Attentional control

Pauline Bowe

When facilitating mental toughness development programmes this statement usually elicits nods of agreement from delegates. It is one of the most important qualities we can

possess and yet, for generations of adults it has never been on the curriculum. The importance of this quality becomes even more apparent when those same delegates are asked to complete practical exercises and they suddenly realise they may not be very good at maintaining attentional control. Differences in this ability are highlighted when comments such as “I can't concentrate when other people walk into the room as I am more interested in what they have to say, even though I have a deadline to meet” and in contrast, “I can get so engrossed in my work people startle me because I didn't hear them come in”.

Further questioning reveals that the person who is able to focus is able to achieve more and feels more in control over their lives. Those that struggle report feelings of not being able to finish tasks, have difficulty in managing their time effectively and procrastination. One can only guess how much more successful they may have been, had they learned to concentrate as children. The advantages of being able to focus on a task whilst ignoring other distractions enables a young person to confidently learn new skills or knowledge, pass examinations, and furthermore, to achieve exceptional results in further or higher education and the world of work.

So what is attentional control?

Attentional control can be seen as a self regulatory process that underpins both mental and emotional functioning and in recent years has been identified by researchers in child development as a feature of effortful control (EC) “the efficiency of executive attention, including the ability to inhibit a dominant response and/or to activate a subdominant response, to plan, and to detect errors” (Rothbart & Bates, in press).

Our modern world has provided us with amazing new discoveries in science and technology that have enabled us to have greater access to a whole variety of information and resources. The breadth, depth and even speed of information that we process on a day-to-day level would be alien to our grandparents. However, since the late twentieth century toddlers have been socialised into manipulating machinery to a point that observers would perceive it as innate. Consider the toddler who can operate the DVD player better than the adult! However, for some young people, this new way of life can present problems in their ability to forgo the immediate gratification of a computer game or TV programme in favour of completing their homework, revision, or learning to play the piano or even embarking on a new sport.

The marshmallow test is a prime example of this. A marshmallow was presented to children and those who had higher levels of self control and didn't eat it were rewarded with two marshmallows at the end of the test. Follow-up research found that those children who delayed gratification were more successful in life. For some children there are far too many distractions and their attention is being diffused across a range of unimportant stimuli which ultimately means educationally they can underperform.

Why can some maintain attentional control and others struggle?

In recent years researchers have highlighted correlations between attachment styles, positive parenting and self regulation. These studies have identified a link between a child's positive bond with a main
caregiver, offering a general view that positive parenting can impact on a child's emotional regulation, motivation states, and how they respond to events. Researchers also suggest that such children also exhibit lower levels of anxiety, which positively impacts on their ability to self regulate their thoughts and behaviours. Much of this research focuses on the genetic vs environmental determinants of psychopathology and the onset of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which is more specifically related to attentional control. Whilst the formation of attentional and effortful control have been deemed to be part of a person's temperament and, thus partially genetic, it is also clear from such attachment studies, that they are also learned as a result of early experiences socialising or shaping how children react to others and the environment.

The proliferation of the use of FMRI scans has enabled us to learn more about why this is so, and the concept of neural or synaptic plasticity have enabled us to dispense of the old saying “give me a boy at seven and I will give you the man”. Our brains are flexible and can adapt by developing new neural networks in response to learning new things or being in new environments. Even the Flynn effect that highlights how IQ in developing countries has improved since the second world war sheds new light on what was once thought of as a genetic trait that couldn't change. This is good news for those in education or development roles who have concerns that any interventions employed are unlikely to work because of genetics.

Research conducted by Peter Clough aimed at developing mental toughness in young people in schools in Knowsley is a point in case. His work employed the use of an interesting piece of technology called Mindball. This machine was designed to develop attentional control and concentration by harnessing the ability to relax and focus on moving a ball across a table whilst your opponent simultaneously does the same. Participants wear electrodes on their head that monitors brain waves. These signals are then used to enable the ball to move across the table. This game acted as a biofeedback device which enabled young people to monitor their own progress and adjust their behaviour or thoughts to elicit a response. The winner was the player who was able to concentrate the most. However, there are simpler methods of developing attentional control and, as you will see most of these have been employed by sports psychologists to assist in the coaching of elite athletes.

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