Although I have written before about how attention develops throughout adolescence, it took reading this tweet this week to make me realise that I had never actually recorded why I think the study of attention in school-age children is important (and seemingly nor have many other people, given the tweet). Education is a hugely complex pursuit, with many variables contributing to any one outcome, so clearly any educational research programme needs to focus on a number of these strands concurrently. Despite this, I think that attention skills (specifically, the ability to control the focus of attention and resist distraction) are deserving of being a major strand of any such programme, for four main reasons:
- Attention is the gateway to cognition
- Attention directly impacts school attainment across the whole spectrum – not just at the lowest end
- Attention may mediate other key variables which contribute to school success
- Attention skills likely impact on our happiness
1. Attention is the gateway to cognition
Attention is a fascinating cognitive ability to study because it straddles the boundaries between low-level and higher-level brain processes. Whilst the exact relationship between attention and other cognitions such as working memory and intelligence is still being mapped out, the fact that attention can operate so early in the processing stream makes it inevitable that it will have effects on any attempt to use the information further down the line. We cannot process what we don’t let in. Although a little outdated now, the Multi-Store Model of Memory (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968) is a useful visual illustration of this attentional bottleneck into our memory systems.
At its most basic then, ‘attention’ describes the ability to select and process information from the surrounding environment. To illustrate how this affects real-life performance, individuals found to display good visual and working memory capacity have been shown to be more efficient at actively suppressing salient distractors (Gazzaley, 2011; Zanto & Gazzaley, 2009). In contrast, the inability to filter out such competing stimuli predicts low working memory capacity (Gaspar et al., 2016). To relate this to the picture above, if we are allowing in irrelevant information through the attentional bottleneck, then our ability to process and manipulate the information in the way that we want to will be hindered by the increased presence of competing distractors. The beneficial effects of an efficient attention system can be seen very early on in development. Attention skills as an infant predict intelligence as an adolescent (e.g. Bornstein & Sigman, 1986; McCall & Carriger, 1993), creating discrepancies of up to 20 IQ points (Sigman, Cohen & Beckwith, 1997) in combination with environmental differences.
Most of the goals of education involve much ‘higher-level’ cognitive processes, such as reasoning, creativity and long-term memory integration. For this reason, it could seem reasonable to focus all of our research attention on these skills as well. However, this is to neglect the fact that if we ever want to understand or improve the functioning of a higher level process, we need to ensure that all the supporting lower-levels are working properly first.
2. Attention directly impacts school attainment for ALL students
It’s hardly news that distracted students are a common bugbear amongst teachers, and few would dispute the general sentiment that attention is important to education. Although the terminology varies in different sources (e.g “distractibility”, “concentration”, “engagement” “cognitive control”,“executive control” etc.), the idea of students being able to resist distraction is a key component of many educational theories (e.g. Caldwell, 2007; Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004; Hidi, 1995; Posner & Rothbart, 2005). This makes it all the stranger, then, that serious investigation into precisely when and how attention skills impact students in the classroom has often been lacking, especially outside of children diagnosed with ADHD.
In addition to the general acknowledgement of its importance, this lack of a specific focus on attention skills is strange, because there is good evidence that attention skills (or lack of them) strongly predict academic attainment for all students, not just those with an ADHD diagnosis (Breslau et al., 2009; Duncan et al., 2007; Merrell et al., 2016), with the effects of inattention potentially becoming more detrimental the further students progress through education (Merrell and Tymms, 2001). Breslau et al. (2009), for example, used teacher ratings of attention at age six to predict reading and Maths achievement at age 17. Attention remained a significant unique predictor, even when controlling for potential confounding variables such as such as IQ, socio-economic status, parental education or other emotional or behavioural problems.
Importantly, these effects are by no means isolated to the tail of the distribution; they are felt well beyond the confines of the clinical ‘ADHD’ boundary. The plot below from Merrell et al. (2016), for example, demonstrates a linear relationship between inattention scores at age 5 and Key Stage 2 performance in Maths and English; even relatively minor decreases in attention skills have a measurable impact on school attainment.
3. Attention may mediate other key variables which contribute to school success
Although hardly surprising, the finding that individual differences in attention skills can affect educational outcomes in school age children (especially above and beyond IQ and other background variables) suggests that they are worthy of further investigation. In addition, however, there is evidence that attention may be an important mediating factor in a number of other key skills needed for school readiness. Barriga et al. (2002) examined a range of psychological and behavioural complaints in teenagers (withdrawal, somatic complaints, delinquent behaviour, and aggressive behaviour) and found that attention significantly mediated the relationship between all of these and academic achievement. In other words, attention skills (or lack thereof) played a significant role in determining whether these factors actually did end up having a detrimental effect on students: the better developed their attention skills, the less they were affected.
