Tutorial #2: Self-Monitoring of Attention

Self-monitoring is a procedure in which an individual monitors his or her own behavior. In learning disabilities, it has been applied successfully to many different behaviors, but perhaps the most extensive work on using it has been in the area of attention-to-task behavior.

In Teaching Tutorial # 2, our experts on self-monitoring of attention, Daniel P. Hallahan and Kimberly G. Hudson, provide a detailed explanation about what self-monitoring is and how to use it.

This Teaching Tutorial offers:

Online tutorial covering:

  1. What is self-monitoring of attention?
  2. How do we know that self-monitoring is effective?
  3. When should one use self-monitoring of attention?
  4. What does one need to prepare to use self-monitoring of attention?
  5. How do I implement self-monitoring of attention in my class?
  6. How does one know that using self-monitoring of attention is working?
  7. Where can one get additional information about self-monitoring of attention?

In addition, TeachingLD.org has special resources for self-monitoring of attention, including self-monitoring cards and a self-monitoring audio file for cuing. Teachers can download and duplicate these materials when they use self-monitoring of attention with their students.

Additional resources on self-monitoring of attention can be found here.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Hello everyone, this is Dr. Hal McGrady, the Executive Director of the Division for Learning Disabilities, DLD. I’m pleased to be with you today to bring you another in a series of web casts produced by DLD. The purpose of these discussions is to provide teachers with proven techniques for teaching students with learning disabilities. We’re extremely fortunate to have with us today an expert on the subject of self-monitoring of attention. Dr. Daniel Hallahan is a distinguished professor at the University of Virginia. He and his colleagues have conducted some exciting research on this subject and have published a booklet for teachers. You’ll find an extended teaching tutorial in another section of this web site. That tutorial provides a detailed account of techniques that you can use to help students to improve their attention skills. Well Dan, welcome to the DLD audio web cast.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Thanks Hal, I’m glad to be here.

Dr. Hal McGrady: We know that students with learning disabilities often display attentional problems, but what are the traditional methods used to increase attentive behavior in students with learning disabilities? And what have been some of the pros and cons of using such methods?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Well some of the most common methods that have been used in the past, and still continue to be used with kids with attention problems, are stimulus reduction and behavior modification, and of course medication. The stimulus reduction techniques are where kids are placed in cubicles, or in some kind of environmental situation where they are shielded from extraneous distractions in their environment. And of course the traditional behavior modification of the use of rewards and punishments for on and off task behavior, and then we’ve got medication, which is of course prescribed by physicians. One of the–and all those techniques are effective, in particular medication can be very effective with kids who have bona fide attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But one of the drawbacks to all of those techniques is that they are externally imposed on the child. They’re all techniques that don’t require all that much active participation on the part of the kid, and so it can, perhaps, unwittingly reinforce their passive learning style and they’re propensity to have an external locus of control or to feel like they are being controlled by external agents rather than taking control of the learning situation themselves.

Dr. Hal McGrady: You’ve mentioned the ADD or ADHD child so this is the kind of child that might benefit from the techniques we’re going to talk about?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Oh, definitely, yeah. In fact, there’s quite a bit–as you know there’s quite a bit of overlap between the categories of learning disabilities and ADHD. A lot of kids with LD have attention problems and vice versa.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Well I know as I’ve been reading about this topic a little bit I find there’s some confusing terminology. I know the attempt here is to have the child gain self control, but I also hear them talk about self regulation, and then you’re self monitoring. Are these interchangeable terms? Maybe you can help me unscramble these terms.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Well self-monitoring is a particular technique which falls under the general rubric of cognitive behavior modification. With your traditional behavior modification you’re attempting to modify a child’s behavior with a manipulation of rewards and reinforcements. With cognitive behavior modification what you’re trying to do is to modify the child’s behavior, but through his or her own thought processes. Though self monitoring and things like self monitoring and self instruction are more of a cognitive behavior approach in that they’re trying to get the child to become more of an active participant in the treatment, and for the child to start thinking about what it is he’s doing or she’s doing while performing academic tasks.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Well this brings up an obvious key question then Dan and that is, perhaps you could answer what is self-monitoring? That is, could you give us a description of the particular self-monitoring procedure that you and your colleagues have found so useful?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Sure. The self-monitoring, basically, has two components, one is self-evaluation and the second component is self-recording. And self monitoring can be used in a variety of different situations, but the one we’ve used it most often with, and which we think it’s the easiest use and been the most successful in carrying out, is in seat work situations. So the typical situation would be where you have a child who’s got an academic task, of say a list of arithmetic problems to work on, and it’s a situation where the child is–already knows how to do the task that you–the problems that you’re having him do, but he needs, as many LD kids do, sort of a drill and practice on them. He needs to get them to become more automatic. And so, many LD kids we find are fine in doing that kind of activity if the teacher or a tutor or an aide is sitting there working with them one-on-one. But if they have attention problems often times those kids will start to, if the teacher leaves the situation, the kid has this work in front of him but he starts–his attention starts to wander, so it’s really ideal for that kind of situation. And what we do is have the teacher, in a typical situation, have the teacher talk to the child first of all about what it is that he’s doing and what we mean by attention. Because so often times kids with LD and attention problems don’t really know when it is that they’re off task, and so the teacher will model of the child; sit down next to him and say let me demonstrate to you what I mean by on task and off task behavior, and will model some on and off task behavior and then have the child model that behavior, so that there’s an understanding of what it is the child’s going to focusing on. And then what happens is that the teacher has a tape recorder that is put down on the desk, with a tape on it, and there are random tones on it that come up–a typical tape would be tones anywhere from 15 seconds and a minute and half between tones with an average of about 45 seconds. The idea here is that you don’t want the child to know exactly when the next tone’s going to be coming up, so there’s a random spacing between them. And then you simply have the–the teacher just simply asks the child that every time he or she hears the tone to ask himself the question, was I paying attention? And then mark on a sheet of paper a yes or a no, and so by doing that the child is becoming more aware of when he’s on task and when he’s off task. And that’s basically the procedure.

