Have you ever had a chance to watch young kids in a classroom? Their behavior is often widely different. While some little ones are glued to the activity at hand, others find it hard to sustain attention. They are more distractable and disruptive and may be found talking to others or moving around out of their seats.

To better track the impulsive and inattentive behaviors some kids display in early education classrooms, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas, Austin had students wear a device that noted their levels of attention.

“When a child has difficulty sustaining attention or sitting still, it disrupts their learning and can disrupt the classroom,” researcher and lead author Andrew Koepp, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a press release. “Research has consistently found that difficulties controlling attention and behavior in childhood predict more difficulties later in life, such as lower educational attainment and more financial problems.”

Kids' self control declined across the school week, supporting the idea that self-regulation is a resource that can be depleted through repeated use in everyday settings like school.

Most studies of attention have relied on reports parents, teachers and research scientists have made by observing kids' attention and distractibility in homes, schools and labs. Not only do they require substantial time and resources, they may fail to capture a wide range of behaviors.

The researchers outfitted children in the study with wearable devices called acelerometers that can record data continuously as well as unobtrusively over a period of days. Wearable monitors are a relatively new and particularly useful way to collecting repeated observations.

Sixty children between the ages of three to six who were enrolled in five preschool or kindergarten classes at a university laboratory school in central Texas in the fall of 2021 wore accelerometers — devices that are designed to measure movement. All the children were white and of high socioeconomic status.

The good news is that after analyzing the data, the researchers found that the onset, intensity and duration of kids' gross-motor, full-body movement was strongly in agreement with their teachers' reports of self-regulatory behavior in the classroom. The study also reported that:

  • Children's behavior changed across periods of the school day.
  • Self-control declined during the school week, supporting the idea that self-regulation is a resource that can be depleted through repeated use in everyday settings like school.
  • Children with greater self-regulation showed greater consistency in applying it every day.

Parents and teachers may want to consider adopting a strengths-based approach that focuses on times when children can best regulate their behavior.

“Our study showed that wearable technology can automate the detection of impulsive and inattentive behaviors, facilitating within-child investigations of children's self-regulation,” Elizabeth Gershoff, co-author of the study and professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a press release. “We also showed that children's motor actions reveal mental processes that are not directly observable.”

What's the takeaway? The study's authors believe that tools like these wearable devices can give parents and teachers insights that can help guide children to develop skills to control their attention and behaviors.

Based on their findings, it may be useful for educators to understand that young children may be most calm and ready to learn earlier in the school week. Parents and teachers possibly should adopt a strengths-based approach that focuses on times when children can best regulate their behavior.

Being consistent in the home and providing routines and structure help kids pay attention and concentrate outside the home, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Here are some of their tips:

  • Use family routines. Follow a regular schedule for playtime, mealtime and bedtime. Knowing what to expect can help your child feel safe and secure.
  • Set clear rules, limits and consequences, and stick to them. Make sure everyone who takes care of your child is on the same page. If you and your family members don't agree, ask your child's doctor to help you talk through your differences. Being consistent, not rigid, is important.
  • Help your child learn to recognize and manage their own behavior. For example, if your child tends to leave their homework at home, teach your child how to make it part of their bedtime routine to put homework into their backpack.
  • Create a quiet work space. A place to do homework or other activities away from noise or other distractions will help your child stay focused and organized.
  • Make a visual schedule to help your child learn independence and organization. Take pictures of your child doing the tasks on the schedule (or cut pictures out of magazines). These can help your child complete routine tasks having multiple steps, such as getting ready in the morning or getting ready for bed.

The study is published in the journal Child Development.