There are a lot of “ifs” when you talk about attention problems in children. If a child cannot pay attention in school, how can they learn? If they can’t learn, how can they do well? If the obstacles seem insurmountable, how can we ever expect them to enjoy school and be motivated to work hard? Attention problems ultimately threaten a child’s self-image and their relationships with parents, teachers and classmates.
A new, rigorous scientific study by Jean-Baptiste Pingault, Sylvana M. Cote and colleagues at the University of Montreal establishes a strong connection between attention abilities in elementary school and educational success in early adulthood. It also reveals some important findings about the development of attention skills. The study assessed 2,000 children in kindergarten, followed them closely for the next six years, and later determined which of them had failed to graduate from high school by the age of 22. Children with poor attention skills in elementary school were six times more likely to never graduate from high school than were children with good attention skills.
The authors called for “preventive intervention early in development” to improve attention skills.
Several things struck me as important about this study. First is its size. Studying 2,000 students provides great confidence in the findings. Secondly, teachers assessed the attention skills of each child once a year for seven years. In this way, each child was assessed by different teachers, at different points of development, and in the changing contexts and demands of different grades. This adds to the reliability of the findings. Third, the researchers evaluated other factors that might influence educational outcomes in addition to attention skills, including hyperactivity, level of parental education and income, family structure and life events such as divorce and changes in residence. The researchers then showed that the effect of attention skills in elementary school on high school graduation rates are independent of and in addition to the effects of all these other factors. Fourth, the investigators followed the children until they were 22-23 years old. The study took over 16 years!
This study assessed inattention in four dimensions: 1) inability to sustain attention; 2) poor resistance to distraction; 3) absentminded; and 4) giving up easily or unable to maintain effort. The parallels to the C8 Kids program created by C8 Sciences were intriguing. C8 Kids is specifically designed to improve sustained attention and response inhibition; these are the first two of the 8 Core Cognitive Capacities strengthened by the C8 program.
It is worth paying special attention to the study’s fourth dimension of inattention: giving up easily. C8’s “Meet the Child Halfway” design shares the burden of sustained attention and personal effort with the child. It is one of the important features that make C8 games different from commercial computer games. The brain-exercise games in C8 Kids have elements that are fun and engaging, but they are not always entertaining. Children must make a continuous effort to pay attention when the exercise is repetitious and sometimes a little boring. This is part of how we strengthen the brain systems of willful sustained attention and cognitive control. People sometimes ask why we don’t make the games more fun and more like commercial computer games. Those commercial computer games “capture” the child’s attention rather than strengthening it. They use rapidly changing sensory stimulation and very sophisticated reward algorithms to directly activate the parts of the brain that the child needs to learn to control. Bypassing the voluntary control processes may actually weaken the very brain systems and cognitive capacities needed for success in school.
The study had another interesting finding. By assessing attention skills in children each year from ages 6 to 12, the researchers identified four different developmental trajectories. Two groups, one with strong attention skills and another with poor attention skills, did not change over these years. A third group, however, had good attention skills at age 6 that deteriorated over the next 6 years, while the fourth group had poor attention skills at age 6 that improved over the next four years. Loss of attention skills was associated with parental separation, demonstrating the sensitivity of these brain processes to life events and features of the child’s environment. Both the improving and deteriorating developmental patterns demonstrate the “plasticity” and continued potential for change in these systems precisely during the years C8 Kids addresses. C8 Kids aims to improve attention in children with poor attention, and prevent children with initially good attention skills from losing them. There is also reason to believe that C8 Kids may make attention skills even stronger in children who already have good attention skills. Ongoing research will answer that question.
Bruce E. Wexler, M.D. is professor emeritus at Yale School of Medicine, director of the Neurocognitive Research Lab at the Connecticut Mental Health Center, and author of Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (MIT Press). His research and patent-pending innovations led to the founding of C8 Sciences and development of the company’s cognitive cross-training program for children and adults.
Reference: Pingault J-B, Tremblay RE, Vitaro F, Carbonneau R, Genolini, C, Falissard B, Cote, SM: Childhood Trajectories of Inattention and Hyperactivity and Prediction of Educational Attainment in Early Adulthood: A 16 Year Longitudinal Population-Based Study. American Journal of Psychiatry, November 2011: 1168-1174.