Focus vs. Attention in Children and Adults

It’s little surprise that in cognitive tests, adults perform better than children at focusing on specific details or extracting targeted information. What is surprising for some, but perfectly natural for neuroplasticity proponents, is that children are generally more adept than adults at taking in the totality of the information conveyed to them. This is essentially because adults have developed their sense of selective attention, unlike their youthful counterparts.

This explains why children have an easier time learning a second language, or simultaneously learning more than one language, if that is the circumstance of their daily social lives.

This also suggests that adults can miss things which they are not focusing on. Based on our need to ignore distractions and sustain an ongoing narrative, adults are inclined to focus their attention like a laser. Children generally don’t develop this capacity until onset of puberty or later, and as a result they are easily distracted and sometimes given a label of “short attention span.”

It seems more appropriate, accurate (and not to mention respectful) just to say that children lack the discipline for depth of focus, but instead they possess a greater breadth of awareness, a “distributed attention” that catches more information, more “fish” than the adults’ narrow “nets” can catch, so to speak.

Enriching our understanding of the principles of neuroplasticity will help us engage children’s curiosity in meaningful and empowering ways, so we can give the next generation a better edge, a sharper mind, and a highly flexible and adaptive neurological system with which to face the ever changing world.