What is attention?

10 Feb 20214-minute read
Parents
What is attention? TALi Health

We all have our own ideas about what ‘attention’ means. However, when asked to fully describe attention, many of us will struggle to provide an answer that goes beyond a simple explanation of ‘focusing on something’ or ‘paying attention’.

So, what do we mean by ‘attention’ and why is it so important?

While focussing and paying attention are ways we often describe what attention might look like, they are only part of a myriad of qualities that make up the many behaviours and functions that involve attention, and that consequently act as a foundation to support lifelong learning and development.

When asking Clinical Lead at TALi, Dr Simone Gindidis, about attention, even she says, “I wish I had a simple answer for you but the reality is that the concept of attention is very complex.” So, we sat down with her to pick her brain and get to the bottom of attention, once and for all.

How would you describe attention in your own words? 

Well, when I think about attention, I think of it in two ways:

  1. There’s what’s happening in the brain – the cognitive part. This involves the invisible mental processes directing, controlling, maintaining focus and targeting energy on stimuli around us in different situations, and;
  2. There’s what we can see, the behavioural part, which is the more tangible, day-to-day stuff like a child waiting their turn, ignoring a dog barking outside their classroom so they can concentrate on the teacher’s instructions, or a child wriggling and fidgeting non-stop.

If I’m being completely honest, I’d have to include my ability to spend hours playing video games as an example of how the two parts interact: the game is designed to capture and sustain focus from certain parts of my brain using music, graphics and problem-solving challenges – that's the cognitive – the result being that people will see me sitting in the same place on the couch holding a game controller while (occasionally!) impulsively yelling in frustration – and that’s the behaviour part (laughs).

Attention skills fall under what’s called executive function. These skills and behaviours are associated with self-management and goal-directed behaviour. In everyday terms, this involves things like planning, organising, focusing, problem-solving, impulse control and emotion regulation. The impact of executive function difficulty can be quite significant.

Can you give us some examples of how attention plays out in the real world? 

I remember listening to a podcast a few years ago on ADHD and the presenter gave such a brilliant description of attention that I’ve used it ever since when explaining certain attention difficulties to parents. I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this…  

Imagine a classroom of kids seated on the floor and their teacher at the front of the room giving instructions. The classroom is dimly lit, and most of the kids in the room have a spotlight on their head. Each spotlight is a different size but is squarely aimed at the front of the room. Our spotlight kids are able to filter out the rest of the room (as it’s quite dark) and focus their light where it needs to be. For a child with attention vulnerabilities, their source of light is actually a candle instead of a spotlight. So, when that child is directing their light toward the teacher, the whole room is also illuminated. Because the whole room is lit up, your child can see that little Johnny in the other row is playing with his shoelace, and there’s a toy sitting on a desk that they’d rather be playing with, and they also realise that they’re hungry and that the clock on the wall is ticking loudly… how distracting!

I like this illustration of attention because it highlights (pardon the pun) that children’s brains are all different, and that some have a source of light that’s distinctly different from the rest. The earlier we can help these kids to access strategies and tools to make sense of their world, the more likely they are to be able to navigate other challenges in their lives.

As a clinician, why is early intervention of attention vulnerabilities in children important to you?  

Identifying and working with people who have attention issues as early as possible is absolutely critical because the long-term benefits for these kids – as well as their families, teachers and the wider community – cannot be understated. There’s so much research that’s been done that shows the earlier we’re able to start teaching the skills necessary for learning, wellbeing and independence, the better the outcomes for everyone involved.

I’m also a firm believer that, while what we call ‘diagnostic labels’ can be helpful, they can also hinder how children and families access support. The absence of a diagnosis of something like ADHD doesn’t automatically mean that a child isn’t experiencing executive function difficulties. We should be doing everything we can to help children develop a toolbox they can access across different settings and stages of life. The development of executive function and attention skills in early childhood contributes some pretty powerful tools to that toolbox.

For a child who’s struggling with attention, how could this play out in the future?

The body of evidence developed from numerous studies suggests people with attention difficulties are more likely to struggle throughout the course of their school years and are more likely to experience mental health issues and low self-esteem as they develop into young adults and beyond.

The goal is to help children reach their potential by addressing their difficulties as a whole and from a number of angles. We want them to feel successful, happy and capable, and so an evidence-based, multi-faceted approach to assessing a child experiencing attention difficulties is always the best course of action.

Do you think parents of children understand what is meant when we refer to attention in children?

Because attention encompasses so many different areas of brain function, at a clinical level, there are some key behaviours we measure that indicate whether that child might be experiencing attention difficulties. How much these behaviours and any associated cognitive impairments are impacting a child’s ability to learn, behave and socialise will determine if, and what, interventions will be needed. 

Just to be clear, I’m using the word ‘might’ on purpose here, because it’s important for parents to know that attention difficulties are often happening alongside other challenges at the same time, and it’s not always clear if attention difficulties are masking other vulnerabilities or vice-versa. So, because there’s never just ‘one thing’ that we can use to identify attention difficulties, I would encourage parents and teachers not to ignore any signs they might be seeing or concerns they might have about how their kids are progressing. In my biased opinion, there’s nothing bad that can come from gaining insight into your child’s cognitive, academic and behavioural strengths and weaknesses.

As a parent, don’t ignore your gut! If something doesn’t feel right, take the next steps: see an appropriate healthcare practitioner, like a psychologist, who can properly evaluate your child for attention and learning issues.

To find out if your child could benefit from attention training try our free attention assessment tool TALi DETECT, find out more below.

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