Why Attention Matters
An overview of the aspects of life affected by attention issues.
Understanding and improving
Intuitively, parents and teachers understand that attention is important to learning. If you cannot pay attention in class or while reading a book, you are not going to learn much. However, attention is much more foundational than just ‘paying attention’. Attention skills impact self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, which are known collectively as executive function skills.
The importance of attention and executive function skills cannot be overstated. One research study found that a child’s attention skills at age 4 correlate strongly with whether they graduated from college by age 25. The good news is that attention skills can be trained. When children improve attention skills, they do better in school and in life.
The challenge in training attention skills is that attention cannot be observed directly, so we can measure attention only by observing the way it affects our information processing, learning, and memory. Many attempts at training attention focus on improving things like working memory.
This is like training someone with weak leg muscles to kick a soccer ball harder just by kicking it again and again. The player will be able to kick it harder with practice; however, a lot more can be achieved if you help the player strengthen his or her leg muscles through weight training. The strength they build will be applicable in a lot of different areas and when the player practices kicking the ball again, they will have a lot more power to put into kicking as well as sprinting, jumping, etc.
That is what BrainLeap does with attention training. It is like weight training for kids who have weak attention skills. We leverage the fact that eye movements and attention are tightly linked and share much of the same brain circuitry. Plus, eye movements can be observed and are easy to measure.
Shifts of attention precede gaze shifts and mark the location for an eye movement. It is possible, of course, to separate attention and gaze — think of a cat looking away but attending closely the entrance to a mouse hole in the wall. However, for most of our regular interactions, where we look is where we are placing our attention. That is why it makes sense to train attention by using an eye tracker to harness gaze.
The gaze-driven video games we have developed gradually shape behavior using visual and auditory feedback provided in real-time — that is what video games do well. Because players are controlling the games using only their eyes, we leverage the eye movement system to improve the accuracy of shifting attention, ability to maintain focus, and inhibitory control (not looking at something distracting).
While there are one-on-one training regimens that have shown improvements in attention, it is difficult to administer frequent and lengthy training in a laboratory or clinic where eye movements and behavior can be accurately monitored.
That is why gaze-driven video games are a much better solution. Our games are designed for use at home or in school where children can play independently. (When was the last time you had to help your child with a video game?) This makes frequent training flexible and easy. Much like exercise, users need to play regularly over time to strengthen their “attention muscle.” Participants could see significant results within 8 weeks if they train 20 minutes a day 5 days a week.
Attention is a strong indicator of a student’s success in the classroom and the likelihood of completing college. Research also indicates that reading and math outcomes correlate with attention scores. Those children with a limited ability to pay attention struggle academically (and socially) over time even with tutoring and other interventions.
Addressing a Lack of Attention
Eleven percent of school-age children have attention challenges and the number is growing. In schools where more than 50% of children are on free and reduced lunch, that number can be twice as high. Imagine trying to teach a class when 3-6 of your 30 students have significant attention challenges.
Teachers know intuitively that attention matters to student success, in part, because attentive students are a lot easier to teach. A classroom of students paying attention is a wonder to behold. And while a teacher’s skill in classroom management is important in keeping students engaged, there is only so much they can do when there are a significant portion of students with attention challenges. They end up spending more time on classroom management than teaching.
Schools can improve academic outcomes for students and allow teachers to do what they do best by finding ways to increase attention skills.
Schools can engage students in attention training in the classroom environment. Training can be done at a station in the general classroom or students can be trained when pulled from the classroom for extra help. Regular training is what makes the difference in outcomes.
For many parents, it seems obvious that teenagers can have short attention spans and limited focus. However, that is not really the case. Teens may spend a lot of time task switching (what many people call multi-tasking) as they watch a video while playing a video game and talking to their friends. However, most teens can stay engaged for 2 hours while watching a movie and even while reading an engaging book.
The problem is with non-preferred tasks. Teens can get bored easily and have trouble staying focused on things they may not want to do like homework. If they have week attention skills, it becomes very difficult to stay focused because it takes a lot more willpower and cognitive resources to remain focused. And individuals have a limited amount to call upon each day.
It is a lot harder to power through at the end of the day than it is in the morning. The good news is that there are strategies to help and attention skills can be strengthened just like a muscle.
While it is obvious, the first thing to do is to eliminate distractions while doing school work. Have your teen turn off his or her phone or put it in the other room. Close social media sites. They can shut their door or face a wall where they will not see people going by. Of course, make sure they turn off the TV. Wearing headphones and listening to music that is not distracting can help as well.
Plan in breaks or other rewards. It is easier for them to keep working for 30 minutes if they know they will be welcome to take a break when they complete that time. This is commonly known as the Pomodoro method. Knowing there is an end in sight can make paying attention seem less oppressive. Using a timer makes it easier for your teen to remember to get up, move, and rest his or her eyes. Then, it is easier for your teen to refocus after a break.
There are also ways that individuals can improve focus over the long term. For example, meditation has been shown to improve focus. It is a practice that helps you remain in the present moment and avoid distractions. These both help improve focus. Another way to improve focus is through martial arts. When you have to be very conscious of where your body is in space and the precise movements you must make, it helps to train focus.
The teenage years are a jumble of childhood self-perception and adult aspirations. When teens are motivated, they can change the world. For example, the activist group Team Enough is run by high school students who lobby state and federal governments, research Senators and Bills, and dedicate themselves to a cause.
One of the ways that teens develop empathy is through cognitive flexibility. This gives them the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes — to be able to see things from a different perspective. However, it requires attentional focus and redirection to happen quickly for a teen. When a teen has strong attention skills, this can be easier for them. If not, they may find it challenging to feel empathy for others.
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:
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.
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