The Role of Attention in Perceptual Development

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  • 0:05 Perceptual Growth in Children
  • 1:38 Attention and Perception
  • 2:57 Five Categories of Attention
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

How does a child's perceptual development progress, and what is the role of attention in this process? This lesson will use examples to teach you about this relationship and walk you through the changes.

Perceptual Growth in Children

Meet Matthew. When Matthew was just a newborn, he was able to learn about the world around him from his senses. For example, he could tell if a blanket was soft or which direction a sound was coming from. As an infant, Matthew experiences all of the sensory input that is occurring at any given time.

By the time he is two years old, something has changed. Matthew can now use his senses in a planned way to gain information about an object. For instance, he may see how tightly he can squeeze the dog's tail before it will bark or discover that the red button on the remote makes the TV turn on. Instead of being bombarded with sensory input, Matthew is learning to pay attention to specific pieces of his environment.

Seven-year-old Matthew can be found practicing the piano. He has to focus on the notes on the sheet music and pick out the correct ones to play. He can do this for a long enough period of time to play the entire piece. Matthew can filter out distractions and make changes in pitch or rhythm as he plays. He has learned to perform different activities with each hand at the same time, and sometimes he even sings along as he plays.

This is an example of a child who is able to apply his perceptual learning to much more than just basic differences in sound, touch, noise, taste or sight. How does Matthew's ability to focus his attention create these differences in perceptual learning abilities as he grows older?

Attention and Perception

Attention is the concentration of the mind on a single person, object or task. As our infant becomes a toddler, the changes in their capacity for attention affect their perceptual development. These changes include longer attention spans, selectivity about what they focus on and the ability to use their senses to accomplish goals. In other words, the development of attention allows a child to learn to use their senses in strategic ways to gather information about their environment.

How is this different from the way Matthew learned as an infant? For one thing, as an infant, Matthew did not choose what aspects of his environment he would notice. If a rattle is shaken in front of him, he hears and sees the rattle. If a rattle and a bell are shaken in front of him, he sees and hears both items. As Matthew gets older, he becomes able to choose which sound to attend to.

If the rattle and bell are both shaken in front of him, he can choose one stimuli to focus on and ignore the other. The length of time he can spend focusing on one item is increasing as well. He can focus on the bell instead of the rattle and also listen long enough to recognize a short tune, such as 'Jingle Bells.'

Five Categories of Attention

We have now seen, to some degree, that as Matthew progresses through childhood, his ability to experience attention will progress as well. To illustrate this, let's look at how Matthew becomes a remote control expert that develops into a young piano player. We'll do this by considering five categories of attention that continue to develop as a child develops.

First up is focused attention. This refers to the ability to give a specific response to a particular stimulus. Here's an example: Matthew wants to watch television, so let's make this the stimulus. He knows that his mother uses the remote control to turn on the television, so he will bring the remote to her whenever he wants to watch a show.

Next, sustained attention refers to the ability to hold focused attention on a task for a period of time. This is also sometimes referred to as attention span. Let's go back to our example. Matthew has been watching his mother after he brings her the remote. He is now able to hold his attention on what is happening for a long enough period of time to see that she pushes the buttons when she wants to work the television.

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