Attention: All That Matters

The role of attention in learning is a topic of great interest to both researchers and clinicians alike when it comes to the discussion of the causes of learning difficulties in children (Posner & Rothbart, 2007). Attention plays a crucial role in learning, since if you cannot attend you cannot commit stimuli to memory and consequently comprehend it (Styles, 2006). It is the very starting point for obtaining and processing information. It also happens to be one of the most poorly understood and often downright misunderstood cognitive processes.

So today I wanted to share some information regarding attention basics in order to foster a bit of clarity on this highly complex subject.

Simply put, attention is a cognitive process that allows us to selectively focus on specific stimuli (information, actions, etc) while filtering out irrelevant distractions. It includes the following components:

  • Alertness or one’s ability to maintain a state of readiness to detect and respond to incoming stimuli. It allows individuals to maintain adequate levels of arousal and vigilance. Alertness is controlled by the reticular activating system in the brain, which is responsible for maintaining wakefulness and readiness (Berridge & Waterhouse, 2003; Steriade & McCarley, 2005; Posner & Rothbart, 2007; Posner, 2008).
  • Orientation is one’s ability to selectively focus attention on specific stimuli. It is regulated by the parietal cortex and the superior colliculus regions of the brain. Orientation allows us to direct attention toward the most important information at a particular moment and avoid distractions (Corbetta, Kincade, & Shulman, 2002; Müri & Nyffeler, 2008).  It enables us to quickly recognize and absorb as well as respond to feedback and adjust our learning strategies accordingly (Awh, Vogel, & Oh, 2006; Chun & Turk-Browne, 2007).
  • Executive Control is the ability to deliberately direct attention and control thoughts and actions. It allows us to inhibit distracting information, shift attention between tasks, and maintain attention over long periods of time. It is regulated by the prefrontal and the anterior cingulate cortices of the brain, respectively (Miller & Cohen, 2001; Banich, 2009)

Several aspects of attention play a critical role in facilitating learning:

  • Selective Attention, for the purpose of information selection, allows us to focus on the task at hand and ignore distractions in our environment. By prioritizing essential input, we as learners can better process new content and form a deeper understanding of the subject matter. (Gazzaley & Nobre, 2012; Rerko & Oberauer, 2013; Lavie, Beck, & Konstantinou, 2014)
  • Sustained Attention (Vigilance) allows us to consistently maintain focus on a task or stimulus over a long period of time in a continuous fashion. It allows us to stay engaged with educational material for extended periods, increasing our likelihood of retaining information. It is particularly important when learning complex or detailed academic subjects that require considerable mental effort (Esterman, et al, 2013; Thomson, Besner & Smilek, 2015).
  • Divided Attention (Multitasking) allows us to allocate attention across multiple tasks simultaneously and effectively without neglecting any particular task. It enables us to balance taking notes while listening to a lecture or monitor multiple sources of information (Tombu & Jolicœur, 2003; Wickens, 2008; Gazzaley & Nobre, 2012).
  • Alternating Attention (Cognitive Flexibility) refers to our ability to switch focus between tasks and change the level or type of required attention, in situations when different tasks need to be performed in sequence. Alternating attention allows us to adapt to changing demands and switch between various subjects as needed. This is crucial for keeping up with fast-paced learning environments, acquiring different skills, and promoting critical thinking (Chun, Golomb & Turk-Browne, 2011; Esterman, et al, 2013; Rerko & Oberauer, 2013).
  • Attentional (or Executive) Control allows us to set goals, plan, prioritize tasks, allocate attention strategically, and maintain focus in complex, quickly-changing learning environments to achieve our learning objectives. When we consciously direct and coordinate our attention, we can better focus on specific outcomes and increase our chances of success ( Braver, 2012; Miyake & Friedman, 2012; Banich, 2009)

Now that we have reviewed some of these common attention-related terms, let us move on to the attention-related difficulties in children with language and learning needs.

Consider the following. How many times have you heard a variation of the following statements as related to students’ testing performance:

  1. You can’t really test them because they are so inattentive
  2. They are not really attending so you need to stop testing
  3. They did poorly on this test because of their inattention
  4. I attribute the student’s inattention during testing to ADHD

The fact is that children with language and literacy needs have comorbid attentional difficulties causing them significant challenges in their ability to focus, process, comprehend, and retain information (Ebert & Kohnert, 2011; Henry, Messer, & Nash, 2012; Gooch et al, 2014).

So what are some causes of attentional deficits in children with language and literacy needs?

For starters, they process oral and written information differently from their typically developing peers. They present with challenges following directions, understanding context, or processing complex syntax. Their lack of comprehension often leads to frustration as well as difficulty maintaining attention to complex stimuli (Scott & Windsor, 2000; St. Clair, 2011; Lum, et al, 2012; Hsu & Bishop, 2014).

Another reason is the increase in cognitive load or cognitive demands. Children with language and literacy disorders have to expend more cognitive effort to process linguistic input, which frequently makes them fatigued and overwhelmed. This extensive effort will adversely impact their attentional resources, making it more difficult for them to maintain focus on learning (Just & Carpenter, 1992; Sweller & Chandler, 1994; Paas, Renkl, & Sweller, 2003; Gerjets, Scheiter, & Cierniak, 2009).

Yet another equally important reason is working memory limitations. This, highly heterogenous group of children, presents with deficits not just in linguistic processing but in nonlinguistic processing, as well. These include (but are certainly not limited to) working memory deficits, including their ability to hold and manipulate information for brief periods of time, which in turn adversely impacts their attention span (Marton & Schwartz, 2003; Archibald & Gathercole, 2007).

Last (for the purpose of this post) but not least, let’s not forget that children with language and literacy needs present with social-emotional challenges (pragmatics is an area of language) due to difficulty understanding and producing language in social contexts. This often leads to feelings of frustration, anxiety, loneliness, and/or despair all of which contribute to reduced attention to learning (Rice, Sell, & Hadley, 1991; McCabe & Meller, 2004; Conti-Ramsden & Botting, 2004; Durkin & Conti-Ramsden, 2007).

So the next time you hear from someone questionable statements about the student’s attention, don’t be so hasty in accepting them at face value. Such statements don’t carry any usefulness and are often made to either minimize someone’s language and literacy struggles or to even deny them related services based on a lack of knowledge of what can be done in such situations therapeutically.

After all these students’ testing performance is not an isolated occurrence but rather a daily struggle. Consequently, blaming their daily struggles on inattention or ADHD when these struggles directly adversely impact academics and social interactions is not helpful in the least. Instead, it makes far more sense to analyze the linguistic underpinnings of the students’ difficulties during the testing performance in order to create meaningful and functional goals to improve their performance. While it is true that attention cannot be targeted in isolation to improve language and literacy performance, actually working explicitly on language and literacy does indeed improve attention in an evidence-based manner (Melby-Lervåg, Redick, & Hulme, 2016; Hjetland et al 2020). So while inattention causes significant learning challenges, effectively intervening in language and literacy deficit target areas, will indirectly improve attention and focus, and will directly result in better academic and social performance as well as improved outcomes.


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