The following article was created to accompany the TA@school webinar “Les compétences de la gestion de l’attention, de l’impulsivité et de l’anxiété” webinar. Click here to view the webinar recording (only available in French.
By Alain Caron, Masters of Psychology
Attention, anxiety and cognitive control
Around the year 2000, we saw the problem of attention hyperactivity deficit disorder (ADHD) become more and more pervasive and present in children, to the point of almost becoming a social problem. More recently, a new issue has been growing at a troubling rate: anxiety. In the past, these problems have typically been viewed from the medical perspective, which focuses on diagnosis and treatment, usually with pharmaceuticals. It is time to move away from this approach and towards an approach based on skills development.
As research into understanding the brain advances, it becomes increasingly clear that executive functions play a crucial role in children's functioning, both cognitively and emotionally. New research, particularly regarding the notion of cognitive control, has led me to believe that the ability to manage attention, impulse, and anxiety requires several shared skills.
In this article, we will aim to understand the nature of cognitive control, to see that attention is more than just a matter of awareness, it is a matter of cognitive skills. Then we will illustrate the importance of redirecting thoughts both for impulse control and anxiety management. We will continue by highlighting the importance of explicitly teaching skills for managing attention, impulsiveness and anxiety, and finally, we will integrate these skills into daily activities using, for example, the "stop, observe and act" method.
A good hunter knows how to wait for the right moment!
Cognitive control, which is the core focus of this article, has proven to be a reliable predictor of not only academic achievement but also of social-emotional development, particularly because of its role in impulse control.
While the pursuit of instant gratification is a natural human inclination, especially in young children, learning how to delay gratification is critical for developing self-control. In a world where life is moving faster and faster, where immediate results are becoming the norm, and where digital stimulation is becoming more and more powerful, managing to contain certain elements of our inner world (thoughts, impulses, and fears) is essential for effectively managing attention and impulsiveness, and for reducing anxiety. A key component of cognitive control is the ability to contain an impulse by creating a waiting period. The ability to hold off an impulse for a few moments enables us to assess the situation and decide whether or not to take action.
For the cat waiting patiently before pouncing on its prey, the waiting period is essential for staying focused on its target. Containing its impulses and managing the stress of the situation is how the cat achieves its goal.
When referring to the waiting period, Freud might have emphasized the importance of the strength of the ego. Call it ego strength or a waiting period, the goal is the same: to resist the pleasure of immediate gratification in order to make a better long-term choice or containing our anxiety so that we can act without being paralyzed by it. Is this not the main problem faced by far too many of today’s children?
For over a decade, we have known the importance of metacognition (the ability to be aware of one's own cognitive processes) in student success. Consequently, the more students learn to deal effectively with the processes regulating their attention, impulses, and emotions, the more they will be able to control their thoughts and emotional world, just as a conductor directs all the musicians in the orchestra. However, achieving this isn’t a magic trick: students need support and clear guidance on what to do.
Our brain has no interest in learning what it already knows and actively avoids what is clearly beyond its comprehension. Instead, it seeks the stimulation of new knowledge that it feels it can integrate, whether with or without help. Students’ curiosity is the concrete manifestation of the brain’s neuroexcitability. For new knowledge to leave a trace within a neural network, students cannot be passive spectators to what is before them, but they must be actively engaged in the learning process. Corresponding to the notion of neuroexcitability, curiosity becomes the driving force behind this active engagement. At this stage, we can already see that attention involves a number of neurological aspects that go far beyond just "wanting to be attentive".
First and foremost, attention is a process that allows us to select relevant information and bring it to the forefront, while "forgetting" the rest. One example is this popular video in which viewers are asked to count the number of passes made by the basketball team dressed in white and, so focused are we on this task, we fail to notice the person dancing by in a bear costume. This illustrates the notion of attentional blindness, specifically how our attention is focused only on what is important to us in the present moment. As a direct consequence, if students don’t understand what to pay attention to, they won't see it. If they don't see it, they won't learn it. It is therefore important to point out to students what they should focus on, for example, the correspondence between grapheme and phoneme, so they can properly learn it.
In essence, what we refer to as attention is actually an attentional system consisting of three elements. The first, our warning system, acts as a radar constantly on the lookout for anything that might be a threat, real or otherwise, no matter how small. The second, our guidance system, also known as a reward system, seeks out sources of gratification and pleasure around us. Finally, the third system, our executive system, decides what to focus on. However, this system can only process one element of information at a time, as in the case of counting the passes made by the team in white.
These three systems work together to ensure a child's attention is fluid and suited to the circumstances. Understanding these three systems lays the foundation for attentional control. Three other variables will influence the effectiveness of attention: clarity of intent, specifying the target and maintaining actions towards reaching that target.
The first variable is the intent behind what the child wants to do. Since the child's attention will be directly proportional to the power of the intent, it is important to help the child fully understand how to use this ability. For example, telling a student that he or she must find a character with a particular set of teeth in a text provides a specific filter for his or her attention that makes other elements of information secondary. This same principle allows us to find our RED mittens in a cluttered wardrobe by blinding us to the other colours: the clear intent to spot the colour red ensures maximum focus.
