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  • Writer's pictureJames Marston

Attention, Memory, & Development

The ways children learn and retain information develops as they mature and grow. Learning and retaining information involves a few systems which includes attention, memory, and meta-cognitive understanding and strategies.

In early childhood, attention is based largely on what is in front of them. They have little ability to direct their own attention, but instead attend to things they find exciting; bright, moving objects, or objects which excite them in some way. Given two items to look at, they have little ability to choose one or the other to pay attention to. Instead, they are drawn to one, and they pay attention to that one.

As children enter middle childhood, their ability to direct their attention increases. Their ability to process information without having to pay close attention to it increases, a process that is known as automaticity. Their selective attention becomes better as well, they are able to pay attention to things that are relevant to their situation and discard things that are irrelevant.

As children enter adolescence, they become able to divide their attention between more than one activity at a time. They are also much better at figuring out what they need to pay attention to in any given circumstance. They can develop strategies that help them pay attention to the things most pertinent to their situation in an effective manner.

A child's memory continues to get better as they grow up as well. As a baby, a child can recognize the smell of his mother's breast milk, which means that even at that young age they display enough memory to store sensory information. As they get older, they are able to remember their primary caregivers and other family members. They show an ability to remember certain toys and games. Babies, by the age of five months, have the ability to remember something for as long as two weeks.

As they grow to be toddlers, children begin to remember the course of their day and come to rely on that information for stability and predictability. They show some degree of consternation when their memorized scripts for their day are deviated from. They're likely to start creating scripts for most activities. For example, when getting dressed, a child could recall, “First, I choose underwear, then pants, then a shirt. Then socks. Then shoes.”

As children enter elementary school, they start using more complicated encoding strategies to memorize things. Children will repeat things to themselves over and over to help them remember things (rehearsal strategies), move information around to organize it in a way that's easier to recall (organizational strategies), or relate the information to something they already know (elaboration strategies). Around the same time, they realize that they are more likely to recall something if they don't give up trying to remember it when the first effort fails. They also become more sophisticated and exhaustive in their attempts, yielding greater success at recall tasks.

While children are developing better attention ability and memory strategies, they are also learning more about how to pay attention and remember things. This thinking about thinking is called metacognition. Children learn more about what is important to pay attention to, how to go about choosing the best way to learn something, and problem solving strategies.

These benchmarks give some hints about how to effectively work with children from each age group. Interventions with kids in early childhood should be exciting to demand their attention, and repetitive to help stay in their memory.

By middle childhood, children have the ability to pay attention for longer, so interventions can become a little more involved. Their memory is better, even if their encoding strategies are still fairly primitive. Interventions tailored to help them remember them, like relating the intervention to something they already know, may help them retain knowledge longer.

By the time they are adolescents, they've probably developed pretty sophisticated attention ability, and have achieved a degree of metacognition that will allow them to work with you to determine strategies for interventions. At this point you can ask them, “What works for you when you need to remember something?” and they may be able to give you a good answer.


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