Portrait of a Learner 4-8

Systems Change

Factor Connections

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Attention is the ability to focus on a specific task without being distracted. Strong Attention skills support academic success, as students learn better when attending to materials or activities relevant to their goals. Importantly, attentional control often varies based on the context, including interest in the topic, task difficulty, and task duration. Attentional control continues to develop through middle childhood and adolescence, and can be supported by practice.

Main Ideas

There are several different types of Attention:

  • Sustained Attention is the ability to maintain focus on a specific task for a continuous period of time without getting distracted. Sustained Attention helps students learn new information, and strong sustained Attention is associated with increased academic performance.
  • Selective Attention is the ability to select relevant information to focus on, while filtering out irrelevant information. Selective Attention is closely related to Inhibition and resistance to interference and helps to explain young children's difficulty ignoring task-irrelevant stimuli. As Attentional control is an act of attending to sensory information, selective Attention is often broken down into two different types:
    • Visual Selective Attention is the ability to focus on relevant information in a cluttered scene.
    • Auditory Selective Attention is the ability to focus on a specific source of sound in a noisy environment.
  • Alternating Attention is the ability to switch focus between tasks, and is the foundation for Cognitive Flexibility.
  • Divided Attention, also known as multitasking, is the ability to attend to multiple tasks at once.

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is multi-faceted and often presents with differential patterns of attentional control. These behaviors can manifest differently for different individuals and over time, including restlessness (hyperactivity or overactivity) or inattentiveness , impairments in inhibitory control or Working Memory, and can result in delays in Self-Regulation. Students with ADHD often have difficulty with academic (e.g., keeping track of assignments, managing complex tasks, etc.), social (taking turns, reading social cues, etc.), and adaptive (e.g., managing time) behavior. These difficulties are related to delayed maturation of certain regions of the brain, as well as differences in brain structure and neural networks in students with ADHD.

How the classroom environment is organized is important for how students use their attentional resources. Younger learners can attend as much (or more) to off-task stimuli. Therefore heavily decorated classrooms may disrupt elementary schoolers' Attention to on-task behavior, resulting in fewer learning gains—although as learners reach middle school, this may have less of an effect on their learning. Additionally, a sense of Safety can play an influential role in Attention. Students who do not feel safe in their school, neighborhood, or home, or are victims of bullying tend to experience stress and anxiety, which can negatively affect their ability to pay Attention in school. Teachers can support their students' Attention in a number of ways, including organizing their classrooms to minimize distractions, creating breaks for movement, incorporating checks for understanding, and creating a safe and positive classroom climate by building strong, trust-based relationships.

Learn More

  • Attention: A microcredential to support students' attention
  • Executive Function: A microcredential to support students' executive functioning skills

View Measures and References