The second variable is to properly manage the target. For example, in order to find the character with the particular set of teeth, the student must state the target specifically, which is finding the character. A time limit such as five minutes can even be set. Once the target is clear, the elements for the third variable, staying focused, are put in place. In fact, as adults working with young people, we too often try to "motivate" children to pay attention, when we should be teaching them how to manage and improve the targets. If the target is beyond their understanding, unclear or of no interest to them, they will not reach it and will become discouraged, with no cognitive energy left for attentional processes.
Used in this way, the three variables transform attention into a result of implementing the right cognitive processes, which are prerequisites for reaching the desired target.
CURIOSITY... is the engine that transforms students into actors of their own attention.
The attentional system
- The warning system
- The guidance and reward system
- The executive system
Three variables that maximize focus
- A clear intent
- A specific target
- Maintaining actions towards the target
Above all, developing attention means making effective use of the underlying cognitive processes.
In recent years, research has clearly highlighted the importance of social-emotional skills in students' academic success. As discussed earlier, waiting is essential in supporting these skills. Controlling impulsiveness means learning to delay an automatic response or immediate gratification to choose a greater reward that will come later. In our brain, two dynamic systems contribute to this control: the hot system, which is activated for immediate rewards and pleasures, mainly associated with the limbic system, and the cool system, which is activated for more distant rewards, mainly associated with the executive functions. The cool system, which is capable of choosing to wait, acts as a brake when facing immediate pressures.
When we tell children, very explicitly, to avoid snacks before dinner so as not to spoil their appetite, without even being aware of it, they are using their cool system to develop an effective strategy (acknowledging the drawback of spoiling their appetite for supper) to refocus their thoughts on something other than the temptation directly in front of them. Similarly, guiding students to refocus their thoughts is an equally effective strategy for managing anxiety.
At the movies, the trailers shown before the feature begins have one purpose: to make us feel a particular emotion, such as the horror film that generates fear or the comedy that makes us laugh. However, the child's head is often filled with trailer-like thoughts: the approaching holiday, my dog "Spot", or the fear of going downstairs into a dimly lit basement. Refocusing thoughts on new targets can help to change a child's mood. By learning to block irrelevant thoughts and redirect them to something else, children as well as adults can take control of their inner worlds.
THE WAITING PERIOD... is choosing a well-thought-out response rather than an impulsive and immediate act.
- Seeks immediate reward
- Relates to the limbic system of our brain
- Activates for the achievement of more distant rewards
- Relates to the executive functions of our brain
Using the resources of our cool system allows us to redirect impulsive or anxious thoughts into better choices.
The importance of being explicit
Our role in working with children is therefore to begin building these cognitive and socio-emotional skills, which will continue developing until they reach peak performance in adulthood. While it is essential to develop specific skills around the management of attention, impulsiveness and anxiety, certain shared basic abilities are just as important. These basic abilities support the set of skills to be developed, such as awareness of one’s actions, refocusing thoughts, and the "stop, observe and act" approach.
Two variables are pivotal to exploring the development of attention, impulse, and anxiety management skills: brain plasticity and explicit teaching. When babies are born, their brains have the structures required to develop attentional and self-control skills and it is the interaction with their environment that will maximize the potential of this skill. Since the brain is very plastic, meaning it evolves with experience, life itself becomes a structuring element of these brain processes. Thus, paying attention is natural, but the plasticity of the brain allows us to believe that refining it can be maximized through explicit teaching of attentional methods and strategies. This metacognition of attention, which we can teach to students, will increase their attentional potential beyond what natural processes alone would have achieved.
Analogies are a powerful tool for explicit teaching. Because of their symbolic, affective and cognitive components, analogies carry meaning for the person using them. For example, telling students to explore their inner world to become attention, impulse, and anxiety management warriors, in search of self-control, is an infinitely better and more entertaining method than simply saying “learn how to listen”. Analogies such as a movie trailer for refocusing thoughts, a remote control for choosing the right things, a kayaker who masters the current just as your students must master stress and anxiety, will accelerate the integration of new skills in students of all ages.
EXPLICIT TEACHING... consists of showing in the most concrete way possible how to develop skills in managing attention, impulsiveness and anxiety.
Taking advantage of brain plasticity
- Activating the student’s natural brain processes through stimulating interaction with the environment
Maximizing explicit teaching
- Showing students how their attention works is explicit metacognition
Using analogies maximizes explicit teaching with its symbolic, affective and cognitive components.
Making Attention Voluntary
Awareness in action
When battling Galactic Empire Stormtroopers in a video game, a child automatically develops keen decision-making skills and valuable visual-motor reflexes in the moment. But how often are your students attacked by Stormtroopers on the way to school? Learning a skill is only meaningful when the child can apply it to real-life situations. Therefore, developing a skill in and of itself may prove ineffective. For example, although they are essential, focusing only on executive functions may cause us to miss a crucial aspect, namely the role of awareness in action. Just like metacognition, awareness in action is key to successfully managing attention, impulsiveness, and anxiety.