Dr. Hal McGrady: And then you’re able to get these youngsters to understand what is meant by “paying attention” and also to learn this procedure for marking on the sheet that you provide for them, and knowing what to do when these beeps appear

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yeah. Usually it only takes one or two sessions with teacher working with the kid to have their–to have some–for the child to understand the task well enough to be able to do it, yeah.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Are these students good at judging whether or not they’re “paying attention”? I mean, do they really know what it means when they mark their cards? I mean, I would think maybe they would just mark them randomly, or–how do you judge the fact that they’re being accurate?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Well actually you raise a good point, because there are sometimes–some kids will cheat a little bit.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Right.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Or underestimate or overestimate their on task behavior. But what we’ve found is that doesn’t seem to make all that much difference in terms of whether they are truly on task or not. When we’ve done this in a research setting we’ve had an external–

Dr. Hal McGrady: We’d like to know some of the research that backs this up.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: –yeah. In a research setting what we do is we have an external observer who is in the room, in the classroom, with the teacher and the child, and is also recording when the child is on and off task behavior. And then we also do some reliability checks with a second observer who checks the first observer to make sure that those–those are being recorded reliably. And so that when we based on our, you know, conclusions that the procedure’s been effective, we’ve been basing it on the recordings done by the external observer.

Dr. Hal McGrady: And you have found it, then, a reliable technique?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yes. Yes. I mean, you know, it’s–I think it’s one of the most reliable techniques we have for working with kids with–with attention problems, particularly when they’re working on seat work activities.

Dr. Hal McGrady: But if I were a general Ed teacher and I wanted to try your technique, I might ask well won’t that beeping tape bother the other students? I mean, how can I implement this in my classroom so that other students aren’t bothered, and the student using it isn’t singled out?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Right. You been–you must have been talking to some of the teachers that we–that is one of the first questions that’s asked is–isn’t this going to be distracting to to other kids in the classroom? And what we’ve found is in general that doesn’t happen. Other kids in the room quickly become, I don’t know how to put it, they just don’t pay that much attention to the it.

Dr. Hal McGrady: They adapt to it?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: They adapt to it, yeah. Thank you. I’m not–I’m not saying that in all cases that happens, and that I think that the teacher does need to be sensitive to–to singling out the child, and if–if it’s a particular child who has–who’s very sensitive about that that it might be a child you might not want to use the procedure with, or might want to just be very cautious in using it.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Well with–with all the technology available in schools today, wouldn’t it be possible to use a CD of some kind and have a child wear headphones or perhaps do some modifications in the basic procedure you’ve mentioned?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yeah, I think so. I don’t know of anybody who’s done that Hal, but I think that would be a good thing to try out, and I don’t have any reason to suspect that it wouldn’t work very well, you know, particularly, you know, if kids were working on a computer where they were likely to have a headphone on–a headset on so that they’re–they don’t look strange sitting in the classroom with a headphone on, then I think that would be–that would be fine. When we first started thinking about this procedure we–we in fact thought about this might be distracting, and the auditory part of it–

Dr. Hal McGrady: Right.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: –you know, the beeping–

Dr. Hal McGrady: Right.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: –and we thought well why–why don’t we try just a little light bulb that would go off on the–on the child’s desk–

