Attention skills include our ability to ignore distractions and focus on a specific task or activity. Working memory relates to our ability to hold many pieces of information in our heads at one time. Skills like these are crucial for all forms of planning and organization, not to mention problem-solving.
Dr. J. Stuart Ablon, founder and director of Think:Kids, explains Attention and Working Memory Thinking Skills, and shares examples of how when kids struggle with these skills it can lead to challenging behavior.
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Many people still believe that the key to managing our behavior is making sure that we're just trying hard enough to behave well. But the reality is that our behavior, whether we are a child, an adolescent, or an adult, our behavior is determined by our skill, not our will. There is half a century of research that has shown us, in fact, what types of skills we humans need to be able to effectively manage our behavior. One of those areas is what we refer to as attention and working memory skills. These are skills that are critical when it comes to managing our behavior. When I talk about attention skills, what I'm talking about is things like staying focused on things that may not be particularly thrilling or interesting to us and filtering out or ignoring distractions to be able to maintain that focus. And in fact, shifting our focus from one task activity or topic to another when we're asked to do so.
Now, when I describe it this way, you can see why attentional skills are so crucial, particularly for school-aged kids, because school-aged kids spend a lot of their life being told by parents and teachers and things like this, what to do when and what to focus on when. And let's be honest. Oftentimes, we're asking them to focus on things that aren't particularly thrilling for them. And, you know, it's a fallacy that kids, for instance, diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can't focus their attention on anything. That's actually not true. In fact, many of them can exquisitely focus on things that are really interesting to them. They can sort of hyper-focus. But the big challenge for all of us adults is making ourselves focus on something that we might not particularly want to at that moment in time. I mean, I know there are things that you can put in front of me at any time of day or night, and I'll be particularly engaged and interested, and other things are going to be much harder for me because I'm not so interested.
That's when we really have to employ our attentional skills. Now, when I'm talking about working memory, what do I mean by that? , what I mean is what neuropsychologists often call the cognitive shelf in our brain. In other words, the place that we can take a piece of information and sort of put it up on the shelf. It, it's not tucked away somewhere where we can't access it. It's right there where we can grab it and use it if we need to while we think about other stuff at the same time. Now the reality is that holding a bunch of pieces of information in your head at one time, which is a good definition of what working memory involves, is absolutely crucial to good problem-solving, which is, of course, one of the primary ways that we manage our behavior. Why is it crucial to good problem-solving?
Because good problem-solving involves holding a bunch of pieces of information in your head at one time and manipulating those pieces of information, working with them, without losing them, without forgetting them. You can think of it almost like keeping multiple files or folders or programs open on your computer at one time. Because when problem-solving, you've got to at least keep the file that says, "what's the problem?" open at the same time that you keep open a hindsight file so that you can say to yourself, "okay, how have I handled a problem like this in the past?" Then you want to open up a forethought folder as well by saying, "okay, how do I think I might handle this problem now? And how do I think that's going to work out before I do it again?" So, in other words, all good problem-solving requires toggling back and forth between a bunch of information in your brain at one time.
What's the problem? How have I handled that in the past, and how's it worked out? Or have I seen anybody else handle a problem like this in the past? How have they handled it? How has that worked out? How do I think I might handle it now? And how do I think that's going to work out? And if you can't hold all that information in your head at one time, you're gonna be in trouble because, for instance, one of those files will close on you, like hindsight, and then you won't benefit from hindsight. You'll repeat the same solution to a problem that didn't work before, or forethought will close on you, and you won't be able to sort of test out, will that be a good idea or not? Or I see this a lot with kids that I work with who have some real limitations with their working memory.
The problem, what's the problem? File closes. And all of a sudden, they look at you and be like, "what are we talking about?" And, of course, most adults respond by saying something like, "you know very well what we're talking about." But actually, they've forgotten what we're talking about because their working memory has, become overwhelmed. Now, attention and working memory skills like this, they serve as the basis for all organization and planning skills as well. When it comes to doing things in a logical sequence or an order or things like that, these are all interrelated. They are examples of what we often call executive functioning skills. And the reality is that if somebody struggles with a particular executive functioning skill, like attentional skills or working memory skills, they often struggle with many executive functioning skills. In fact, one of my early mentors used to say that when it comes to executive functioning skills, you need to apply the cockroach principle. I remember asking for the first time what the cockroach principal was, and he said to me, where there is one, there are many.
Now, a quick story to bring this to life. My youngest when she was in preschool, which is quite a while ago now. I had the great pleasure of spending a day in her preschool, and I loved what the preschool did because they'd invite parents to join. But not all at once for sort of an orchestrated parent day, but in fact, one parent at a time. And you just tagged along for the day. I had a blast. It was amazing.
I remember at the end of the day, they have a ritual that they do, And they all sit around. And, of course, I was sitting around, too, on little rug squares in a circle. And this is part of their get-ready-to-leave and goodbye ritual. And it's really a ritual that is intended to help build skills like working memory, planning, organization, et cetera. So the teacher is strumming away in front of these two-year-olds, almost three-year-olds, and me, sitting on our rug squares. And he says to the group of kids, he says, okay, let's remind our guest what we do. Now. I'm going to play the Willaby Wallaby song, and let's remind our guest what we do when we hear our name in the Willaby Wallaby song. So when you hear your name, you stand up, you bring your rug square over to the corner, you go to your cubby, pack your backpack, put on your winter clothes, and then go line up at the door to be excused for the day.
Now, as we're listening to these, I'm beginning to get very nervous because I've already forgotten most of them. I look over at my daughter, and she says, don't worry, dad, I gotcha. Thank goodness. But let me tell you, this was hysterical because even at two and three years of age, you could see the natural diversity in terms of executive functioning skills that we're developing or not developing. So, what happens? Well, a couple of girls, when they hear their name in the Willoughby Wallaby song, what do they do? They immediately get up, they march to the corner, they put their rug squares down, they head off to their cubby to pack up, get their clothes on, line up nicely at the door, standing ready to go. Now one particular young boy, when he hears his name called, what does he do? He stands up, he takes his rug square, rug square, he throws it like a Frisbee, aimed at the corner of the room, and bolts for the door to try to get in line next. Then there was this one poor kid who I remember who he actually got through the Rug square piece and got to his cubby, but I didn't see until I got called. What happened next? And the poor kid was lying in a heap of clothes outside of his cubby, crying. So, you know, this is a point in time in development where attention to working memory skills are rapidly developing. You see a fair amount of diversity. I will tell you, as an adult, though, these skills are every bit as important, and we can struggle with them too. I, I know the older I get, the harder it is to remember things. I find myself, walking around my house, walking upstairs to get something, for instance, and getting up there and saying to myself, what am I doing up here? I've forgotten what I came up here for in the first place. Now the good news is there's usually always something to do up there, so they can do something else. But of course, it's not until you get back downstairs that you invariably remember what it is that you were intending to do when you went upstairs in the first place.
So, in summary, attention and working memory skills are absolutely crucial when it comes to managing frustration, problem-solving, responding adaptively to expectations, demands, and requests that people have for us or just things we are trying to accomplish ourselves.