What you need to know about attention in children

Tali Health

December 2, 2019 . 4 minute read

Attention in school

People perceive paying attention as being focused on something over a period of time without being distracted. It is considered to be a matter of discipline; for example, think of how teachers often demand attention from their students in the classroom – pay attention!

But attention is so much more than attention span or something a person can simply do at will. Attention consists of a number of different components and, for many, it is a skill they need to be taught, just like reading and arithmetic.

So, what does attention actually look like?

In order to teach better attention, we need to understand the actual construct of attention. Researchers believe there is a combination of different skills that lead to being able to pay attention.

Selective Attention

Our world is full of stimuli – “if we perceived every visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile sense at once, our brains would be overflowing.”[i]

You may be sitting on a chair, and you don’t really notice how it feels, except we’ve now drawn your attention to it. In effect, we’ve activated your Selective Attention, turning it to your chair, just by mentioning the chair in this article.

This Selective Attention skill that you may take for granted is actively mediated by a specific part of your brain, which might not function normally in a child with anxiety, for example. A child with anxiety has biased Selective Attention towards threatening information.

Sustained Attention

So you’ve continued reading this article, up to this sentence at least! Meanwhile, you are suppressing your desire to check your phone, or engage in a conversation with your colleague, or read your email alerts and so on.

If you’ve succeeded in keeping your attention on this article to its conclusion, this shows you have good Sustained Attention, which is another component of attention.

Controlled Attention

As much as paying attention is important, not paying attention is also critical.

When you’re focused on reading, your brain suppresses your auditory, olfactory and tactile senses but, as soon as you hear a cry of distress (auditory sense) from someone nearby, you immediately disengage from reading and run to help them.

Disengaging from a task that is not important anymore (e.g. reading this article) as a new priority emerges (e.g. someone might need your help) is a skill that you might also take for granted but it is actively mediated by a specific part of your brain. Damage to, or abnormal development of, this part of the brain might lead to disorders of attention.

Young children with autism are known to have impaired disengagement of attention. It is hypothesised to be the underlying reason behind high levels of sensory seeking behaviors such as intensified or repetitive licking, smelling or visually sighting objects, craving intense pressure or movement stimulation, or being fascinated with specific sounds.[ii]

This is what scientists refer to as ‘Control of Attention’, which is another component of attention.

Attention doesn’t come naturally to everyone

ADHD research shows that one etiology underlying attention deficits and hyperactivity could be genetics, although we still don’t know all the gene sets involved and we still don’t have the pharmacogenetics methods that can effectively enhance the medication response. But it is only a matter of time.[iii]

Inattention and hyperactivity can also be caused by non-genetics factors affecting brain development. This could be utero exposure to alcohol or tobacco, low birth weight (<2,500 g), hypoxic–anoxic brain injury, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury or even environmental toxins such as lead.[iv]

Bearing all of this in mind, inattentive and hyperactive behaviour in our children can be caused by something completely out of their control – it is not their fault. This means, for teachers and parents, it is important to exercise patience and find the correct strategy for dealing with these attention issues, without unleashing frustration or fury.

How do you teach attention?

Paediatric Psychologist, Dr Lynne Kenny suggests the following approach in coaching the attention-paying process:

  • Let students know that [attention] is on a continuum – it is not one single event;
  • Teach children about the different domains of their attention (selection, focus, control);
  • Initiate discussions with students that encourage them to talk about their level of skills in each attention domain.

These steps provide a strong baseline for teaching attention but they’re not a one-size-fits-all solution. In a classroom environment, certain students will adopt attention skills naturally, whereas other students will need further intervention, either in the form of a medical specialist and/or attention training to help them develop the attention skills they need to learn other skills in life.

There are some further simple approaches that can help build attention skills in little ones but, by understanding how attention works, you are also helping identify attention problems in children and intercept them early before they become a greater problem. You could not give a child a better gift.

Want to know how TALi can help assess and strengthen attention in early childhood? Start a conversation by emailing play@talihealth.com


[i] https://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Bottleneck+Theory+

[ii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6414208/

[iii] https://academic.oup.com/pch/article/23/7/447/5142942

[iv] https://academic.oup.com/pch/article/23/7/447/5142942