Exploring the three domains of attention development

21 Dec 20203-minute read
Parents, Healthcare
Girl looking at the three domains of attention development

How a brain develops hinges on a complex dance between the genes you inherit, and the life and education experiences you encounter from a young age. These interactions not only establish the context with which children understand and adapt to the world in which they live, they directly affect the way our brains are wired.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change: the ability to absorb information, learn new skills, adapt to new environments and establish relationships with others and the greater world around us.

Studies have shown, by the age of three, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s brain. Because of this neuroplasticity, identifying and addressing learning disabilities at a young age is crucial to maximising a child's chances to make the most of their educational experiences, to effectively socialise and interact with others for collaboration and cooperation, and to function to the best of their neurological and emotional capacity.

While many of us can identify with being asked, or told in some instances, to ‘pay attention’, understanding the many different layers of attention – and their impacts on our development as individuals – plays an important role in equipping us to maximise our potential as adults later in life. 

According to Amir Raz and Jason Buhle in their research paper, 'Typologies of attentional networks, "Great minds have grappled with the study of attention, but, in 1890, William James was probably the first to write about its multiplicity. Several researchers have since suggested that there are multiple components to attention (for example, Allan Mirsky and colleagues), and the field of attention is now one of the most studied in the cognitive sciences."

"An early influential model, which suggested that attention has various neurological underpinnings was first proposed by Michael Posner (1971). There are at least three key functionally and anatomically distinct types of supramodal attentional varieties," continue Raz and Buhle. "Although in the early 1970s these attentional networks were termed selection, capacity and alertness, over time they have gone through a few variations, and today we refer to them as executive, orienting and alerting, respectively."

At TALi, we subscribe to the Posner theory of attention, and we refer to these three attention domains as Executive Attention, Sustained Attention and Selective Attention.

Executive Attention

Executive Attention – sometimes also referred to as supervisory, conflict resolution and focussed attention – refers to the ability of individuals to regulate thought, behaviour and emotion, especially in conflict situations where there’s a range of potential responses. It’s a key plank in a person’s ability to problem-solve or execute complex cognitive tasks.

When it comes to children, Executive Attention has an important role to play in developing relationships and interactions with everything around them. Simply put, a deficiency in Executive Attention makes it difficult for people to create and keep lasting friendships, interact appropriately with teachers or authority figures, participate in a range of activities (sports, group learning and so forth) without compromising others in that group from performing at their best.

Children with Executive Attention vulnerability panic when routines or rules change, and struggle with switching their focus from one task to another.

Sustained Attention

Sustained Attention is about the ability of a person to focus on an activity or stimulus over an extended period of time. Having good sustained attention helps children efficiently carry out tasks and activities in our everyday lives, especially the kinds of tasks and responsibilities that take a substantial amount of time to complete.

In adults, Sustained Attention is important for functions like driving a vehicle. Fatigue and distractions are among the biggest contributing factors to road incidents, so having a good level of Sustained Attention is a cognitive capacity that helps us remain focused and alert on our surroundings and road conditions to avoid any accidents.

Sustained Attention levels in children determine their ability to comprehend and absorb what they’re learning in the classroom and at home, and for how long. Low levels of Sustained Attention can contribute to poor academic performance, which, if left unchecked, can adversely impact a child’s quality of life and opportunities to thrive.

Selective Attention

Generally, attention is a limited resource. Selective Attention, therefore, enables us to efficiently tune out distractions or unimportant details and focus on what matters at any given point in time. We focus our attention on certain things in our environment, while other things 'take a backseat', for lack of a better description.

A popular way of explaining Selective Attention is the 'restaurant' example. When we dine at a restaurant, there’s a lot going on: waiting staff moving from table to table taking and delivering orders, activity in the kitchen, patrons being seated or departing after a meal and possibly talking loudly... it's a range of other stimuli happening all at once. Selective Attention is our cognitive ability to place all these competing elements aside and focus exclusively on the conversation happening with the person, or people, at our table.

In relation to children, Selective Attention refers to their ability to filter out distractions in the presence of distracting and competing stimuli – i.e. being able to remain focused on the teacher, or completing tasks despite other students talking and chatting or activities on a nearby sporting field taking their attention away from the task at hand.

Being easily distracted, or being unable to filter out competing stimuli, makes it difficult for children to absorb and retain information, which will adversely affect academic performance.

Infographic showing the 3 domains of Attention



By detecting attention vulnerabilities and then strengthening attention skills at a young age (what is broadly termed 'early intervention'), when the neuroplasticity of the brain is at its highest level, we give our children a better chance to thrive.

Using a combination of cognitive and behavioural interventions early in life is the best way to address attention issues and improve positive outcomes.

This is what we do at TALi.