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Attention, Focus, and Screens


Attention, Focus, and Screens

Elizabeth Topliffe

By Rebecca Staggs, Elementary Assistant and French Teacher

Most of us who work as teachers adore children for all their spontaneity and uninhibited displays.  In the Montessori classroom, our goal as guides is to harness children’s natural curiosity and industriousness in order to help them learn.

However, no matter how good the Montessori environment, it is ineffective to children if they show little natural curiosity or lack industriousness. Then we are forced to ask ourselves why some children—who normally should display curiosity and industriousness—are failing to do so and what we can do about it.

One of our goals as guides is to help children develop what is currently referred to as executive function. Executive function refers to a number of skills that are important for self-directed behavior, successful social interaction, and emotional well-being.

Executive function encompasses the following skills :

  • resisting impulses
  • thinking and acting flexibly
  • modifying one’s emotion
  • initiating a task
  • maintaining information in working memory (follow complex instructions)
  • setting goals and organizing information
  •  monitoring one’s own progress and performance

The Montessori classroom is a wonderful environment to develop these skills, and in fact, nearly every Montessori material and tenet supports the growth of executive function skills.

Yet even children raised from infancy in the Montessori model may struggle with many of these skills. There are a number of reasons for this as well as a number of solutions.

All of the executive function skills listed above rely on activity within the frontal cortex of the brain. Therefore, any disruption in the neural pathways of the frontal lobe can lead to problems in executive function. Children who struggle with learning disability, ADHD, OCD, and autism spectrum disorder will naturally also struggle with executive function. It’s important to note that these children should not be disciplined for these struggles, as they reflect real neurological differences. That would be much like punishing someone for being left-handed.

Other children struggle with executive function not due to any diagnosed disorder but rather due to their environment or lifestyle. This may sound extreme; however, more and more research supports this statement. Newer research into reflex integration and sensory integration suggests that certain movements in infancy and early childhood are essential for proper brain development.

Physical movement, especially the kind of movement that occurs when children are allowed to move and play in an unrestricted way, develops our vestibular  system (the sensory system that provides information about motion, equilibrium and spatial perception) and proprioceptive  system (the sensory system that provides information about body motion and physical space) as well as the reticular activating system (the neural pathways that form to mediate consciousness and regulate sleep and awake). The proper functioning of these systems is essential for children to develop attention, focus, cognitive processing, and coordinated physical action.

Outdoor time can help children develop focus

Outdoor time can help children develop focus

Children who have spent plenty of time in highly physical play develop “ambient attention” or a backdrop of awareness concerning their surroundings that allows them to bring “focal attention” to a specific situation. The ability to sustain attention, or concentrate, grows out of this focal attention. From this ability to concentrate grows the sense of accomplishment as a natural reward for a task well done, and out of this natural reward system grows industriousness. Conversely, children who do not spend enough time in highly physical play may fail to develop these essential skills.

Another aspect of a child’s environment that can adversely affect executive function is screen time. We are all guilty of using screens as a pacifier or babysitter from time to time. However, the research is quite clear: electronic stimulation can have a huge impact on a child’s still-developing brain. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but they boil down to two main categories: too much time in front of screens not only disrupts normal neural pathways but also takes away from the highly physical play that children should be doing.

Many parents mistakenly believe that interactive games are “good for the brain” and much better than a simple TV show. However, electronic games (and social media) can cause a state of hyperarousal (due to the release of cortisol) in the brain and trigger addiction pathways (due to the release of dopamine). The hyperarousal and addiction pathways suppress the activity of the frontal lobe, and thus executive function, and can cause problems with mood regulation.

After spending too much time in front of a screen, children often appear simultaneously wired and tired, since they are both overstimulated and emotionally exhausted. In addition, the type of light that screens emit is harmful to sleep patterns, which are essential for proper brain development and stable moods. Some scientists recommend a total fast from all electronics for 30 days in order to re-establish normal neurochemical levels in your child’s brain. Also, many researchers are now recommending no screens at all before age 3, and extremely limited use until the brain is more fully developed at age 12.

The good news is that research has shown the human brain to be more adaptable than we ever thought. Neuroplasticity is the term that refers to the brain’s ability to change and develop new neural pathways when others are unresponsive or impossible.

At Stepping Stones we are constantly adopting new strategies and re-examining old ones. Many of our classrooms have incorporated Brain Gym activities, visual models, and adapted work plans in order to specifically address problems with executive function. If you are interested in learning more, see below for the books and articles used for this post. And most important, tell your child to turn off the electronics and go outside!