Attention! Attention!

So what is that voice in your head we were talking about in the last post?  The one which walks you through unfamiliar tasks, keeps you focused in the last two hours of the workday? Where does it come from and how important is it?

Normalization .v. Self-Regulation

Way back in 1913 Maria Montessori called it “normalization.” Like many academic terms from the turn of the century, it sounds mildly appalling to modern ears.  Luckily, we don’t have to use it anymore!  Child development research has since caught up to Montessori’s insights and now when we’re wondering how we make ourselves do the things we ought to do–homework, exercise, cleaning the basement–we talk about “self-regulation.”

Self-Regulation is exactly what it sounds like.  The emotional and cognitive processes we activate to achieve goals and adapt to social expectations. This isn’t just what keeps you from cutting in line at the DMV.  It’s what allows you to live the life you want to live. The biological underpinning of self-regulation is attention.  Not just the outcome, a person’s ability to direct their mind but all the processes that make that possible.


There are three sub-components to attention: vigilance, orienting, and executive functions.  Vigilance is what we think of most in academic settings, the ability to maintain alertness. And orienting is the ability to notice, to be caught by events and stimuli, even if just for the second after you hear a car backfire. While both of these are important for all human functioning the star in the attention trio is executive functioning.  Executive Functions are those which resolve conflict between brain networks competing for airtime.  While executive function is tied to a number of cognitive tasks the simplest way to think of it is as a referee between orientation and vigilance.  On one pole we have hyper-focus and on the other we have extreme distractibility.  Well developed executive functions are what put a person in control of where they fall in that spectrum.


Attention in the Classroom

The thing is, while we rely on them heavily in our adult world, executive functions are the creations of our childhood selves,the bulk of our attention networks are developing between the ages of 2-7.  On this development, and in 1918, Montessori wrote:

“In our method exercises of the will are incorporated with all intellectual exercises and in the everyday life of the child.  Outwardly the child is learning accuracy and grace of movement, refines his sensations, learns to count and to write, but, as a more deep seated result, he becomes master of himself, the forerunner of the man of strong ready will.”

Discovery of the Child


I seem to keep coming back to the value of the Practical Life work we do in the classroom but attention is why it’s so important. We start every child in Practical Life and return to it again and again because at this age movement isn’t just related to cognition, it is cognition. And so, a child’s regulation of movement is regulation of attention!

It takes a pretty significant act of inhibition to go from the turn yourself around part of the Hokey Pokey to moving only a single body part.  And while that sounds simplistic consider that a variation of the game Simon Says has actually been used in research on attention development!

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Maria Montessori, my favorite, in fact:

“The transition from one state to the other [self-regulated state] always follows a piece of work done by the hands with real things, work accompanied by mental concentration…It is the most important single result of our whole work.” The Absorbent Mind



See you soon!



p.s:  For the record, the ability to play Simon Says starts to emerge at around 4 and is a reflection of improvements in impulse inhibition and cognitive flexibility.

Posted in South Campus News