levels of motor activity, impulsivity, inattention, and an inclination to seek immediate reinforcement (Barkley, 1998; Douglas, 1985). Psychoeducational research in ADHD has generally been conducted under one of two stimulation-based paradigms.

Two Models of ADHD Research

Early researchers had hypothesized that hyperactivity was a result of excess environmental stimulation (Cruickshank, Bentzen, Ratzenburg, & Tannhauser, 1961; Strauss & Lehtinen, 1947). This stimulus "overflow" or overarousal model proposed that excessive behavior (i.e., hyperactivity) occurred when stimulus input surpassed processing capacity. After this critical threshold had been surpassed, behavior increased as a linear function of stimulation. This model suggested that children with ADHD have a decreased level of processing capacity and are unable to dampen stimulation as well as their peers. Although it is still widely accepted by many applied professionals, subsequent research has failed to support overarousal as a tenable theory of ADHD (for review see Zentall & Zentall, 1983).

The Optimal Stimulation Model

Based on the optimal stimulation theory (e.g., Leuba, 1955), a second theory posits that hyperactivity results from decreased levels of effective environmental stimulation (Zentall, 1975). According to the optimal stimulation theory, organisms work to maintain optimal levels of stimulation through instrumental activity, much like the body works to maintain homeostasis by regulating levels of heat, food, and water. Zentall suggests that individuals with ADHD require more stimulation and novelty than so-called "normal" individuals to achieve and maintain an optimal level of arousal in a given context. The behavior of children with ADHD can be "normalized" (a) by allowing the child to self-generate stimulation (e.g., through activity, attention directed toward novelty); (b) through the use of stimulant medication, which reduces the need for the child to self-generate stimulation; or (c) by increasing the level of task or environmental stimulation (Zentall, 1993).

Studies assessing the effects of environmental stimulation on the behavior of individuals with ADHD have shown that color added to the environment or embedded within simple attentional tasks results in decreased activity levels and enhanced performance and persistence (Zentall, 1986; Zentall & Dwyer, 1989; Zentall, Falkenberg, & Smith, 1985; Zentall & Meyer, 1987; Zentall & Zentall, 1976). For example, Zentall (1986) examined the effects of within-task stimulation on an attentional task (i.e., adding color to slides on a visual continuous performance task) and found that the students with ADHD made more errors and were more active than comparisons in the low stimulation condition, whereas no differences between groups were found in the high stimulation condition. …


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