In a past column, we discussed results from research showing the importance of early life experiences in the development of the brain. This month we continue the discussion by focusing on brain systems central to every aspect of learning and academic success: those important in attention. Considerable evidence from research has documented the anatomy, chemistry and physiology of the brain systems important for attention and its development.
There are different types of attention and they develop at different times. The earliest type of attention to develop is the ability to orient attention to a sound or object in the environment. This ability is not developed at birth, which is why upset babies respond well to being held and gently rocked. However, this ability does begin to develop within the first year, making it possible to soothe babies by distracting their attention – for example, with peek-a-boo or a rattle or a soft toy.
Sustained attention develops next. It is the ability to maintain attention on stimuli in the environment for increasingly longer periods of time. While this ability gradually improves with age, it is still developing through at least age 10.
The last type of attention to develop in children is the ability to control attention. Most parents are familiar with the “terrible twos,” a natural phase of development in which children begin to use attention to develop patience, control their emotions and attend to sounds and objects around them.
Controlled attention continues to develop into the second decade of life so it makes sense that toddlers, as they enter this challenging developmental phase, require extra degrees of patience and understanding, such as:
- checking in with your child about emotions
- teaching your child how to take cooling-off breaks
At the University of Oregon’s Brain Development Laboratory, we study attention in children as young as 3 by measuring the brain’s response to sounds as we ask children to shift their “spotlight” of attention from one side to the other. Shifting this spotlight of attention markedly changes the brain’s response to events in the environment – the brain produces a response to an attended stimulus that is twice as large as the response when it is unattended, and this boost occurs within 1/10 of a second! The ability to focus attention is critical in lifelong learning. We have shown that this enhanced brain response is not present in some young children who are at-risk for academic problems.
We have also shown that attention itself is very changeable (i.e., displays ‘neuroplasticity’) and is enhanced in other populations.
Based on this basic research on attention, we have been testing the idea that family-centered attention training can reduce home stress and improve children’s cognitive skills and brain function. Indeed, after training parents to harness their children’s attention in everyday activities and teaching children to control their attention and emotions, we have reported significant improvements in the youngsters’ cognition and brain function.
Because we typically report our research findings in scientific journals that are not easily accessible to the general population, we created a not-for-profit DVD about brain development and neuroplasticity. While written for non-scientists, each statement made regarding healthy child and brain development is backed by scientific evidence. The results from brain development research can help inform decisions made by people who care for children, including parents, educators and policymakers.
To this end, our Changing Brains DVD features individual segments with information about different brain functions and structures, as well as practical tips for caregivers. All proceeds from sales of the DVD go toward distribution to those who cannot afford it and translation into Spanish. Changing Brains can be viewed for free or purchased at low cost at our website.
Helen Neville, PhD., is director of the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon’s Psychology Department, where she is a professor of psychology and neuroscience and the Robert and Beverly Lewis Endowed Chair. Her coauthors conduct research there. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education. Explore this site; visit us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram; or call 541-484-5316. Family Info Line is also available; call 211, extension 5, or send an e-mail to email@example.com.