Dr. Hal McGrady: Um-hum

Dr. Daniel Hallahan:–and we didn’t–fortunately we thought ahead and said to ourselves, well wait a minute, that–that would assume that the child was visually looking so that he’d see the light bulb go off. If he’s looking off to the side somewhere, which is what these kids are tending to do anyway–

Dr. Hal McGrady: Um-hum.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: –he wouldn’t see the light bulb go off. But the tone was something that we thought, you know, would work, and indeed it has.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Well that’s an interest–interesting point, because obviously if the child is inattentive he might miss the sign if it was–was only given visually.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Exactly.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Well now, can you use this self-monitoring procedure in groups?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yeah. Yes you can. We’ve done some studies with it in–in small group instruction. It’s just a little bit more difficult to–to implement in terms of defining, for the child, what it means to be on task.

Dr. Hal McGrady: So they could all be on task, or each child could be on task for different subjects and still do this, couldn’t you?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Well what–what happens in a group situation that makes it difficult, I don’t know if I understand your question, but what makes it difficult is that if you’re in a group there’s a lot of give and take back and forth. And in some situations it’s appropriate to be looking at the teacher, but in some–in some parts of that interaction it’s going to be appropriate to be looking at another child, depending on who’s doing the talking and who’s responding, and who’s responding appropriately. Do you follow what I’m saying?

Dr. Hal McGrady: So–yeah–so there are some different factors you have to look at–

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yeah.

Dr. Hal McGrady: –if you use this in a group, but it obviously can be used if you take those into consideration.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yes, and we’ve done it. I mean, we’ve done it in a group and taken data on it and it’s–we have gotten kids more–more attentive in that–in that kind of situation. It’s a little harder to do.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Is the self-monitoring only for attention or has it been used for increasing or decreasing other student behavior?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Oh, good point. First of all I should say that in addition to taking data on the kids on task behavior, what we also do to show the effectiveness of it, I mean the ultimate effectiveness of it, is that the child’s being more productive academically. So that we’re also taking data, even when we’re using it on the on task portion of this–

Dr. Hal McGrady: Right.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: –we’re also taking data on the child’s number of problems solved in 20 minutes, for example, or passages read in a reading–in a reading text and questions answered. So, I mean, that’s the ultimate goal here is to get the kid to be more academically productive, even when we’re just monitoring–having him monitor his on task behavior.

Dr. Hal McGrady: So you’ve got some evidence from your research that says that as they increase their attention behavior that they’re also having a positive affect on their academics.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Right. Right. But in answer to–direct answer to your question of can you also have kids self monitor their academic performance directly, and–and not the attention, the question is yes.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Um-hum.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Some other researchers have done that. The ones that I can think of are Karen Harris and Steven Graham at the University of Maryland, have done some research, in fact they’ve done some research comparing what–monitoring on task behavior versus monitoring academic productivity. And their opinion is that it–it can be just effective, maybe even more so, doing the–doing the academic problems, and of course we–are interpretation of their data says that we think that–that monitoring the on task behavior is just as effective. I mean, it’s a–it’s a debate I don’t think we want to get into here. It’s among researchers.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Yeah there are–there are some different aspects to this–

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yeah.

Dr. Hal McGrady: –and again you refer to some of this in your–the teaching tutorial that’s on another section of this web site.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: One thing I would say on that Hal, is that one of the nice things about the self monitoring of attention, of the technique in general, and in particular in relation to having monitoring of the academic productivity, is that I think it’s a lot easier to implement from the teacher’s point of view to have–just the focus on the attention.

Dr. Hal McGrady: And then, as your research has indicated, focusing on the attention also has the effect of affecting the other behaviors or the academics as well.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yes.

Dr. Hal McGrady: So you’re going to get more for your–more bang for your buck here.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Right. The important point though, and I mentioned this earlier but I want to emphasize it, is that the academics that they’re working on needs, should–should be, academics that they can already do. You don’t want–you don’t want to put them into a situation where they’re–you wouldn’t want to do this in seatwork anyway I don’t think–

Dr. Hal McGrady: Um-hum.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: –of any kind, where you’re putting them in the situation where they don’t have the skills necessary to perform the task you’re asking them to do.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Well Dan, can–this is a–sounds like a very useful procedure, but could it become a crutch. I mean, don’t you have to have a procedure where you can wean them away from–from this, as I use the term, artificial technique?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yes. Yes.

