GUEST POST: Attention -- What is it, and How Can We Control it?

GUEST POST: Attention -- What is it, and How Can We Control it?

By Mary Kathryn Cancilliere

Mary Kathryn Cancilliere is a 4th year clinical psychology graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, and was a student in Megan Smith’s graduate Cognition course in Fall 2016. Her research interests focus on clinical interventions, including their fidelity and effectiveness when disseminated to community mental health and integrated health care settings; improving child and adolescent treatment engagement and outcomes; and pediatric anxiety disorders. She previously contributed a guest blog post about the biological causes of inattention.

As children develop, they are expected to meet the demands of the educational system. But what if there are learning difficulties or other problems that get in the way?

Research shows that while learning problems are the cause of many educational roadblocks (1), other factors such as poverty (2) and chronic stress (3) can get in the way of learning, too.

So, with education being so important for each individual no matter their situation, and roadblocks to learning getting in the way, what can we do to assist learners? Well, we first need to acknowledge the tools and areas that we have control over – then take action!

Let’s first start by looking at all of the hype on “attention” as it relates to learning. Attention seems important, because, anecdotally speaking, you have to be able to attend to something in order to be able to learn it, right? But if merely attending to something were enough and easy for everyone to do, then perhaps it would not be such a big deal.

That then brings up the question: what is attention, and why is it a challenge for some? Well, some researchers say “no one really knows what attention is” (4), or state that it is a concept that is used to describe multiple pieces of a larger puzzle (5).

Ok, so if attention is a process that is such broad a concept, how about we break it down to specific parts? Cognitive psychologists often refer to attention as a process that individuals use for monitoring. For example, we can monitor our external environment (e.g., sitting in a café and hearing all of the customers talking, while we are supposed to be studying – which is what I am doing right now!), OR we can monitor our internal environment, including our thoughts (e.g., I am thinking about my to-do list, instead of doing my homework).

Another term that some psychologists refer to when discussing learning and attending to (or monitoring) the information at hand is executive function. Executive function is a term that is often used to capture what we call attention/monitoring in our environment, but it includes other processes. Wow – instead of getting more specific, this seems to just be getting more complicated! But just wait, don’t stop reading!

Ok, let’s keep this simple. Executive function is a term used to talk about the multiple processes that help us attend to information and “focus” on the information we want to learn. Interestingly, executive function has been discussed and researched since the early 1980s (and probably before); however, it only really seemed to gain research momentum in 2003-2005 (6). Now many people may have heard of the term, but still the majority of people can more readily relate to concept of “attention.”

The term “executive function” refers to many processes that make up one’s attention, and is said to be “a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one's resources in order to achieve a goal” (7). It is a term that covers the bigger picture of neurologically-based skills and includes mental control and self-regulation, too. That being said, executive function is mostly genetic but also cognitive and behavioral (8). To be more specific, executive function is made up of a group of different, yet overlapping, abilities that include inhibitory control (the ability to resist habits or distractions), attentional control, cognitive flexibility (ability to adjust to change), working memory (holding and utilizing information), organization/planning, reasoning, problem solving, and self-monitoring. I chose this definition of executive function by a group of scholars (9) who studied and created a valid and reliable measure to examine executive function – the Behavioral Rating Inventory of Executive Function, or BRIEF (10).

Well, if using the term executive function is how we need to talk about attention, then what do we need to do to improve executive function (aka – attention!)?

There are many books written on this subject as well as numerous websites, so I have only included a sprinkling of recommendations. To frame these recommendations in a constructive and useful way, let’s consider that our goal is to do better in class, which includes completing homework and doing well on tests.

One of the first strategies to try is to start journaling about how you spend your time. This habit can give you much information about yourself before you consider making any changes. This is a concrete journal that you can keep for 5 days and track how you are spending your time from when you get in the morning (including times) and all of the activities you do throughout your day, until you get into bed that evening. Be sure to include whether it is a weekday, weekend, or holiday. This can help with self-monitoring.

Another strategy you can try is to doodle while you are listening to a class lecture. Research shows that sometimes individuals do better to keep engaged in an activity while listening, so their mind does not wander and think about unrelated topics (11). Doodling means to draw and/or write, without much thought or demand. Doodling – as opposed to other activities – is recommended, as adding too much effort/demand while at the same time as trying to listen and understand a class lecture may be interfering.

Another strategy that’s been found to be helpful for executive function is mindfulness (12), (13). Practicing mindfulness anywhere from 5 minutes per day has been shown to heighten both body and mental awareness. This awareness can help one notice their present thoughts, emotions, and actions. There are numerous guided meditation techniques on the Internet or in books. As I do a quick search with the terms “guided,” “meditation,” and “relaxation” I find several YouTube videos (e.g., /watch?v =2ZKNr-W9A1U). If you include the term “child,” you can find some guided meditations suitable for children, as well (e.g.,

When a learner has difficulties due to a learning disorder or other problem, this can be a cause for concern. However, it seems that acknowledging the multiple components of executive function (as briefly discussed above) and using the tools that support optimal executive function is a way to take action that may benefit all learners!


(1) Pratt, B. M. (2000). The comparative development of executive function in elementary school children with reading disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Dissertation Abstracts International, 60.

 (2) Evans, G. & Schamberg, M. (2009). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106, 6545-6549.

(3) Leach, J. & Griffith, R. (2008). Restrictions in working memory capacity during parachuting: A possible cause of “no pull” fatalities. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22, 147-157.

(4) Pashler, H. (1998). The psychology of attention. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

(5) Pashler, H. & Carrier, M. (1996). Structures, processes, and the flow of information. In E.L. Bjork & R. A. Bjork (Eds.), Handbook of perception and cognition: Memory (pp. 3-29), New York, Academic Press.

(6) Bernstein, J. H., Waber, D. P. (2007). Executive capacities from a developmental perspective. In: Meltzer L, editor. Executive function in education: From theory to practice. New York: Guilford Press, 39–124.

(7) Cooper-Kahn, J. & Dietzel, L. (2008). Late, Lost, and Unprepared. Woodbine House Inc., Bethesda, MD.

(8) Friedman, N., Miyake, A., Young, S., DeFries, J., Corley, R., & Hewitt, J. (2009). Individual differences in executive functions are almost entirely genetic in origin. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 137, 201–225.

(9) Gioia, G., Isquith, P., Guy, S. and Kenworthy, L. (2000). BRIEF: Behavioral Rating Inventory of Executive Function. Child Neuropsychology, 6, 235-238.

(10) Gioia, G., Isquith, P., Retzlaff, P., Espy, K. (2002). Confirmatory factor analysis of the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF) in a clinical sample. Child Neuropsychology, 8, 249-257.

(11) Andrade, J. (2009). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 100-106.

(12) Slang, H., Lutz, A., Greischar, L., Francis, A., Nieuwenhuis, S., Davis, J., & Davidson, R. (2007). Mental training affects distribution of limited brain resources. PLoS Biology, 5, e138.

(13) Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, Lu, Q., et al., (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 17152-17156.