Faculty Interview with Dr. Mark Mahone - Attention

tags: Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education Linking Research to Classrooms: A Blog for Educators

March 14, 2017


Lisa Carey, senior education consultant at CILSE, talks to Dr. E. Mark Mahone, Director of Department of Neuropsychology and Co-Director of the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education at Kennedy Krieger Institute about students and attention.

LC: When I talk to teachers, one of their biggest questions is how to improve student attention. What can you tell me about how attention works and develops?

MM: I think the first point to make is that attention is not just one thing. There are lots of different components. For example, when we think about attention, a lot of what we describe is the notion of the “attentional filter.” Attention acts as a filter through which information gets into the brain. We know that information gets into the brain via our senses: we hear, we smell, we taste, we touch, we see. But, even as information comes in through our senses, it can be filtered out through our brain’s attentional system. In fact, the brain does that all of the time and we don’t even think about it.  We are all bombarded by things going on in the environment - lights, sounds, sensations -but we don’t attend to all of them. If we did, we could never focus on one thing. Our attentional filter, which we call selective attention, allows our brain to filter out a lot of that information when we do not need to pay attention to it. Attention within this context is very much like shining a light on something. You can shine a light on something and pay attention to it, or you can take the light away and not pay attention to it. A concrete example of that would be if you think about the feeling of the tag in the back of your shirt. If you pay attention to it, you can probably feel it. But, you didn’t feel it until I drew your attention to it. Your brain had been filtering out that sensation in order to focus on other more important things. People have difficulties when their brain is continually drawn to things that are supposed to be filtered out. That is one of the processes that is most problematic for children with developmental disorders, such as ADHD. 

LC:  So our attentional filters are variable? You mentioned that there are multiple forms of attention. What other types of attention are there?

MM: Another component of attention is what we think about when we think of persistence. We call that “sustained attention.” This type of attention is important in a school setting because a lot of assignments require the student to independently stay with a task without external prompting. Your brain is able to sustain continued effort only for a certain period of time. Not surprisingly, just like many cognitive skills, the ability to sustain attention grows and develops over time. When students are younger they are not very good at sustained attention. As students get older they improve. Nevertheless, there are many children and adolescents who continue to have difficulty with employing sustained attention without externalized supports. In addition to development, a student’s interest in the task at hand will also dictate the level of sustained attention. All people have topics and activities they find genuinely interesting, as well as topics and activities they find dull. Not surprisingly, among all age levels, people pay attention and sustain attention for longer periods of time to things they’re familiar with and have interest in.

This concept is important because often teachers say, “I saw him pay attention for long amounts of time to a science project, why can’t he pay attention to this sheet of math problems?” Paying attention for long periods of time is easier if the task or topic is interesting or of value to the student. That’s why offering students choices can help sustain attention.

LC: For example, if I want my students to sustain attention on a reading activity, I could offer choices in what topics the texts cover, which would increase the likelihood that my students would find the text interesting. 

MM: Exactly.

LC: This means that as teachers, we need to address reducing distractions for students with struggling attentional filters and offer choices for students to support their sustained attention. What else can teachers do to support attention?

MM: There is also the concept of “span of attention.” Span of attention is the amount of information your brain can take in before you start forgetting it. Based on a lot of cognitive experiments, most adults can take in seven (plus or minus two) units of information before they start to forget. Spans like these can be auditory or visual. Like everything else, your span of attention is dependent on your age (development), your level of interest, and the amount of information competing for your attention.
Within the classroom setting, keeping span of attention is mind is important for those giving directions and providing direct instruction. Many younger students cannot handle more than a one-step instruction. Instructions need to be broken up, or chunked, and they need to be supported with words and images. While older students can often take in multi-step directions, their performance under such demands is highly variable. There are many older students, who, for a variety of reasons, have limited span of attention and need supports for recalling directions.

The other area of attention to consider in the classroom is “divided attention.” This is when a student needs to split attention between tasks. A lot of what we do in the classroom setting requires students to dual-task, meaning do two things at once. One example might be listening and copying notes from the board or screen. In the school setting, students are inundated with lots of information that is supposed to be internalized. A lot of that information is in the form of rules. Students need to think about these rules while they are trying to pay attention to all of the other things going on around them and while paying attention to the task at hand. In school, students need to move between salient information n their mind (i.e., rules) and the task in front of them. Most people can divide their attention like that pretty well. This ability is dynamic and influenced by context and development. Dividing attention is another example of a skill that can be negatively influenced by something like ADHD. 

LC: That is really interesting. I guess students do need to hold a lot of information in mind at once while navigating classroom activities. How can teachers support students who struggle with divided attention?

MM: One thing teachers can do is decrease the demands on dual-tasking for all students. For example, limit the amount of note-taking students have to do while listening. Having rules and procedures posted for reference is also helpful. Rehearsing procedures so that they become automatic and less demanding on attention can ease the burden on divided attention as well.

LC: Great information. Thank you. Any closing thoughts?

MM: Keep in mind that attention skills develop over time and are context-dependent. Younger students, students with disabilities, and students experiencing anxiety or chronic stress will all need additional supports for attention.

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