In this age of increasing technology and endless distractions, parents have a formidable task to keep kids focused. So understanding what ‘attention’ truly means is crucial in helping them support their children in developing complex skills like memory, language, reading, writing and general learning that are all attention-related.
The textbook definition of attention is the ability to obtain and sustain appropriate interest towards a task. It is usually controlled by several factors like our motivation, practice, sensory integration and language grasping abilities. However, if we were to scratch the surface, attention goes far beyond the simple explanation of ‘selectively focusing on something’. It also involves ignoring and tuning out a huge amount of competing information, stimuli and sensations, that are not relevant at the moment. For children, this can be quite a task considering their surroundings are filled with sights, sounds, shapes, colours and objects that demand their attention and trigger their senses. With so much going on, it is important for parents to recognize and understand their child’s attention patterns, as well as have the tools and knowledge available to help them strengthen their attention span.
So let’s take a look at what elements attention comprises of and how we can enhance the learning capabilities of our children by strengthening their attention span and providing a foundation to support lifelong learning and development.
What is 'attention'?
In its essence, attention can be defined in two ways.
- The first is the cognitive part which focuses on what is happening in the brain. This involves the invisible mental processes of directing, controlling, maintaining focus and targeting energy on stimuli around us in different situations.
- The second is the behavioural part, which is the more tangible side, including the day-to-day stuff like a child waiting their turn, ignoring a dog barking outside their classroom so they can concentrate on the teacher’s instructions, or a child wriggling and fidgeting non-stop.
An example of the close inter-relationship between the cognitive side and the behavioural side is the way a child can spend hours playing video games. These games are designed to capture and sustain focus from certain parts of the brain using music, graphics and problem-solving challenges, which is the cognitive part. As a result, children will sit in the same place on the couch holding a game controller while, sometimes impulsively yelling in frustration, which is the behaviour part.
Attention is also governed by other factors like their emotional health, the events that have occurred or are occurring around them, biological factors like being hungry, sleepy, or tired, age, familiarity, individual interest in the topic, learning disabilities, mood and cognitive abilities. With so many factors affecting a child’s attention span, it can be challenging to recognize when a child is having persistent difficulties that could be impacting their learning and development. This is where parents’ active observation and participation with their child during learning and prolonged activities become important. Additionally, the use of new technologies such as the TALi app, from the renowned Australian digital health company, can help parents understand how their child is progressing with the development of attention skills.
Attention differs in children
We all know that a child’s attention span is much shorter than adults, but attention also varies from child to child. Dr Simone Gindidis, Clinical Lead from TALi, explained a simple way of understanding attention was to imagine a classroom of kids seated on the floor and their teacher at the front of the room giving instructions. The classroom is dimly lit, and most of the kids in the room have a spotlight on their heads. Each spotlight is a different size but is squarely aimed at the front of the room. The spotlight kids are able to filter out the rest of the room (as it’s quite dark) and focus their light where it needs to be. For a child with attention vulnerabilities, their source of light is actually a candle instead of a spotlight. So, when that child is directing their light toward the teacher, the whole room is also illuminated. Because the whole room is lit up, the child can see that little Johnny in the other row is playing with his shoelace, and there’s a toy sitting on a desk that they’d rather be playing with, and they also realise that they’re hungry and that the clock on the wall is ticking loudly.
The key thing Dr. Simone highlights in this illustration is that children’s brains are all different and that some have a source of light that’s distinctly different from the rest. The earlier we can help these kids to access strategies and tools to make sense of their world, the more likely they are to be able to navigate other challenges in their lives.
Why early treatment of attention issues important
Numerous studies suggest people with attention difficulties are more likely to struggle throughout the course of their school years and are more likely to experience mental health issues and low self-esteem as they develop into young adults and beyond. A growing body of evidence shows that identifying and working on attention issues in children as early as possible is absolutely critical to their future success, and provides long-term benefits not just to them but also to their families, teachers and the wider community.
Parents, therefore, play a critical role in identifying and helping their children develop attention skills in early childhood. Ways they can support their child include simplifying the process of attention building by breaking down instructions so that children can succeed at the tasks at hand and providing them with positive feedback when they succeed. Clinical psychologists also recommend parents reduce the number of distractions that children experience in general. Overstimulation can also work against a child’s attention span and it is best to limit children’s access to those activities that trigger this experience.
Above all, it is important to remember that every child’s brain is different, and the earlier we can help them to access strategies and tools to help them make sense of their world, the more likely they are to succeed in navigating other challenges in their lives.
How to identify if your child has attention difficulties
Attention encompasses many unique areas of brain function and attention difficulties often happen alongside other challenges at the same time. So it’s not always clear if attention difficulties are masking other vulnerabilities or vice-versa. This is why at a clinical level, there are several key behaviours that are measured that indicate whether that child might be experiencing attention difficulties. A parent can help in this process by paying close attention to their children and never ignoring any signs they might be seeing about how their child is progressing.
Parents are often the first to gain insight into their child’s cognitive, academic and behavioural strengths and weaknesses. If they feel that something is not working well, it is best to see an appropriate healthcare practitioner who can properly evaluate their child for attention and learning issues.
Improve your child's attention
The good news is that there is now a way to assess their child’s attention through TALi.
TALi offers an attention assessment app developed by leading childhood researchers at one of Australia’s top universities. Through a series of engaging, game-based activities parents can check their child’s attention and compare it to the normal range for their age. TALi’s digital attention assessment tool is free to use and is available to download for both Android and Apple tablets. After this, parents can enrol their children into TALi Train a proven 5-week program that uses interactive exercises to strengthen their child’s attention skills!
To see how your child could benefit from improved attention, start their assessment on TALi App:
Disclaimer: A version of this article was produced by Times Internet’s Spotlight team and originally appear on India Times.