Also, whilst we know that ADHD will often co-occur with other executive deficits such as self-monitoring and working memory, it is less widely known that this relationship is also present in non-clinical samples (Gathercole et al., 2008), so even relatively minor problems of attention can be magnified through their relationship to other crucial skills. Admittedly the direction of causality in this case is not as clear-cut, but again this is at least indicative of the the broad importance of attention skills to general school readiness and success.
4. Attention skills impact on happiness
In addition to the direct effects of distraction on educational attainment, there are other important social and emotional consequences of everyday inattention. Emerging evidence from a number of fields suggests that the ability to control the focus of one’s attention and to resist distraction may be an important factor in people’s experience of general well-being and happiness.
Firstly, people who are distracted often report reduced happiness. For example, distraction by social media has also been found to negatively affect people’s ratings of their happiness, both under experimental conditions using questionnaires (Brooks, 2015) and in more naturalistic settings using experience sampling techniques such as by sending the participant regular text messages to assess in-the-moment changes in focus and mood (Kross et al., 2013). Being distracted by your own thoughts is also increasingly implicated in negative mood changes. ‘Spontaneous’ mind wandering (the unintentional drifting of one’s thoughts from a focal task toward other, task-unrelated thoughts; Seli, Risko & Smilek, 2016) is associated with reduced happiness – a finding that has been noted in both laboratory (Smallwood, Fitzgerald, Miles & Phillips, 2009) and real world contexts (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).
Secondly, people who are sad often report increased distractibility. Distractibility is commonly recognised as a symptom in depression and other affective disorders (e.g. Mialet, Pope & Yurgelun-Todd, 1996), and artificially lowering participants’ mood during an experiment has been shown to lead to an increase in their distractibility (Pacheco-Unguetti & Parmentier, 2014).
Clearly, it is likely that these findings are at least partially related to the other two points above. If you have the requisite attention skills for educational success then it is likely that you will also be happier for lots of other reasons as well. However, lab experiments of distraction which have measured mood usually find that the effect on mood (for most participants) is relatively short lived. This suggests that, rather than simply reflecting general life circumstances, there is often something inherently unpleasant about the act of being distracted from a main focus, which therefore affects our mood accordingly1.
We know it’s important… but that’s pretty much it for studies in schools
The three points above aimed to establish why I think attention skills are worthy of greater focus from both researchers and schools. If we accept the argument so far, then a range of other questions present themselves. What are the specific differences between children with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ attention control? How do problems like distractibility manifest themselves at different ages? How long are children of different ages able to focus their attention productively in different academic situations? Are there any reliable early signs of approaching inattention that can be identified in students? What conditions make distraction more likely? And perhaps most importantly of all: what, if anything, can be done to reduce inattention in the classroom?
It is notable how few answers we have to these questions for school age children. We are closer to some answers for studies using university students, often in lecture settings, but it is not always clear how these findings should be applied to younger children and school settings. In lectures we know, for example, that attention often measurably decreases through the duration of a lecture. Students take fewer notes, fidget and look around more, and even show reduced heart rates towards the end of a lecture (see Wilson & Korn, 2007, for a discussion of all of these). Students in lectures also mind wander significantly more in the second half of lectures (
We also have some early hints at ideas which might help to reduce levels of inattention, again from university student samples. For example, interpolating lecture content with regular short quizzes has been found to both improve recall and reduce mind wandering rates (Spuzner, Khan & Schachter, 2013), although to my knowledge this remains to be tested against other, external distractions. Also, there is emerging evidence that pitching the difficulty of the task correctly (i.e. challenging, but not impossible) may act as a ‘shield’ against distraction (Halin et al., 2014). Again, however, exactly how these ideas play out in the school classroom as opposed to the lecture theatre or laboratory testing room remains to be established.
In conclusion, given the widespread acknowledgement and evidence regarding the importance of attention skills to school success, it is surprising how little we know regarding the specifics of attention and distraction in the classroom. I am optimistic that a greater understanding of such processes over the next few years could lead to a number of relatively simple pedagogical or environmental strategies to improve attention in the classroom. If, that is, we pay a little more attention to them.
1. The fact that the effect of distraction on happiness is short-lived does not diminish its potential to have longer-term impacts. A short term effect that is being experienced on a very regular basis can quickly develop into something much more serious. In this way, a person experiencing very frequent distraction may begin to experience more severe and longer-lasting mood changes.
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