Extended time is one of the most common accommodations given to individuals with attention problems. It is usually granted on the assumption that the person is easily distracted when completing tasks and, therefore, needs a longer time to complete them. While this assumption may be true for some people with attention problems, it is not true for all of them. Granting extended time can also lead to unintended negative consequences. Therefore, extended time should be granted to an individual based on data that demonstrates a need for extended time. Some of the common benefits and pitfalls in granting extended time for individuals with attention problems are described below.
Benefits of Extended Time for Attention Problems
Some individuals with attention problems work at a slower pace on tasks. They may struggle to balance speed versus accuracy. In other words, when working at an appropriate or expected pace for their age, these students are more vulnerable to making inattentive errors. They need to work at a slower than expected pace in order to work accurately.
Other individuals are slow to process information. They may appear to be daydreaming or in a fog and may move and respond more slowly than others. They may lose their train of thought or appear confused. They complete tasks more slowly and often do not finish tasks in the time allotted.
In these cases, extended time may give these individuals the opportunity to fully demonstrate their skills and abilities in a way that would not be captured in a situation where they were under more rigorous time constraints.
Pitfalls of Extended Time for Attention Problems
Many individuals with attention problems have difficulty sustaining their level of attention, concentration, and effort over an extended period of time. Some may be more active or impulsive than others and need to get up and move around frequently. Others may be easily distracted and have a difficult time re-focusing on the task. Their performance may dramatically decrease the longer a task goes on. For these individuals, extended time is likely to be ineffective and might actually lead to decreased levels of performance. Extended time does not correct for difficulties re-focusing on the task-it simply allows the person to be off-task for a longer period of time. A better intervention might be “stop-the-clock” breaks as needed to get up and move around, as well as direct instruction in strategies and techniques to monitor one’s level of attention and focus and self-direct back to the task, as needed.
In addition to being inappropriate for some individuals with attention problems, extended time can also set up a student for frustration and a never-ending game of “catch up.” Students who are granted 1.5 or double time to complete all tasks and assignments have to find the extra time within the day to complete them. Often, this may mean missing break periods, recess, or cutting back on extracurricular activities in order to have enough time to complete school work. However, breaks and recess are critical periods for students with attention problems; as described above, many of them need the time to move around and take a break so that they can come back to learning more refreshed and attentive. Extracurricular activities can also be an important way to build feelings of confidence and competence in individuals who may not feel very confident or capable when it comes to academic work (especially academic tasks that require high levels of attention and concentration, thereby emphasizing their areas of weakness).
Some students who are granted extended time, but who don’t actually need it, may develop anxiety and a sense of incompetence around timed tasks. They may become overly worried about time and time pressures, which reduces their attention and focus on the task at hand. They may see themselves as incapable of completing a task within the allotted time and never give themselves the opportunity to challenge this belief. For other students, having extended time simply reinforces poor study and time management habits. Simply granting a student additional time to complete a task does not mean that he or she will automatically know how to use that time effectively.
Finally, extended time does not make up for poor study skills or a lack of preparation for a test or exam. While extra time can result in higher levels of performance for students who actually work more slowly than others and need the time to better demonstrate what they know, it is not going to result in higher levels of performance for an individual who has not appropriately learned or studied the material. Therefore, direct instruction in effective and efficient study strategies may be a more useful approach than simply granting extended time.
In conclusion, the decision to use extended time as an accommodation should not be based on diagnosis alone. Rather, the accommodation should be granted thoughtfully, with consideration of the individual’s unique strengths and weaknesses, as well as his or her circumstances, lifestyle, and values. Even in those for whom extended time is appropriate, it must be used judiciously so that the individual is not set up to fall further and further behind and so that it does not have an unintended detrimental effect on both academic performance and emotional functioning. Other strategies and techniques may be more effective at addressing underlying attention and behavioral regulation difficulties and should be paired with extended time.