Attention training for young children has noticeable benefit

Just five days of computer-based training over a few weeks can boost the attentional abilities of four-year-old children by an amount equivalent to half the increase in ability typically seen between the ages of four and six years of age. The finding raises the possibility of using such training as standard to prepare children before they start school, and of targeting the training at children with attentional problems.

M. Rosario Rueda at the University of Oregon and colleagues first tested the executive attentional ability of 49 four- and six-year-old children. This involved the children pressing a button to indicate which way a target fish was pointing while ignoring the direction of the surrounding fish.

Some of the children then received training that involved using a joystick to track a cartoon cat on a computer screen; using a joystick to place a cat where they thought a diving duck would emerge (anticipation exercise); picking out a target cartoon portrait from an array of distractors (stimulus discrimination); as well as a range of Stroop-like exercises, including indicating which of two lists of numbers contained more digits (e.g. 3333 vs. 666) while ignoring the actual size of repeated digit (e.g. 3 vs. 6). See here for more information.

When the children’s attentional ability was tested again, those who completed the training had improved more than controls, and their performance on IQ tests had also improved. Children who showed the poorest performance at the initial attention test benefited the most from the training. Moreover, electroencephalographic recordings of the children’s brains during the pre- and post-training attentional tests revealed some children showed pre-frontal activity after the training that they hadn’t shown before it: an indication they’d developed adult-like inhibitory activity that they lacked previously.

Rueda, M.R., Rothbart, M.K., McCandliss, B.D., Saccomanno, L. & Posner, M.I. (2005). Training, maturation, and genetic influences on the development of executive attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. In Press. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0506897102.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.