Why paying attention is not as simple as we think
Daniela Ginta, MSc
Every parent has at some point wondered whether their child lacks focus, perhaps overlooking the fact that today’s children are growing up in a busy world, full of stimuli that their developing brains are not yet equipped to manage in a balanced way.
At any given time, the brain receives messages (via sensory system) about the world, some more important than others. The way it deals with the deluge of information is by engaging two kinds of processing: top-down and bottom-up.
Say you meet for business in a busy coffee shop. Your top-down attention processing helps you focus on the meeting, while the bottom-up attention processing distracts you through a myriad of stimuli. Maintaining focus becomes a game of tug-of-war between the two.
The task is harder yet for children. “Attention is a cognitive process that develops over time as children grow,” says Gail Johnson, a pediatric occupational therapist at Mind in Motion, Occupational Therapy in Kamloops, BC. There are different types of attention, she explains, and motivation plays an important role.
If we’re asking children to perform tasks they’re not interested in, they’ll be easily distracted, cautions Johnson, but that doesn’t mean they’re unable to focus in general. Humans rely on more than one type of attention to survive, learn, and thrive, she explains, so considering just one will not give an accurate picture.
“Meeting children at their level of performance and increasing the level of challenge as you go will keep them focused,” says Johnson. When they’re focused, children are able to ask questions and participate in conversations; they can problem-solve, which enhances self-confidence and the ability to learn and tackle difficult tasks; they learn that different types of attention are employed at different times.
Never doubt the power of a good snuggle-and-read session. Reading to children helps them develop empathy and listening and language skills, and it enhances their ability to focus and discuss captivating story plots and moral and social issues.
Same for playing together. “When we play with children, they get our full attention,” says Johnson. Playing, by themselves or with others, keeps children focused; it helps them develop social skills, learn to solve problems, and manage their feelings (or at least start to do so).
Multiple studies have concluded that nature has a rejuvenating effect on attention in both adults and children. Having windows facing green spaces or field trips in nature increased attention and helped decrease stress. Bonus: impulse control is better after some nature time.
Most people can only focus on one activity at a time. While some have better divided attention, overall focus and performance are affected when we try to attend to more than one activity at a time.
Babies and toddlers benefit the most from face-to-face interactions and real-life experiences, and less so from exposure to screens, be it television, tablets, or phones.
Children who watch too much TV early in life may have delayed language skills, but larger studies concluded that two hours or less do not harm cognitive performance as long as children and teenagers get at least 60 minutes of exercise daily and nine to 11 hours of sleep.
Some parents ban screens altogether, while others allow some. “Avoid using the television or other screens for babysitting,” cautions Johnson. Instead, reserve some time to watch together and chat about it.
“Observe the child and the activity they’re engaged in on screens,” says Johnson. Certain functional skills can be sharpened through computer activities, but there is no one-size-fits-all advice.
“Be aware of the game your child is playing, and see if they’re developing skills that are transferable to life activities,” she adds. Just-for-fun activities have their place, but observe your child’s emotional state as they’re disengaging from screens (tip: there should be no emotional distress).
Eating the right kinds of foods is essential for a child’s brain development.
“Cooking and baking from scratch is the best way to eat for brain health,” says Heather Parkinson, a registered holistic nutritionist based in Calgary. Additives and preservatives, along with colour chemicals and flavour enhancers, can adversely affect our brain, she explains.
Your child’s ability to focus is greatly improved when their blood sugar levels are balanced, which can be achieved, Parkinson explains, by combining a healthy protein or fat source with a natural carbohydrate, such as a piece of cheese or a handful of nuts with an apple or other fruit.
Food sensitivities and allergies can also affect focus. Parkinson advises keeping an eye on newly introduced foods.
You ask your child for undivided attention, but you keep checking your phone. Double standards anyone? If you must have your phone within reach for specific purposes, explain that to your child, says Johnson. Seek opportunities to exemplify sustained attention versus divided attention (avoid the big words, though.)
We live in a world full of distractions, many of which are generated by screens. We can’t isolate our children from real life, but we can help them develop the skills to compartmentalize screen time so they can attend to social activities and manage work without being constantly distracted.
Daniela Ginta, MSc, lives and writes in Kamloops, BC, alongside her family. Visit her at thinkofclouds.com.