Know How

Have you often wondered just what it takes to channel the excess energy of children into something positive? If you are a parent who is exhausted trying to control your unruly, hyperactive child, take heart. A team of psychologists at the University of London has shown that infants as young as 11 months can be trained to improve their concentration and this makes them better at other tasks.

The ability to concentrate is of vital importance in learning — be it acquiring language skills early in life or learning in school and college later.

“Concentration involves sending information from the frontal regions of the brain to other areas. In infants and young children, these frontal areas are much less developed than in adults, which is why infants and young children get easily distracted,” says Sam Wass of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at the university, who led the study.

It’s no secret that differences in attention control abilities emerge early in development and that children who possess better attention control skills do well academically. The connection is an intuitively obvious one; the better a child is at concentrating on one object, say, reading a book, ignoring distractions around, the better that child is going to learn, says Wass. “What our study has shown is that children can be trained to concentrate at a much earlier age than had previously been thought possible,” he says.

“This study is important because it shows clearly that infants can be trained to focus their attention in a pretty short amount of time,” says Vikram Jaswal, director of the Child Language and Learning Lab at the University of Virginia, who was not connected with the study. “It is exciting because being able to pay attention (and to shift attention) is crucial to learning and development. It is one of those skills most of us take for granted. But children with several developmental disorders, including autism, may not develop attention skills in the way other children do. Much more research needs to be done, of course, but the results of this study raise the possibility that attention training could be an important component of an early intervention plan,” he says.

More importantly, the study, which recently appeared in the journal Current Biology, showed for the first time that training in one skill can lead to improvements in skills that are distinctly different. Previous studies on adults have shown that cognitive training leads to improvements at the task being trained for, but it is often surprisingly hard to show that it can have a positive impact on other areas.

To demonstrate that this is possible, the University of London psychologists used a cleverly-designed study. They designed a computerised concentration training that works by tracking infants’ eye movements. This not only helped the subjects to have control of what they pay attention to but also aided the scientists in knowing where the infants fixed their gaze.

The scientists trained 11-month-old infants to direct their gaze at images on a computer screen. In one of the tasks, for instance, a butterfly flew only as long as the babies kept their gaze fixed on it. Making the infants’ task difficult, however, were other distracting objects that kept on appearing on the screen. As many as 42 infants visited the lab five times over a period of two weeks. While half of them took part in training, the other half simply watched TV. The scientists tested the cognitive abilities of each child at the beginning as well as the end of the study.

The subsequent analysis showed that the trained infants rapidly improved their ability to focus their attention for longer periods and to shift their attention from one point to another. They also showed improvements in their ability to spot patterns and marginally significant changes in their spontaneous looking behaviour while playing with toys.

“Our results showed that a short period of computerised concentration training led to improvements in various aspects of infants’ concentration abilities, such as their ability to sustain their attention to particularly interesting targets,” Wass told KnowHow. “In the real world, sometimes we want to be able to focus on one object of interest and ignore distractions, and sometimes we want to be able to shift the focus of our attention rapidly around the room. This flexibility in the allocation of attention appears to improve after training,” he says.

The study supports the notion that there is a greater plasticity in unspecialised infant brains and that cognitive development can be altered if an attempt is made early.

Wass, however, has a word of caution. “It is important to remember, though, that we only gave a very small amount of training and assessed the effects using sensitive, lab-based techniques. Further work is required to see whether larger amounts of training can lead to greater changes in real-world settings, and also to see whether training improvements remain intact over longer time periods,” he says.

Professor Mark Johnson, who heads the centre at Birkbeck, however says that if the effects of training prove robust over the longer term, methods such as this may have applications as interventions aimed at improving key learning skills in babies who are at risk of poor outcomes.

So now you know how to make sure that your intelligent baby doesn’t grow into a hyperactive child.

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