Dr. Hal McGrady: You can’t have a beeper going with you everywhere.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: No, absolutely, in fact that’s what we–we recommend, and we–we mention in the–in the tutorial, that we–that you after a period of time, say a week or two maybe three at the most, start to wean the child off of either the tone that they’re hearing, or wean them off of the recording, I mean, marking the yes or the no. I mean you can start with one or the other, and you wean them, for example, you can say to the child, okay you’re doing really well with this now what I’d like you to do is I’m going to take the tape recorder away and whenever you think about–think about it just ask yourself the question, was I paying attention, and just mark on the sheet of paper a yes or no, and we’ll work–go from there. And then have the child do that, and if the on task behavior stays up and the academic productivity stays up over a period of a few days, then you can just have the child say, you know, you know you’re doing really well with this and what I want you to do now is just ask yourself the question, was I paying attention and just say to yourself, yes good job, or no not so good I need to get back on task. So you do wean them off of it, yeah.

Dr. Hal McGrady: In one sense they kind of present–come up with their own internal beeps over time.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Well that’s what–that’s what we’re trying to here.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Well now–

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: But–but I do–you did say it’s a particular technique, and it is. I mean, it’s not one that–you’re not going to find generalization of this–of these on task behaviors over, you know, to another class or to later in that day or anything like that, it’s really particular to the particular–to the specific academic situation you’re using it with.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Well this sounds like it could be a lot of work for the teacher, and I know that in your–in your booklet for teachers, and also on the tutorial that’s on the web site here, you give some details about what the teacher needs to do. How do you answer a teacher who says that this is just going too much work for me to do in my classroom?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Well, I guess I’d say, you need to balance how much work it’s going to be to implement this versus trying to keep the kid in his seat and on task, if you don’t have a procedure to do it. I mean one–one–if you’ve got a child who is not doing the work unless you’re standing right there or working with him then that’s going to be time away from other children or other students in the class.

Dr. Hal McGrady: More time effective if the child can learn to do it himself.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yeah. Right. And really it’s not–compared to many–like a behavioral modification–behavior modification situatuation–system that you might set up over the token economy and all the bells and whistles this is really not hard–that hard to implement. Teachers, the teachers we’ve worked with to have, have said that, you know, they haven’t complained about it being terribly difficult to implement. The hard–to be honest, the hardest part about–the hardest thing about doing the procedure, from the teacher’s point of view, at least from the feedback we’ve gotten, is the making of the tape–

Dr. Hal McGrady: Yeah.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: –which is, it just really requires a very quiet environment where you use a piano key, or something like that, and you just have to have 20 minutes or a half hour or something of complete silence, and get your random–set up a random numbers table so that you can set up your–and we’ve got in the manual–

Dr. Hal McGrady: That is, yes, in the manual.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: –in the tutorial of how to go about doing that.

Dr. Hal McGrady: So the teacher who wants to try this can–can look at those materials to get at it. Well, do you want to comment on what kind of students you might find self-monitoring most effective? Are there certain kinds of students that you’d say where this would be the most–would be the most advantageous way to go?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Well in terms of self-monitoring, you know with self-monitoring of attention, I think obviously it’s a kid who has attention problems, a child who’s having trouble staying on task.

Dr. Hal McGrady: And one who’s, let’s say, most likely to be labeled by some people just has ADHD or whatever?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Yes. Yeah. And it could be the hyperactive type of the inattentive type, really. It doesn’t, you know, it’s not–it wouldn’t necessarily, I don’t think I’d say it’d be more effective with one or less effective with one or the other.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Well Dan, we’ve had an interesting discussion here. I’ve learned a lot. Is there anything else you’d like to add to our discussion, maybe some aspects I’ve neglected to ask you questions about, before we conclude?

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: Well again, I would just like to mention that there’ve been several people involved in this research over the years. I can’t even begin to mention, just to mention all of them, but one who has been very important in this is John Lloyd. He and I worked on this way back, and he’s actually carried the ball forward in more recent years in terms of research than I have on the technique. But it was a nice–it was nice collaboration between the two of us because when we started working on it I was more of a cognitive developmental psychology type person and he was more of a behaviorist.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Um-hum.

Dr. Daniel Hallahan: And so this being a cognitive behavioral technique it was a nice blend of the two of us in terms of working on it.

Dr. Hal McGrady: Great. Well, if you don’t have any other comments then, Dan, on behalf of the Division for Learning Disabilities I want to thank you. It’s been a very useful discussion on self-monitoring for attention, and it’s the goal of DLD to provide teachers with research on validated procedures for working with students who have learning disabilities, and this discussion today has been an excellent example. As a reminder to the teachers listening, you can see an expanded version of this topic in the teaching tutorial of the web site, and that presentation will give you the precise method for implementing self monitoring procedures in your classroom. Thank you for listening.

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