Kids are always learning, even when they’re not focused.

Kids are always learning, even when they're not focused.

The Surprising Truth: Kids Who Seem Inattentive Are Actually Paying Attention

Children paying attention

It’s a tale as old as teaching itself: young children seemingly lost in their own world during lessons, paying no attention to the material or anything happening around them. However, Sara-Rivka Bass, an elementary teacher in Brooklyn, has discovered that many of these seemingly inattentive children actually absorb more information than meets the eye.

“I allow the children in my class to use a fidget spinner because it actually helps some kids to pay attention,” Bass explains. “If I see that their work is suffering because they’re using it as a toy instead of an attention-enhancing tool, then I’ll take it away.” Contrary to what some may think, the spinner actually aids the focus of some kids during lessons.

“As an instructor, I know that there can be many kids who seem to be paying attention and can be staring at my face during the lesson, but aren’t absorbing or retaining any of that information,” Bass says. “Other kids focus better when they’re also doing something else at the same time.”

Now, research suggests that Bass may be correct. A recent study reveals an unexpected finding: children’s apparent inability to pay attention may enable them to outperform adults in retaining information that they were told to ignore.

In the study, 24 adults and 26 children between the ages of 7 and 9 were asked to observe a series of four illustrations while inside a magnetic resonance imaging machine. The images were accompanied by a background of dots moving in different directions. Participants were then instructed to either focus on the objects or ignore them while pressing a button when certain patterns emerged.

Surprisingly, the adults’ brains showed enhanced activity solely for the information they were asked to concentrate on. In contrast, the children’s brains represented both the prioritized information and the ignored information. In other words, they were able to decode both sets of information simultaneously.

Dr. Amy Finn, the senior author of the study and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, explains that this result shows attention works differently in children’s brains. Children’s ability to be receptive to information beyond their immediate goals can be advantageous, especially when they need to learn multiple aspects of our information-rich world simultaneously or when their goals change.

Lead author Dr. Yaelan Jung adds, “Our study fills this knowledge gap and shows that children’s poor attention leads them to hold more information from the world than adults.”

This finding may not have direct implications for children with ADHD, the focus of the researchers’ investigation. However, Bass has noticed that engaging in a secondary activity, such as doodling or using a spinner, can be beneficial in enhancing attention for kids with ADHD.

As a teacher with personal experience of ADHD, Bass points out that sometimes a child’s hyper-focused attention on an intriguing topic eliminates the need for additional activities. However, many school lessons lack this magnetic appeal, and for children who struggle to maintain attention, engaging in a “mindless activity” can actually help them stay focused.

Talya Roth, who teaches “twice-exceptional” fourth and fifth graders (those with both ADHD and autism), supports Bass’s observations. Roth has found that allowing students to use a spinner or draw during lessons doesn’t detract from their ability to attend to the material; in fact, it may even enhance it. She has witnessed students who were unable to sit still earlier in the day provide thoughtful answers during class discussions, demonstrating their engagement and absorption of information.

Both Roth and Bass emphasize the complexity of attention in children. What may appear as inattentiveness at first glance could actually be a child’s unique way of engaging with the material. They encourage parents and teachers to recognize this complexity and to trust their intuition in determining when a child is truly engaged with the lesson or if they need support.

While the study’s findings shed valuable light on children’s attention capabilities, it’s important to remember that attention spans can vary significantly from one child to another. Understanding these individual differences and adapting teaching methods accordingly can create a more inclusive and effective learning environment for all students.