January 16, 2019

The Attention Span of a 5-Year-Old

In kindergarteners, attention training boosts not only attention, but intelligence and brain function.

Parents are right to worry about what the seemingly endless distractions offered by tablets, cell phones and video games — not to mention television — may be doing to their kids' attention. Being able to focus on what is being taught is perhaps the most important factor in kids' success in school, yet online distractions appear to be one reason why attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is being diagnosed more than ever.

Online offerings can be distracting, but they can also be used to improve children's attention. Computer-based programs to teach children how to resist distractions really work, a new study finds, benefiting not just attention, but the way kids think, and their brain functions as well.

“By training attention we can improve the intelligence of children and prepare them for formal learning in school.”

Researchers had five-year-olds come into the lab and carry out a number of brain-teaser type games on a computer or tablet. To succeed at some of the games, participants had to exert a certain amount of mental control, suppressing the obvious but incorrect answer, and choose the less obvious correct answer. Others were “go/no-go” tasks, like Simon Says, in which kids had to pay careful attention and wait for the right cue before making a response. Other tasks involved memory or matching challenges.

Kids who were given training improved in attention and cognition compared to kids in a control group who weren’t offered training. The results also suggested that a particular kind of training, in which an adult is there to provide guidance and to help the child look at his or her own thinking strategies (metacognition) was particularly beneficial.

Brain scans revealed that changes in brain regions involved in attention corresponded to the increase in cognition. This reflects earlier evidence that changing the way one thinks, changes the brain.

“The results of this research suggest that it is important to train attention from early childhood onward,” said study author, María Rosario Rueda Cuerva, in a press release. “By training attention we can improve the intelligence of children and prepare them for formal learning in school.”

Parents should always monitor how much time kids spend on their electronic devices or watching television. But the study shows that cognitive training and other early interventions such as Head Start can provide academic and social benefits that last for years. Different types of mental training, especially when guided by a supportive adult, can really make a difference in children's ability to pay attention.

The study was carried out by researchers at the Mind, Brain and Behavior Research Center at the University of Granada in Spain. It was published in the journal Developmental Science.

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