"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Children learn even once they aren’t being attentive

August 2, 2023 – It is a story as old as teaching itself. Young children stare into space during class and appear oblivious to the lesson and every thing else occurring around them.

But Sara-Rivka Bass, a Brooklyn elementary school teacher, has found that many children who don't appear to be being attentive are literally taking in additional information than they appear.

“I allow the kids in my class to use a fidget spinner because it actually helps some kids pay attention,” she said. “If I see that their work is suffering, that it means they're using it as a toy instead of an attention-enhancing tool, and that they're paying attention to the spinner, then I take it away from them.”

But for a lot of children, the spinner actually helps them consider the lesson material.

“As a teacher, I know there are many children who appear to be paying attention and stare into my face during class, but do not absorb or retain any of the information,” Bass said. “Other children are able to concentrate better when they are doing something else at the same time.”

Children's brains

Now there's research suggesting Bass could also be right. A brand new study shows that children's apparent inability to concentrate can actually help them perform higher than adults, retaining information they needs to be discarding in ways adults can't.

The researchers studied 24 adults – average age 23 – and 26 children aged 7 to 9. Each was asked to have a look at a series of 4 images: a bumblebee, a automotive, a chair and a tree. The images were accompanied by a background of dots that moved either up, down, left or right.

Each person performed this in a magnetic resonance imaging machine. As the person watched, their brain activity was measured to find out which areas of the brain were most involved.

At one point within the study, participants were asked to disregard the moving dots and press a button if any of the 4 objects appeared greater than once. At one other stage, they were asked to disregard the objects and press a button if the dots moved in the identical direction greater than once.

When the researchers compared the accuracy of the kids and adults on each tasks, they found that the adults' brains showed increased activity when given the knowledge they were asked to concentrate on.

The children's brains, alternatively, represented each what they need to prioritize and what they need to ignore. In other words, they were in a position to decode each sets of knowledge concurrently.

In particular, the researchers found that adults were in a position to focus very precisely on what they were presupposed to see, but the kids were in a position to decode each equally well.

“This somewhat surprising result shows that attention works differently in children's brains, likely allowing children to learn facts that are not immediately relevant to a task,” said lead creator Amy Finn, PhD, associate professor on the University of Toronto.

“The present data show that children are more sensitive than adults to information from their environment that goes beyond their immediate goals. Such sensitivity may be helpful when children need to learn about multiple aspects of our information-rich world simultaneously or when their goals change,” the authors write.

Lead creator Yaelan Jung, PhD, who worked on the study as a doctoral student on the University of Toronto and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, explained in a press release. “Although it's not a foreign notion that children have lower attentional performance than adults, we didn't know how this lack of attention affects the way their brains absorb and store other information,” she said.

“Our study fills this gap in knowledge and shows that children’s lack of attention leads them to retain more information about the world than adults,” says Jung.

Develop an instinct for who is absolutely being attentive

According to Finn, the study has no “direct impact” on children with ADHD, who weren't the main focus of the researchers’ investigation.

However, Bass says she has noticed that a second activity – similar to doodling or fiddling with a spinner – can improve the eye of youngsters with ADHD.

Bass may be very conversant in ADHD, having suffered from it herself as a baby and still having trouble being attentive as an adult. She found that sometimes a highly interesting topic that captures a baby's attention could cause the kid to hyperfocus on it and never need every other activity at the identical time to concentrate. However, many lessons at school would not have such a magnetic pull on teens and for them, a “mindless activity” can improve their ability to concentrate.

Talya Roth teaches “twice exceptional” fourth and fifth graders who've each ADHD and autism. Roth has also found that giving students a spinner or having them draw during class doesn't affect their attention to the fabric; in truth, it may actually improve it.

“I literally had students who couldn't sit in their chairs and were doing handstands at the end of the day,” she said. “I taught my normal class and asked questions, and they stopped moving and gave me a thoughtful answer, not just 'yes' or 'no.' It made it clear that they were paying attention and taking in the information.”

Roth, who lives in New York, encourages parents and teachers to acknowledge that focus in children is complex and that even a seemingly inattentive child can actually be attentive.

Bass added that teachers need a variety of intuition and discretion to know when a baby is engaging with the fabric and once they are more focused on an out of doors activity, just like the spinner. “But you develop an instinct,” she said.