Pay attention! Whether it’s listening to a teacher giving instructions or completing a word problem, the ability to tune out distractions and focus on a task is key to academic success. Now, a new study suggests that a brief training program in attention for 3- to 5-year-olds and their families could help boost brain activity and narrow the academic achievement gap between low- and high-income students.
Children from families of low socioeconomic status generally score lower than more affluent kids on standardized tests of intelligence, language, spatial reasoning, and math, says Priti Shah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study. “That’s just a plain fact.” A more controversial question that scientists and politicians have batted around for decades, says Shah, is “What is the source of that difference?” Part of it may be genetic, but environmental factors, ranging from prenatal nutrition to exposure to toxic substances like lead, may also account for the early childhood differences in cognitive ability that appear by age 3 or 4. So far, however, “there aren’t that many randomized, controlled trials that show that the environment has an impact on a child’s abilities,” Shah says.
The new study does just that. It focuses on the ability to hone in on a task and ignore distractions, which “leverages every single thing we do,” says cognitive neuroscientist Helen Neville at the University of Oregon, Eugene. For more than 30 years, Neville and her colleagues have been studying the neural bases of this ability, called selective attention.
A classic example of selective attention is the "cocktail party" problem, where we must ignore other voices while listening to one person’s story. When an adult does that, “you get a little blip” in their brain activity, she says—a microvolt of electricity lasting a 10th of a second that can be picked up with EEG electrodes on the scalp. Children of higher socioeconomic status show a similar brain response to adults, whereas children from lower-income families generally show a much reduced response or none at all, Neville says.
Programs designed to improve cognitive skills such as selective attention are often costly and time-intensive, and don’t address how a child’s caretakers and home environment can reinforce those skills, Neville says. To determine whether a short, relatively inexpensive family-based training program could generate improvements, Neville and colleagues recruited 141 3- to 5-year olds in Oregon who were in Head Start—a preschool program for children whose families live at or below the poverty line —and randomly divided them into three groups.
For 8 weeks, children in the first group spent about an hour every week playing games and doing activities that require focused attention. Some tasks were simple, like coloring inside the lines, while others were more complex. In one game, for example, children were asked to deliver a small dish of water to a frog, walking only along a narrow ribbon, says Eric Pakulak, a study co-author. Other children might play in the periphery with balloons to ramp up the challenge, he says. In addition, “We also talk about what it means to be paying attention, and how to notice that you’re distracted.”
While the students played, parents or caregivers took 2-hour-long weekly classes on parenting that included general strategies for reducing family stress, such as creating consistent home routines, as well as activities specifically directed at boosting attention similar to those used in class that they could play with their children—one activity, for example, was to match words such as “happy” or “sad” to pictures of different facial expressions. In the second group, students performed the attention-boosting activities as well, but parents received only three 90-minute sessions of instruction and did not have an opportunity to learn the curriculum in depth; in the third group, neither kids nor their parents did anything special.
After 8 weeks, the team applied a battery of standard assessments, such as IQ and spatial reasoning tests and behavioral reports from teachers and parents; they also measured changes in brain activity while students listened to two recorded stories simultaneously. Instructed to attend to only one of two competing stories—”The Blue Kangaroo” vs. “Harry the Dog,” for example—the children whose parents had received additional attention instruction showed a 50 percent increase in brain activity in response to the correct story compared to children in the other two groups, the authors report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; their responses matched those seen in adults and children of higher socioeconomic status. In addition, the children on average showed a roughly 7-point IQ increase, and teachers and parents reported significant improvements in academic performance and behavior. No such differences were evident in the two controls, Neville says, suggesting that parental involvement was key.
Many existing programs try to help young children of low socioeconomic status develop the skills needed to thrive in school, but “almost all happen without any scientifically designed pre-vs. post-behavioral or neural measures,” says Rajeev Raizada, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Rochester in New York. This study is one of the first to combine such tests with an intervention, he says. Such interventions “are of great interest scientifically, because they are about as close as you can get to experimental research on the effects of child poverty on the brain,” says Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Raizada cautions that the parental training program was broad, making it hard to know which aspects were really crucial, he says. “Another crucial question is how long-lasting will the kids’ gains be?” he adds. “A common feature of intervention programs is that they tend to produce some immediate gains, but those gains often tend to fade out over subsequent months.”
Before implementing programs based on the new study, Farah says, “we need to invest in replication, fine-tuning, and all the hard work of bringing a program to scale.” Still, given striking improvements seen in just 8 weekly sessions, “I think that we need to regard these results as wonderful news,” she says.