What is Attention?

15 Sep 20212-minute read
Parents, Schools
What is attention?

We all have our own ideas about what ‘paying attention’ means. However, when asked to fully describe attention, many of us will struggle to provide an answer that goes beyond a simple explanation of ‘focussing’ or ‘concentrating’ on a task.

Digging a little deeper, there are many behaviours and functions that involve attention, and they act as a foundation to support lifelong learning and development.

Attention works in different ways

It can be helpful to think about attention two ways:

First, there’s what happens in the brain — the cognitive part. This involves the invisible mental processes directing, controlling, maintaining focus and targeting energy on the various inputs surrounding us.

Then there’s what we can see — the behavioural part — which is the more tangible, day-to-day things such as a child waiting their turn, ignoring a dog barking outside the classroom, or wriggling and fidgeting non-stop.

But how do these two elements come together? A good example is a child playing video games.

The game is designed to capture and sustain focus from certain parts of the brain using music, graphics and problem-solving challenges. When your child’s brain is engaged, they might sit in the same place on the couch holding a game controller. 

At the same time, they may also impulsively yell out in frustration if they make a mistake or lose the game. This is your child demonstrating both the cognitive and behavioural parts of attention at the same time.


Attention in the classroom

Another way to understand attention is to put yourself in your child’s shoes.

Imagine a classroom of children sitting on the floor with the teacher at the front of the room giving instructions. The classroom is dimly lit, and most of the children in the room have a spotlight on their head. Each spotlight is a different size but is aimed at the front of the room.

The children with spotlights are able to filter out the rest of the dimly lit room and focus their light where it needs to be. For a child with attention difficulties, their source of light is actually a candle instead of a spotlight. So, when that child is directing their light toward the teacher, the whole room is illuminated.

With the entire room lit up, that child might see another child fiddling with their shoelace, and a toy sitting on a desk that they could be playing with. They might also realise that they’re hungry and that the clock on the wall is ticking loudly — how distracting!

IN-Attention Candle-GPlay-iOS-1


This description of attention highlights that children’s brains are all different, and that some have a source of light that’s distinctly different from the rest.
The earlier we can help these children to access strategies and tools to make sense of their world, the more likely it is that they will be able to navigate other challenges in their lives.


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