The science of attention in children


Rosie Byrnes


The world is a distracting place and can feel like we are losing the ability to focus! Learn about the science of attention and how to help your little one.

What is the science of attention? With so many distractions in today’s world, it can feel as though our collective ability to pay attention is on the decline. Learn the scientific process of attention, and discover how you can help your child learn to stay focused.

Let’s Focus: The science of attention

By now, we’re all aware that attention and focus are key components of learning. After all, we can’t understand and process new information if we’re not paying attention to the information in the first place!

For many teachers, it seems that the majority of most days are spent trying to get—and keep—students’ attention. And it’s no surprise why: without students’ attention, the information we teach is lost in the void of blank stares, and it feels like a waste. If only they would just focus, right?

The science behind attention processes, however, isn’t as well understood as its significance to learning. Many of us think of attention as its own singular process, but in fact “pay attention” is a much more complex request than it sounds.

What is attention?

At any given moment, our brains are bombarded with information from our nerves; everything we see, touch, hear, taste, smell, think, feel, and do is communicated with our brain through the intricate systems in our bodies.

If we tried to focus our mind on all of that at once, it would be difficult to get anything else done! Attention is the process of sifting through all of that information, and selecting only the most useful items to attend to.

Psychologist Michael Posner has categorized the process of attention into three systems: alerting, orienting, and executive attention.

  1. The first system, alerting, tells us when to pay attention. This is the automatic response to new stimuli which tells us that something is new, different, important, interesting, dangerous, or otherwise worthy of our attention.
  2. The second system, orienting, tells us what we should be focusing our attention on. It amplifies the stimulus involved, and can dismiss irrelevant stimuli.
  3. And the third system, executive attention, tells us how to process the information—helping us to select the appropriate response and execute it.

Because these three systems work together almost instantaneously, it can be difficult to discern between them. Let’s look at an example:

Imagine you are sitting at home, watching TV, when there is a sudden loud noise from outside. Even though your attention is already focused on something—the TV—the loud noise is a significantly different (and possibly dangerous) stimulus, so your system of alerting has been activated: it’s time to pay attention.

Now, your brain is no longer processing the sounds from the TV, as the loud noise is holding your attention. This is orienting in action, amplifying the most relevant stimulus. And because you still don’t know what caused the noise, your executive attention prompts you to go and look out the window for its source.

Looking out the window, you see fireworks—and the process begins again. The bright lights alert your mind of a change in visual stimulus, and orient your focus to the fireworks, rather than the usual view from your window. Your executive attention will decide whether you should stay and watch for awhile, or go back to your TV show. The science of attention is fascinating!

The satellite and the telescope

These systems of attention are always working, often without our help or even our awareness. But does that mean that our brains rely entirely on external stimuli to capture our attention?

Fortunately, no—we all have the ability to direct our focus, and to redirect it when we are distracted. (That’s why you can go back to watching TV after investigating the sound of fireworks.)

The story of the fireworks above is an example of stimulus-directed attention; in other words, the process of something external capturing our attention and focus, without much input from us. But we can focus our attention in other ways, as well.

Goal-directed attention describes the process of intentionally selecting which information to focus on; essentially, we can alert and orient ourselves to whatever stimuli we choose. If we like the fireworks, for example, we can stay to watch them—or we can go back to our spot on the couch.

Educator Peter Nilsson describes these two types of attention using a helpful metaphor: a satellite (stimulus-directed attention) and a telescope (goal-directed attention).

By default, our attention operates as a satellite, picking up information as it is presented to us—just like the fireworks. This stimulus-directed attention is highly useful, as it can help us to detect important changes in our surroundings or find information we didn’t know we needed.

But sometimes, our attention needs to be focused, intentional, and goal-directed—like a telescope.

This type of attention occurs when we have some perceived benefit of directing our focus to a certain task or stimulus. We may focus our goal-directed attention on things that are entertaining, personally fulfilling, or related to a positive outcome (i.e. “if I focus on my work now, I can leave early”).

Goal-directed attention is what most teachers hope to see in their classroom; a group of motivated learners focused on the material of their own volition, and paying attention because they want to.

But unfortunately, many teachers end up spending a lot of time trying to create external stimuli for their students, in order to prompt stimulus-directed attention instead. And often, their efforts aren’t very successful.

Problems with attention

When we talk about problems with attention, we often use phrases like “low attention span,” “can’t pay attention,” or “attention deficit.”

But whether it’s in “satellite” or “telescope” mode, our attention is always active. This means that, in fact, issues with attention are unlikely to be due to an inability to pay attention—instead, the problem lies in moderating between goal-directed and stimulus-directed attention.

In other words, kids don’t need to learn to pay attention—they need to learn how to direct the attention they already have.

For many kids, and particularly those with ADHD, the external stimuli from their “satellite” can easily grab their attention away from whatever task or information they are meant to focus on. By teaching kids when and how to use their “telescope,” and to ignore the additional input from their “satellite,” we can help them to use their focused attention with purpose.

Here are five ways you can help your learners focus their attention:

1. Make intrinsic motivation a priority.

We know that it’s much easier for people to focus their goal-directed attention on something that is personally relevant or interesting to them. Find out what intrinsically motivates your young learner, and make this an integral part of their education wherever possible.

2. Help limit distracting external stimuli.

When kids are learning to focus on learning, it can help to provide an environment with minimal distractions. A quiet, comfortable place to work is a great start for many young learners.

Remember that distracting stimuli isn’t always physical—thoughts and emotions, such as anxiety, can also make it difficult for kids to focus. You can help eliminate this type of mental block by maintaining positive and open communication, so that they know you’re there to help work through any social or emotional conflicts they may have.

3. …Or make distractions helpful!

Of course, we can’t eliminate every possible distraction—so you may choose to make some “good” distractions readily available. Ever wonder why some teachers cover their walls with educational posters? A coworker once told me, “If they’re not looking at me, at least they’re looking at math!”

4. Take “Brain Breaks.”

The longer that kids are expected to hold their attention on a single task, the more difficult it can become to stay focused. Help their brain perform a “reset” by pausing to do a quick dance, puzzle, stretch, or song before returning to work.

5. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment, sometimes with an “anchor” such as guided visualization or breathing. Regular practice of mindfulness has been shown to have positive effects on executive attention in both kids and adults.

If the science of attention has taught us anything, it is that there is no shortage of ways to learn and improve attention and focus!