The ability to mentally focus and sustain concentration comes from within the child’s brain and as the brain develops, so does the capacity for an attention span. The daily experiences of a child’s life, together with the environment surrounding him/her, can shape this growth.
When children are passively watching any kind of screen instead of actively participating in a problem solving activity, the impact on their brains affects their attention spans. Dr. Jane Healy addresses this in Endangered Minds. “A ‘good’ brain for learning develops strong and widespread neural highways that can quickly and efficiently assign different aspects of a task to the most efficient system….Such efficiency is developed only by active practice in thinking and learning which, in turn, builds increasingly stronger connections. A growing suspicion among brain researchers is that excessive television viewing may affect the development of these kinds of connections. It may also induce habits of using the wrong systems for various types of learning.”
Researchers have now confirmed this theory. In 2004, Dimitri A. Christakis and his colleagues at the University of Washington and Children’s Hospital conducted a study on the relationship between screen technologies and ADD/ADHD. Christakis’ research clearly demonstrated that young children face a 10% increase in the risk of having attention problems at the age of 7 years for every hour of daily television that they watch. The conclusion was that extensive exposure to television and video games may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention. Christakis pointed out that the fast-paced images of TV can over stimulate and permanently “rewire” the developing brain.
Developing brains are extremely fragile and are readily molded by the input they receive. The wrong input at crucial times of development can have a huge impact for the future. The national average of four to five hours of screen time for young children means that children are not given the correct experiences to fully develop attention capacities.
Also, all that cumulative time spent in watching quickly-changing images over stimulates certain brain centers at the expense of under developing crucial parts of the brain that are needed to sustain attention. Unfortunately if the low brain center is hyper activated, it eventually “takes charge.” The high thinking cortex no longer directs the brain’s workings, and the reactionary, low, ancient “reptilian” brain takes over. The brain is more tuned to quick shifts of attention than sustained focus.
Moving images on a screen trigger alerting and orienting responses of the “low” brain while “executive attention” is eclipsed. The brain research of Dr. Daniel Siegel shows that, “executive attention is characterized by “effortful control.” The child must be working to select, supervise, or focus his/her attention. Real mental effort is required. In his book The Mindful Brain, Dr. Siegel cites studies that show this form of attention is related to “planning or decision making, error detection, new or not well learned responses, conditions judged to be difficult or dangerous, regulation of thoughts and feelings, and the overcoming of habitual actions.” He goes on to emphasize, “that the period between 3 and 7 years of age appears to be a profoundly important time for the acquisition of executive attentional functions.”
Replacing passive TV time with board games, chess, checkers, puzzles and time for quiet reflection gives the developing brain the opportunity to concentrate. Some boredom in a child’s life is necessary for developing built in motivation. Ingenuity and inventiveness emerge as a result of thinking slowly and concentrating. Dr. Maria Montessori introduced the “Silence Game” where children relax, stay absolutely still, and concentrate on all the little sounds around them. Students’ listening skills become more acute and they come out of the experience refreshed and ready to learn.
We can help children expand their executive attention by choosing TV programs, movies and video games that are at a relaxed pace. Even though the late “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” and even “Barney” were considered slow, children were able to use their attention spans and were not required to dart from one image to another in a frenzied mental chase. Rather than being over-stimulated, they concentrated and calmed down while watching.
Self-regulation and the executive function of the brain are interconnected. Your children need time for imaginative, self-directed play so that they can experience inner focus and direction while regulating emotional responses. When children are making their own decisions, they are practicing the ability to acquire knowledge and develop the inner thought processes that feed selective attention. If you give children a choice and ask the reason for their making it (would you like to wear your red shirt or your green shirt today?) you are allowing them to direct the conscious decision-making process and helping them understand the reasons for his/her choice.
When children are given the opportunity and time, they can develop the mature attention spans they need for effective thinking and problem solving in today’s screen dominated environment. A human brain that is given the chance to develop naturally, without being bombarded by fleeting visual stimuli and constant interruption, will naturally develop a robust attention span, which is the fundamental human requirement for learning and creative achievement.About the Article’s Author: Joan Starling, Founder, Sammamish Montessori School serving preschool, kindergarten and elementary students in Redmond WA. Joan established The Sammamish Montessori School in 1977. She began her long career in Montessori education 4 decades ago training under two Montessori educators who were themselves trained directly by Dr. Maria Montessori. One of them, a wise and practical woman, Margaret Homfray, when young in the late 1930s, accompanied Dr. Montessori on trips to translate her lectures on her speaking tours. Joan has been a pioneer of Montessori education in the greater Seattle area, establishing one of the oldest Montessori schools on Seattle’s Eastside, which is now one of the largest Montessori schools in the state. Joan’s two daughters continue Joan’s legacy by running the school and are supported by a wonderful group of teachers, assistants and supporting staff who have come to Redmond from all over the world.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, et al., “Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children” Pediatrics, vol. 113, n.4, April 4, 2004
Dr. Jane Healy, Endangered Minds:
Why Our Children Don’t Think and What to do About It, Simon and Schuster, 1991, P. 235
Dr. Daniel Siegel The Mindful Brain, W. W. Norton and Company, 2007, p. 114, 115, 73