Why Attention Matters
Why attention matters and how to help kids who struggle with attention challenges. Attention is thought of mostly as a cognitive choice. When teachers and parents say, “Pay Attention!” they imply that the child being inattentive is doing so by choice. What if, like being able to do a cartwheel or a handstand, attention is something that some children do with ease while others require much more training and assistance?
Some children are less able to keep their gaze on an object (or person) as steadily as others.
This inaccuracy and slowness in their ability to place their gaze intentionally (and keep it where they want it) means that a lot of information gets missed.
In school, students need to be able to orient their attention to the material being taught in a book. Then, they need to be able to move their attention to a whiteboard. And THEN, they need to be able to move their attention back again for a sufficient amount of time to absorb the information. On top of that, kids have to ignore distractions that may pull their attention away.
On top of these different challenges, many students have less opportunity to move as schools have cut physical education classes and reduced recess time. The data is pretty clear that kids who move and get exercise have an easier time sitting still (although our mothers could tell us this as well).
Most strategies to improve attention talk about reduced distractions.
Reducing distractions does help children get through their school work, whether at home or in the classroom. What can be even more valuable is to train attention skills by harnessing the visual-motor system. (Where you look and where you are planning to look is where you are placing your attention.) This system can be trained like a muscle, or more accurately a group of muscles that need to work together. It is not that it is broken, it is just underdeveloped, like a child who can’t do a cartwheel because all of his or her muscles are not working in unison.
Kids with better attention skills can more effectively collect data in the world around them by focusing their attention on the most relevant things in their environment. This can lead to students concentrating in school and on homework for longer and staying more focused during that time.
The challenge is to selectively exercise and strengthen the attention system.
Attention is hard to measure and train directly. Most programs that claim to train attention are really focused on training different executive function skills, such as working memory or cognitive flexibility, that are higher-level skills. To train foundational attention skills requires a different approach.
Attention training games that are played with the eyes take a different approach. The player uses an eye tracker rather than a mouse or keyboard to play the games. Using eye-tracking leverages the fact that the visual-motor system and the attention system share neural circuitry. In addition to leveraging the eye movement system, using a player’s gaze to control the games provides a number of other advantages:
- There is no cheating on where the player is looking. If the player glances away from the screen, that impacts the game (e.g they lose a life or miss a chance to score points).
- It requires a great deal of concentration and focus, since we naturally move our eyes 3-4 times per second (unconsciously most of the time). Keeping them on a single target for even a few seconds can be challenging for individuals with attention challenges.
As you strengthen the visual-motor system, you are also strengthening the attention system and that makes focusing on the right things at the right time much easier.
About the Author
Jeff Coleman is the CEO of BrainLeap Technologies, which is developing therapeutic games for kids. Developed in a lab at the University of California – San Diego, the games are designed to increase attention and focus. They are played with the eyes rather than a mouse or controller.