Opinion: there are several companies offering programmes to enhance children's attention, but there's little evidence supporting these claims

By Éadaoin Slattery DCU and Laura McAvinue, UCD

The ability to pay attention is fundamental for learning and functioning. In school, the importance of attention for learning has been demonstrated in studies showing an association between students' concentration and their academic achievement, as well as their classroom behaviour.

But attentional difficulties are common in childhood with as many as one in four children (25%) demonstrating poor concentration. This highlights the need to develop evidence-based approaches for improving children's attention.

In recent years, there has been a lot of hype around brain training or cognitive training for improving attention. Brain training activities focused on improving attention typically require you to practice videogame-like tasks on computers or tablets that exercise your attention. Training activities may last several weeks or months. You might consider brain training like exercise to train your muscles. It is based on the idea of brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, which refers to our brain's ability to change depending on our experiences.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show in 2014, Ian Robertson from TCD on brain training

Brain training programmes aim to enhance children’s attention by training the neural networks that underlie attention and have become a billion-dollar industry. According to the independent market research firm SharpBrains, school systems around the world spent $600 million on digital brain-health software to enhance cognition in 2020.

There are several brain training companies, which claim to offer brain training programmes that enhance children's attention, but there is little evidence supporting these claims. We recently reviewed the evidence behind some of these programmes and found that the brain training activities only improve the specific activity or game children are playing.

In the brain training field, researchers widely agree that practice on a certain activity or game leads to improved performance on that same activity or game. The key issue is whether these improvements make a difference to untrained tasks like performance on schoolwork and attentional behaviour. Our review published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews found that it is very difficult to meaningfully improve children's ability to pay attention using brain training methods. What’s more, it found that training had little-to-no benefit on untrained real-world tasks.

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From NBC News, some families who've paid for brain training for their children say they've seen transformative benefits, but many researchers say the evidence is thin.

The lack of success of brain training in improving attention is likely because attention is a complex cognitive ability. Attention can also be dependent on a variety of other factors such as our emotional state, alertness and motivation. These factors are prone to fluctuation. For example, it is very difficult to pay attention to something new when we are worried or stressed. Training parts of the brain related to attention is likely not 'enough' to enhance a person’s attentional ability. Instead, we found that interventions, which aim to put both the mind and body into an optimal state for sustaining attention might be more beneficial for boosting attentional ability. For example, through meditation or physical activity.

So given the obvious deficit of evidence, why is brain training for improving attention still generating so much hype? Well, brain training, a relatively brief and simple way to improve our attention, has inherent appeal to individuals and societies. We all want to be more able, smarter, and more successful. Brain training appeals to this ideal.

Brain training also offers the hope of improving the attentional difficulties experienced by some groups of individuals, for example, individuals with ADHD. These difficulties can have a significant impact on daily functioning. Improving attentional difficulties in these groups would likely lead to a range of improved outcomes like better educational outcomes.

Another reason for the hype is that the brain training industry is worth a whole lot of money

Another reason for the hype is that the brain training industry is worth a whole lot of money. When companies stand to gain a lot, we need to consider their conflict of interest.

Some children and adults may simply like or enjoy playing brain training games designed to improve attention. There’s no harm caused by playing these games, but your time and money may be better spent elsewhere, like meditating or going for a walk. One of the great things about these activities is that they have many other benefits like better physical and mental health.

So, can you believe the hype about brain training and improving children’s attention? Right now, the answer is no. But as science improves and evolves, this answer may change.

This article is based on research funded by the Irish Research Council.

Dr Éadaoin Slattery is a postdoctoral researcher in game-based learning and assessment at the Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice in Education at DCU. Dr. Laura McAvinue is an Adjunct Research Fellow with the School of Education at UCD.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