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Attention is the ability to actively process specific information in the environment while tuning out other details. Attention is limited in terms of both capacity and duration, so it is important to have ways to effectively manage the attentional resources we have available in order to make sense of the world.

In his 1890 book “The Principles of Psychology,” psychologist and philosopher William James wrote that attention “is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

Understanding Attention

Think of attention as a highlighter. As you read through a section of text in a book, the highlighted section stands out, causing you to focus your interest in that area.

It’s not just about centring your focus on one particular thing; it also involves ignoring a great deal of competing information and stimuli. Attention allows you to “tune out” information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that’s important.

Not only does our attentional system allow us to focus on something specific in our environment while tuning out irrelevant details, but it also affects our perception of the stimuli surrounding us.

The Role of Attention in Learning and Thinking

Attention is a basic component of our biology, present even at birth. Our orienting reflexes help us determine which events in our environment need to be attended to, a process that aids in our ability to survive.

Newborns attend to environmental stimuli such as loud noises. A touch against the cheek triggers the rooting reflex, causing the infant to turn his or her head to nurse and receive nourishment. These orienting reflexes continue to benefit us throughout life.

Attention plays a critical role in almost every area of life including school, work, and relationships. It allows people to focus on information in order to create memories. It also allows people to avoid distractions so that they can focus on and complete specific tasks.

There has been a tremendous amount of research looking at exactly how many things we can attend to and for how long. Key variables that impact our ability to stay on task include how interested we are in the stimulus and how many distractions there are.

Types of Attention

There are many different types of attention that people may use. Some of these include:

Sustained Attention- This form of attention, also known as concentration, is the ability to focus on one thing for a continuous period. During this time, people keep their focus on the task at hand and continue to engage in a behaviour until the task is complete or a certain period of time has elapsed.  Research suggests that sustained attention peaks during the early 40s and then gradually declines as people age.

Alternating Attention- This type of attention involves multitasking or effortlessly shifting attention between two or more things with different cognitive demands. It’s not about focusing on more than one thing at the same time, but about stopping attending to one thing and then switching to the next task.

Selective Attention- Since attention is a limited resource, we have to be selective about what we decide to focus on. Not only must we focus our attention on a specific item in our environment, but we must also filter out an enormous number of other items.  Selective attention involves being able to choose and selectively attend to certain stimuli in the environment while at the same time tuning other things out. For example, you might selectively attend to a book you are reading while tuning out the sound of your next-door neighbour’s car alarm going off.  This type of attention requires you to be able to tune out extraneous external stimuli, but also internal distractions such as thoughts and emotions in order to stay selectively attuned to a task.

Focused Attention

This type of attention involves being able to be suddenly drawn to a specific visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli such as a loud noise or a flash of light. It is a way of responding rapidly to external stimuli, which can be particularly important in situations where something in the environment requires immediate attention and quick action.

Limited Attention- Limited attention, or divided attention, is a form of attention that also involves multitasking. In this case, however, attention is divided between multiple tasks. Rather than shifting focus, people attend to these stimuli at the same time and may respond simultaneously to multiple demands.  The illusion that attention is limitless has led many people to practice multitasking. Research published in 2018 has pointed out how multitasking seldom works well because our attention is, in reality, limited.

Improving Attention

For the most part, our ability to focus our attention on one thing while blocking out competing distractors seems automatic. Yet the ability of people to selectively focus their attention on a specific subject while dismissing others is very complex.

But even people without attention problems can benefit from using strategies designed to improve attention and focus. Some things you can try include:

  • Avoiding multitasking: If you want to improve your focus, try to avoid multitasking. Trying to juggle multiple tasks hurts productivity, so you can make the most of your limited attentional research by only working on one thing at a time.
  • Getting enough sleep: Research has shown that sufficient sleep is essential for maintaining optimal levels of attention. Not only that, the two appear to have a bidirectional relationship; sleep helps regulate attention, but attentional demands can also play a role in sleep.
  • Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness, which involves paying attention to the present moment, is sometimes conceived of as a form of attention. Research has shown that mindfulness training may be helpful for improving attention.

New ways of improving attention may also be on the horizon. This may be helpful for treating attentional problems that are the result of some conditions.

For example, research published in 2017 says that neural circuitry (pathways in the brain) related to attention are intricately related to conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Achieving a greater understanding of this process holds promise for better treatments for those coping with this condition down the line.

No matter what your child’s age, you can involve them in the process of establishing rules and the consequences for breaking them. A child who is included in setting the family rules is more likely to respect them.

Inattentive, children may:

  • seem distracted
  • seem not to listen
  • have trouble paying attention and/or keeping attention
  • not follow directions well
  • need many reminders to do things
  • show poor effort in schoolwork
  • have trouble getting organized

Lots of children have short attention spans. They get easily distracted. They have trouble following instructions or sitting still. These can be symptoms of ADHD. But there are also other conditions that cause attention problems. It’s important to rule these out or a child can be misdiagnosed with ADHD and get the wrong treatment.

Anxiety is one issue that can cause attention problems. When children worry a lot, it can make concentrating in school very hard. For example, children with separation anxiety may be distracted worrying that something will happen to their parents. Some children might not hand in homework or respond to teachers because they are so worried their answers won’t be perfect.

OCD is another condition that can be confused with ADHD. Children with OCD have obsessive worries about bad things happening. When a teacher calls on them, they seem like they’re not paying attention.

Trauma can also make it hard for  children to pay attention. Children who have been through very scary or stressful experiences can be nervous, jumpy, or spacey. These behaviours can make it look like they have ADHD.

