This is the most common question we hear at BrainFit Studio. When their child is inattentive, parents often blame it on lack of motivation or a poor learning attitude. However, this is usually not the case.
In order to understand why our child may be inattentive, it is helpful to first understand what our brains need to do to pay attention.
How does our brain pay attention?
Three important brain networks are responsible for helping us pay attention:
a. Alerting brain network:
- Helps us tune-in to important information
- Affected by quality of information coming from our eyes, ears and body
- Strengthening these senses can improve our ability to pay attention
b. Discriminating brain network:
- Helps us tune-out both external and internal distractions
- A tendency of the mind to wander is normal!
- Having an uncluttered and non-distracting environment when studying is useful to help us remain focused
c. Executive control brain network:
- Helps us in sustaining focus to achieve our goals
- As the “CEO” of the brain, executive control affects our organization and management skills
- Improving working memory and impulse control can help strengthen our executive control
A child may be inattentive because of weaknesses in any one of the networks above. We will examine each network one by one.
a. Weakness in the alerting brain network:
Let’s use one common scenario as an example. A bright child may not be a natural listener. This does not mean there is something wrong with the child’s ears or hearing. Just like some people are born with less body flexibility, some children may be born without listening as a natural strength. If a child has such a weakness, he will need to focus really hard to tune-in to verbal instructions or “language-heavy” passages, especially when there are multi-step instructions. The alerting brain network will be overworked, causing mental fatigue or making the child “switch-off”, just like adults “lose track” when we need to follow a tedious piece of argument.
b. Weakness in the discriminating brain network:
Parents should know that being easily distracted is a natural state of the mind! Our savannah ancestors had to be highly sensitive to changes in the environment to survive from predators which may creep up on them any time. We have inherited their genes! While our modern environment is no longer hostile, our genes have not caught up with the evolution. With the invention of printing and the computer, there are now new demands on our brains to focus on one thing exclusively for an extended period of time, failing which we may be singled-out as the “distractible” child. It is funny how genes that once protected us have become liabilities in the modern day!
c. Weakness in the executive control brain network:
Sometimes, a child may be able to pay attention on the immediate task but fail to follow through a longer-term plan or goal. This loss of goal-directed focus can be linked to weakness in our brain’s “CEO”, the executive control network located at the front of the brain. This network has many important “organizational” responsibilities – goal-setting, planning, sequencing, time management, thought flexibility and persistence, to name a few. Strengthening cognitive skills like working memory, sequencing and impulse control, as well as cultivating these organisational skills from young can all lead to a stronger “CEO”.