Psychologists have shown that it’s possible to train one-year-olds’ attention skills

What’s the best age for a child start school? Four, as in the UK? Six or seven, as in Sweden? What about one?

By Emma Young

According to a new paper in Developmental Psychology, children as young as 12-months-old can be taught to get better at focusing their attention – which may help with their acquisition of language, and other types of learning. This new study involved typical, healthy infants. But the findings could also be taken as support for the idea that interventions aimed at children showing problems with attention (who may go on to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for example) can, and should, start at a very young age.

Research on children aged four and over has found that training tasks designed to improve attentional control can lead to more general improvements in attention (so not just on the tasks used in training). But there hasn’t been much work on younger children, and the limited work that has been done hasn’t investigated whether any improvements last.

Kaili Clarkson at the University of Cambridge, and colleagues, divided 48 boys and girls, all aged about one, into a training group and two control groups. Each child first completed a roughly 20-minute series of tests of attentional control. These included an evaluation of how long they took to predict the next letter in a ABABAB sequence, the number of times they had to look at picture of a child’s face before they learned to recognise it, as well as an evaluation of general attentiveness during the entire testing process.

The training group then received a total of 95 minutes of training over five sessions, spaced out over about two weeks. While sitting on their parent’s laps, these infants were presented in each session with six different tasks that rewarded them if they focused on a target. For example, in one, if a child looked away from a moving butterfly (the target) to a distractor, the display froze, and only un-froze when the child again focused on the butterfly. Another task required the infants to work out (with animations given as rewards) when the target changed from an image of an elephant to a chicken, while, again, ignoring distractors.

Immediately after the fifth training session, and then also six weeks later, the infants in all groups took the initial tests of attentional control again.

Right after training, there were significant improvements in the training group’s sustained attention, compared with their initial scores. These infants were also faster at learning to recognise another child’s face and at sequence learning and general attentiveness. (The controls showed no significant improvements.) The trained children only failed to improve on one test: memory for an image that they had previously learned to recognise. (At this young age, short term memory capacity may be too weak to be trained, the researchers suggested.)

Clarkson and her colleagues also found lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the trained infants, compared with the controls, during these post-training testing sessions. And they think this is important because it suggests that targeting attention skills may lead to improved self-regulation, and lower anxiety levels.

Six weeks on, the trained infants’ improvements in general attentiveness and habituation to a face had gone, as had the reduction in their cortisol levels. However, although  improvements in their sustained attention had faded a little, they were still statistically significant, and the trained infants were still faster at learning sequences than they were initially, and in comparison with the control groups’ scores.

Given the relative brevity of the training, it’s not surprising that there was a loss of or deterioration in improvements after six weeks. For comparison, the work on attention training in older children has generally involved training periods of around 10 hours, over 20-25 sessions. Future work should investigate whether longer-term training of one-year-olds could boost and sustain the types of improvements seen right after training in this study – and whether there are wider ranging benefits for language learning and other aspects of development. “Given the evidence that cortical activation patterns are less localised and specialised early in development”, it’s likely that training one-year-olds would lead to more generalised improvements than in older children, the researchers suggested.

So should parents be rushing off to train their infants’ attention? This study (and others) have found benefits in the short term, in the lab. But what real-world effects training might – or might not – bring is not yet clear.

Changes in behavior and salivary cortisol after targeted cognitive training in typical 12-month-old infants

Image: by Constance Bannister Corp/Getty Images

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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