Preschoolers' motivation and temperament relate to attention skills


For decades, researchers have wondered why some children from poor, at-risk families manage to perform better in school than other children raised in identical environments. Much of the focus has been on children's attention skills, i.e., whether they have the ability to sit still or pay attention in class. Now researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Louisville in Kentucky find that children who have trouble paying attention exhibit different motivation patterns and temperament characteristics than children who don't have problems paying attention, suggesting attention is more complicated than previously thought. The results of their work were published in the January/February 2005 issue of the journal Child Development.

"These findings provide evidence that helping children at risk for academic problems involves understanding more than a child's attention and learning skills," notes lead researcher Florence Chang, Ph.D., an investigator at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "It also involves understanding their social and emotional make-up.

The researchers recruited 73 mothers and their preschool children, ranging in age from 3 to 5, all of whom attended a Head Start program and came from low-income backgrounds. The children played a series of computerized games designed to measure their attention skills. The mothers completed a questionnaire that measured the temperament traits their children were born with, such as activity level and frustration.

To measure motivation, children were asked to complete a series of puzzles of varying difficulty levels . Children who preferred completing a challenging puzzle (deemed "mastery-oriented") exhibited better attention skills than children who preferred completing an easier puzzle (deemed "performance-oriented"). Previous research finds that children who prefer more challenging tasks have more positive outcomes in school than children who avoid challenge and prefer easier tasks.

Overall, researchers found that temperament, motivation, and attention are interrelated. This may be an indication that screening tests that measure preschoolers' school readiness, which today focus primarily on cognitive ability or developmental maturity, should be reexamined. Instead, the researchers suggest, it may also be important to consider other factors, such as how a child reacts to challenging tasks and his or her ability to adapt to new situations.

"The findings from this study suggest problems that arise from attention difficulties are not limited to difficulty with concentration and sitting still, but are related to how children approach challenging or new situations," notes Dr. Chang. "Clearly, it is the case that much more needs to be understood about the nature and implications of having an attention problem."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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