A learning disorder can also cause an attention problem. These children might be having trouble with their academic work, and they often get frustrated and embarrassed when they can’t keep up. 

It’s important not to jump to the conclusion that your child has ADHD just because a teacher reports an attention problem. A mental health expert should examine your child. That expert should ask a lot of questions and observe their behaviour. Then they’ll be able to figure out the real problem and give your child the right treatment.

Trouble paying attention is often first identified by a teacher who notices that a student seems more easily distracted than most other children his age.

Maybe the child takes an unusually long time to finish schoolwork in class. Maybe when the teacher calls on him, he doesn’t seem to have been following the lesson. Maybe he seems to tune out when instructions are given, or forget what he’s supposed to be doing. Maybe homework assignments often go missing.

While all children, especially those who are very young, tend to have shorter attention spans and be more distractible than adults, some have much more trouble focusing and staying on task than others.

Since difficulty paying attention is widely associated with ADHD, that tends to be the first thing teachers, parents, and clinicians suspect. But there are a number of other possibilities that can be contributing to attention problems. To avoid misdiagnosis, it’s important that these other possibilities, which are not always obvious, not be overlooked.

Here is a checklist of some of the other issues that may make a child struggle to pay attention in school:


A child who seems not to be focusing in school could have chronic worries that teachers (and even parents) are not aware of. There are many different kinds of anxiety, but what they have in common, says neurologist and former teacher Ken Schuster, PsyD, is that anxiety “tends to lock up the brain,” making school hard for anxious children.

A child with separation anxiety might be so preoccupied about something bad happening to her parents while she is apart from them that she is unable to concentrate on schoolwork.

Some children are extremely worried about making a mistake or embarrassing themselves. When the teacher is calling on them, they may try to disappear, Dr. Shuster notes. “They might look down, they might start writing something even though they’re not really writing something. They’re trying to break the connection with the teacher in order to avoid what’s making them feel anxious.”

Sometimes when a child takes an unusually long time to finish her work in class, it’s not because she’s daydreaming but because she’s, struggling with perfectionism that requires her to do things exactly the right way. Or if she doesn’t turn in her homework, it could be not because she didn’t do it, but because she is worried that it isn’t good enough.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Children with OCD, which often starts in the grade-school years, have an added source of distraction: They not only have obsessive thoughts, but feel they must perform rituals, or compulsions, to prevent bad things from happening. A child with OCD might be compulsively lining things up on his desk, or tapping, or counting in his head. Or he might be focused on needing to go to the lavatory to wash his hands.

“A children may be sitting in class having an obsession about needing to fix something, to avoid something terrible happening. Then the teacher calls on him,” says Jerry Bubrick, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute who specializes in anxiety and OCD. “When he doesn’t know the answer to the question, it looks like he wasn’t paying attention, but it’s really because he was obsessing.”

Since children with OCD are often ashamed of their symptoms, they may go to great lengths to hide their compulsions while they’re in school. To a teacher who’s not aware of the OCD, distraction might look like ADHD, but it isn’t.

Stress or trauma

Children can also appear to be suffering from inattention when they have been impacted by a trauma. Children who’ve witnessed violence or other disturbing experiences may demonstrate difficulty paying attention and a persistent sense of insecurity called hypervigilance.

Children whose home lives involve acute stress may develop these symptoms, or even post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Many of the symptoms of PTSD look like ADHD,” explains Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinician at the Child Mind Institute who specializes in trauma. “Symptoms common in PTSD, such as difficulty concentrating, exaggerated startle response, and hypervigilance, can make it seem like a child is jumpy and spacy.”

Learning disorders

When a child seems to be looking everywhere but at the pages of the book she is supposed to be reading, another possible cause is that she has a learning disorder.

Children with undiagnosed dyslexia might fidget with frustration or feel ashamed that they can’t seem to do what the other children can do and be intent on covering that fact up.

If a child struggling with math, he might welcome distractions that allow him to think about something else, or avoid completing the assignment.

Auditory processing problems could cause a child to miss some of what the teacher is saying, even if she’s listening, and that could look as if she’s not paying attention.

Some children are able to compensate for their learning disabilities by working extra hard, and they may be successful until they reach a grade where the work becomes too challenging.

“They’ve been able to hide their weakness until they get older and there’s just too much heavy lifting,” notes Nancy Rappaport, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in mental health care in school setting. “They’re often diagnosed with ADHD or depression, unless someone catches the learning problem.”

Is it really ADHD?

Inattention that is outside the typical range is one of the three key symptoms of ADHD, along with impulsivity and hyperactivity. Some children do demonstrate only inattentive symptoms. But a diagnosis of ADHD shouldn’t be made just on the basis of teacher reports or one quick visit to the paediatrician.

To make an accurate diagnosis, a clinician should collect information from several people who have observed your child, including you, other caregivers, and teachers. Parents and teachers should be asked to fill out a rating scale, to capture an accurate assessment of the frequency of symptoms. The behaviour has to continue over an extended period, and be observed in more than one setting-both at home and at school, for instance. And clinicians should carefully rule out other possible reasons for his behaviour.

It’s also important that a child’s ability to pay attention be compared to others of his own age, not everyone in his grade. A study published in 2012 found that boys who are the youngest in their class are 30% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest boys in the class, and younger girls are 70% more likely to be diagnosed than the oldest girls. This suggests that that immaturity may also be mistaken for ADHD. https://childmind.org/article/not-all-attention-problems-are-adhd/

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