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Attention Basics

Paying attention refers to the brain’s ability to take all that is happening around us, immediately categorize and organize information as relevant or irrelevant, and focus the mind on one thing. For a child in a classroom, paying attention to the teacher means filtering out as many as 30 other students, visual or outside distractions, noises, and more.

Although paying attention may seem like an isolated task, it is a complex neurocognitive process. Consider everything that is stimulating your senses as you read this sentence. Perhaps there are background noises or a conversation nearby, the aromas of food or pangs of hunger, distractions in your peripheral vision, thoughts of things to do, recent conversations or events still fresh in your mind. Now consider another setting: listening to a class lecture or watching a film. Everyone has experienced a lapse in attention in such settings from time to time. But what if paying attention were a chronic challenge? For some students it is, and they are unable to focus no matter how hard they try.

Try it yourself. Experience a visual distraction.

People who struggle with attention might describe their world as a jumble of distractions, with no sound or image necessarily more important than any others. Sounds in one’s surrounding – papers rustling, pencils tapping – demand as much attention as a set of verbal instructions.

Try it yourself. Experience an auditory distraction.

“Attention deficit” is one of the most widely used phrases when it comes to learning problems, but it may also be one of the most common misdiagnoses. Although there is much information about attention deficits available to schools, focusing on attention may be causing parents and teachers to overlook other learning problems. Dr. David Urion, Director of Neurology and Learning Disabilities at Children’s Hospital in Boston, suggests that parents and teachers look closely at any inconsistencies. If a child has trouble paying attention or focusing in one subject area, but not all subjects, a lack of attention may be the symptom of a different learning issue. Only a small percentage of children who learn differently have a neurocognitive breakdown in just attention.

If your child’s attention difficulties tend to be in one of the following subject areas, visit that section of the Parent Toolkit to learn more:

> Mathematics

> Reading

> Writing

Return to the main Attention page or use the navigation above to visit a different section.