How Kids Pay Attention

By Peg Rosen
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At a Glance

  • Paying attention is key to learning in and out of school.

  • Attention is a complex process.

  • There are ways to build attention skills.

It’s an ideal situation: A teacher is giving a lesson on marine mammals, and one of the kids in class is fascinated by dolphins. The student pays attention to the entire lesson, asks smart questions at the end, and does well on the weekly quiz.

Kids need to pay attention in order to learn—both in school and out. They have to be able to focus on what teachers, parents, coaches, and other people are saying. But what does that involve? How does attention work?

Learn about how kids pay attention and what can help them build those skills.

The Process of Paying Attention

Attention is like a funnel that lets kids select and take in useful information. Once the information is in, the brain can make sense of it and store it in memory to be used later. (This type of memory is called working memory.)

There are four steps to paying attention:

1. Being alert

Kids need to be aware, alert, and ready to take in information. That’s hard to do if they haven’t had enough sleep, are hungry, or feel anxious. Kids who aren’t alert may have their heads down on their desk. Or they may seem to be tuned out.

2. Choosing what to pay attention to

Information is coming at us all the time, and we can’t focus on all of it at once. So we have to decide what to let in. In other words, kids have to choose to give their attention to their teacher or parent over other things.

3. Ignoring distractions

Paying attention in class or during basketball practice means not paying attention to the dog that’s barking somewhere or the plane that’s flying overhead. Kids have to be able to keep out distractions to focus.

4. Shifting focus

Some distractions are impossible to ignore. For example, a loud noise in the hallway will catch the attention of everyone in class. But kids have to be able to shift their focus back to the teacher and keep it there.

These steps may seem simple. But they’re not always easy. Young kids may need more time to develop the necessary skills. And some kids have trouble with focus even when they get older. They may need extra help with paying attention.

Key Takeaways

  • Kids need to decide what information they’re going to take in.

  • They need to be able to tune out distractions and shift their attention.

  • Some kids struggle with paying attention. They don’t tune out on purpose.

About the Author

About the Author

Peg Rosen 

writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Nelson Dorta, PhD 

is a pediatric neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of medical psychology in child psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

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