Attention: What Type?

“My son has trouble paying attention in class.”  A common complaint with ADHD. After all, it’s “attention” deficit disorder, right?

But, what exactly is attention?

Attention is a concept describing how we actively process specific information present that is in our environment. Kendra Cherry, author of the Everything Psychology Book explains:

“Think of attention as a highlighter. As you read through a section of text in a book, the highlighted section stands out, causing you to focus your interest on that area. Attention allows you to “tune out” information, sensations and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that is important.”

“Attention” isn’t just one thing, though. It incorporates a number of different skills, or types.

Three that commonly impact academic and employment ease and success are sustained attention, selective attention, and divided attention. Here’s a little bit more about each one of these attentional skills:

  • Sustained attention – the ability to stay on task for a prolonged period. Think about sticking with a homework assignment until it’s done. TRY THIS: This is an excerpt from a test called the “Sustained Attention to Response Test.” A series of numbers will flash by on the video below, about 1 per second. While you watch, tap your finger on your desk for each number except the number 4. Try it!

          What was that like for you?  (The actual test is longer!)

  • Selective attention – the ability to stay on task even in the presence of a distraction. Think about listening to a lecture when there is noise in the hallway, or when there is a red car passing the window. Try this famous (and fun) test of selective attention:

          Were you surprised by your results?

  • Divided attention – the ability to handle two or more tasks at one time. Think about studying while texting a friend (or while driving). How familiar do the following examples look?

What challenges do you have with attention? More importantly, what strategies do you have for managing attentional challenges so you can achieve success in meeting your personal goals?             
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