Stop. Listen to a song, podcast or have a conversation with a friend—for 30 seconds. That is about the length of time a child with severe attention issues is able to focus on any given piece of information coming from one sensory source at any given moment. Regardless of whether the time felt long or short, children today are required to not only pay attention, but comprehend and take notes on the important information being delivered through a primarily one-dimensional sensory source for at least 5 minutes, but many times 20 or 30 minutes at a time.
Sustained attention is the ability to direct ones attention to a specified source without losing focus despite potential distractors. Children and adults greatly struggle with sustained attention today; the environment no longer demands it and, in many instances reinforces, the opposite. From the 10-second news clips, to the demands on attention from multiple sources ranging from text messages, to email, to the never-ending checklist of tasks needing to be completed. The length one is expected to pay attention has significantly decreased in the digital age of instantaneous communication and access to information. However this change has not only affected the world of adults and adult occupations. It has infested itself down to the youngest of children. Dr. Straub discusses what Dr. Dimitri Christakis found in a Baby Einstein episode “A Day on the Farm”, seven scene changes occurred in a 20 second period of time compared to no scene changes in a clip of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Taken one step-further, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was the only show that had no impact on children’s attention span later in school when compared to children who watched no TV. Dr. Straub theorizes this is because the show was designed to increase attention span by requiring the sole focus to be on one person. Other television series, including Baby Einstein and Sesame Street had a negative impact on attention spans in school-aged children. The theory behind this is known as the overstimulation hypothesis, which states, “That is, prolonged exposure to rapid image changes during a child’s critical period of brain development preconditions their mind to expect high levels of stimulation, which leads to inattention in later life.” While pediatricians and child development experts dissuade children from being exposed to television, computers, etc., these changing demands on attention can be found in other modalities. Toys that light up, blink, play songs, talk, move all at the push of various buttons are not effectively aiding children in improving his/her sensory processing, but rather decreasing his/her ability to focus on any given stimulus sources for more than 30 seconds. This short snippet of required attention is reinforced throughout a child’s early development.
Then school happens. Children are suddenly required to pay attention for 5-15 minutes with major distractors—wiggly bodies, children and adults talking, chairs being pulled out and pushed in, etc. If these same children have been exposed to children’s so called educational programs, smartphones, electronic toys, they have essentially been set-up to fail. Their muscle for sustained attention has not be developed and it has little if anything to do with ADHD; the pace of learning is simply too slow. Their brains have been wired to expect and therefore perform in a near opposite way for the first 5 years of their life; therefore, like most new tasks, one needs to practice in order to become successful. Children today, need practice at sustaining their attention. Oftentimes these students with weakened sustained attention are automatically labeled and sometimes mislabeled as having Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); however according to Dr. C. Thomas Gualtieri, et al “ADHD is not simply a disorder of sustained attention. Indeed, impairment in sustained attention is common to a certain extent to all children with psychiatric disorders. Neuropsychological studies of ADHD children and adults reveal subtle but clear impairments in several complex functional systems: Selective attention memory; reaction time and information processing speed; motor speed and visuomotor ability; and executive control functions, like set-shifting, inhibitory control, and working memory.” Therefore, since one can have sustained attention weakness without having ADHD; it is essential for educators to be well-versed in understanding executive function skills as well as the vast array of researched and identified disorders that emerge during childhood. Quick fixes such as medication may not always be the best answer, especially if the cause is has been wrongly concluded.
Before wrongly labeling every attention-deficient student, steps to strengthen the sustained attention muscle are critical. One way to effectively do this is to incorporate state changes intentionally throughout the lessons in order to allow students to set-shift before becoming disengaged with the material because the content is being presented without a scene change and/or utilizing only one sense. State changes for all intensive purposes provide that ‘scene change’ the brain has become programmed to expect. Attention spans for elementary aged students range anywhere from 4 to 6 minutes; mini lessons are targeted at 5 minutes; however can easily go up to 15 or more. These numbers are based on what is average or typical; therefore there will be students whose sustained attention can barely make it to 3 minutes. Steve Roninette defines state changes as, “continually switching the sensory focus from visual to auditory to body kinesthetic and back again. This keeps students’ attention and gives them the opportunity to learn more as they tap into all their senses.” State changes come in a variety of forms and can become integrated into the lesson to enhance a particular point. They can be kinesthetic in nature and unrelated to any lesson, in which case it’s best to use them between lessons. Examples include: Brain Gym Activities, simple yoga poses, wiggle or dance breaks. Dr. Gerard Evanski explains the scientific reason behind the necessity and effectiveness of state changes, “The human brain does not store energy. The brain needs a constant blood supply, which brings it oxygen and nutrients. Dr. David Sousa has said that blood tends to pool in “our feet and our seat” when we sit for too long. Many of my state changes for students are designed to also energize them, and get their blood full of oxygen and flowing to the brain.” While kinesthetic state changes may be the most energizing, they are not the only option. State changes can also be verbal or auditory and related to the content, and therefore should be incorporated into the lesson right before students typically tune out. Examples include: turn and talks, think, pair, share, or any form of verbal/auditory recap of the lesson content. State changes can also be more passive and simply change the way information is being presented to students. For example, showing a video to reinforce the topic that was just presented.
In addition to state changes, increasing sustained attention through sustaining attention is another way. Meditation or attending to guided imagery exercises offer a non-academic way to increase sustained attention while also decreasing the cortisol release and overall levels of stress. A study conducted by Dr. Stephani Sutherland at University of Southern California, found that mindfulness training and continued practice improved sustained attention when compared to no intervention or the practice of physical relaxation, whereas there was no difference between the two groups when measuring changes in concentration and inhibition of distraction. This shows that simple and easy to use interventions can be utilized in the classroom to target and increase student’s sustained attention.
Overall, the demands placed on people in the twenty-first century significantly inhibit our ability to pay attention for long periods of time; however, the very system that educates our children and many occupations in which those same children enter demand just the opposite—an ability to focus for a duration of time and internalize information despite distractors. Until one or the other changes. It is crucial to build in opportunities to help strengthen weakened or never developed abilities to attend. Most children simply cannot come to school ready-made with a skill that is not only not expected of them or naturally reinforced in their environment, but the exact opposite skill is being applied on a daily basis. If training and teaching does not occur for children during their school-day, like many other shifts in the field of education, this will be one more that sets up children for failure instead of success.