The flashlight analogy effectively illustrates the notion of awareness in action. When the power goes out, we fumble in the dark to find a flashlight in a drawer. Once we have it, we use it to illuminate what we want to see. There is no need to shine the light on our faces or the ceiling. We usually shine the light in the direction we are walking or where the candles we want to light are stored. The flashlight is used to illuminate where we need to go. Helping children become aware of their functioning in action means guiding their beam of attention to what we want them to notice on their own. In this way, we can encourage them to observe their way of working, their inner dialogue at that moment, the links they make with what they know, etc. The flashlight technique will be much more effective if we help students transfer an existing skill, something they have already mastered, to another field or another task. It's similar to aiming the flashlight behind us during a power failure to illustrate how we got across the room to here, and then redirecting the light forward and saying, "We have to do the same thing here.”
"Stop, observe and act"
We all have rapid, automatic thinking developed through repetitive learning, such as “two plus two is four”. Technically, this thinking is called System 1 (S1) and makes us efficient in everyday life. Another type of thinking, called System 2 (S2), is much slower: multiplying nineteen by forty-two or reading inverted text in a mirror requires us to take our time to think it through. This thinking, though slower, guides our most complex reasoning. Finally, the last, but essential, System 3 (S3) can inhibit our impulses and the various automations that can lead us astray, such when resisting a command in “Simon Says”.
The "stop, observe and act" approach aligns with modern knowledge about the brain and learning. Therefore, "stop" (S3) aims to block our automations or impulses that hinder full attention; "observe" (S2) allows us to take the time to consciously manipulate new information in order to properly digest it and, finally, "act" (S1) aims to put the implications of this new learning into action, and eventually achieve automation through practice.
When you explicitly teach children something as simple as how to cross the road, you are teaching them the effectiveness of the three systems of human thinking. Stop before crossing to avoid an accident (S3), observe the situation by looking both ways (S2) and act by learning to cross at the right time (S1). This 3, 2, 1 strategy ("stop, observe and act") maximizes the effectiveness of learning.
Making attention voluntary... means working on making students aware of their thought processes and helping them improve their cognitive control.
- Block irrelevant automations and impulses.
- Consciously manipulate information in order to better understand it.
- Put processes into action to automate them through practice.
Integrating the "stop, observe and act" approach into the student's daily life increases cognitive independence.
In closing, we can say that the most important thing to develop in children is the ability to manage their cognitive actions instead of being ruled by their automatic reactions. Impulsiveness and anxiety are reactions that we do not choose, whereas refocusing our thoughts remains a voluntary act. Being governed by the search for immediate gratification can be a prison. Using a waiting period, built by good management of the cold and hot systems, allows you to get out and to build a solid and voluntary self.
But attentiveness in itself is meaningless. Students need to become tightrope walkers, maintaining their balance on the thread of attention. According to Jean-Philippe Lachaux (2015), by managing the three systems of thinking as well as the variables that influence it, students can transform attention into a voluntary action.
In the end, all these processes are naturally present in a child's brain from birth and only require stimulation in order to develop. But we also know that teaching them very explicitly will help to optimize these processes and thus empower students to become "attention warriors" who are increasingly aware of the control they have over their cognitive processes. These tools will enable them to walk the path of life with wisdom against the backdrop of three keywords: "Stop, observe and act".
Caron, Alain; Arrête, observe et agis. Stratégies et outils pour développer les compétences exécutives et méthodologiques des élèves; Chenelière Éducation; 2019; Montréal.
Lachaux, Jean-Philippe; Le cerveau funambule. Comprendre et apprivoiser son attention grâce aux neurosciences; Odile Jacob; 2015; Paris.
About the Author:
I hold a master's degree in psychology from Laval University and have been working in the education sector for over 25 years. Through my experience working with primary and high school students and those with special education needs, I have developed a particular interest in the unavoidable problems related to attention in the classroom, hyperactivity and persistence in task completion, as well as the importance of executive functions in the academic success of students.
Over the years, I have published several books that attempt to translate my experience into practical tools. “Être attentif c’est bien, persister c’est mieux!” (Attentive is good, Persistent is better!), the “Attentix Program” and “Aider son enfant à gérer l’impulsivité et l’attention” (Helping Your Child Manage Impulsiveness and Attention), published by Éditions Chenelière Éducation, are intended to be practical tools for teachers, primary school workers and parents of such children. I am currently working on developing tools that facilitate the transition from primary to secondary school based on the development of students' executive and methodological skills. Entitled "Stop, Observe and Act", this approach is complemented by an online tool known as MéthoBulles, as well as a book published in fall 2018.
I believe my various professional experiences have given me extensive knowledge of student development challenges as well as a practical sense of intervention in the field, which I try to share with you through my training, conferences and books.