Monday, May 20, 2013

Attention and Engagement

How are attention and engagement related to each other?

Attention is a component of engagement, so figuring out the relationship between the two is tricky. Some early studies (Dunst, McWilliam, & Holbert, 1986) separated attentional from active engagement but didn’t really look at attention as a stand-alone construct. In the early days of figuring out engagement, I read quite a bit of Michael Lewis’s work.

Within engagement, my colleagues and I pay attention to casual attention, as an indicator of indifferentiated engagement, and focused attention. The former appears to have less value—at least, we put it lower on the developmental hierarchy than we do focused attention.

Can a child spend much time attending yet not be engaged? If it were casual attention (looking around), we’d consider it low engagement. But if it were focused attention, we’d consider it good engagement. Because we work with young children, however, we know that too much focused attention without accompanying manipulative (i.e., active) engagement could be a bad thing. Children with cerebral palsy have shown us that attentional engagement can go only so far; it’s better for a child to have actual control over his or her environment. Attention even more than engagement, therefore, seems necessary but not sufficient. Can a child spend much time engaged yet not be attending? At first, we might think so: The child who is very appropriately active appears not to spend much time just looking. But we do use eye gaze (i.e., looking) to help judge what a child is interested in. So, even in active engagement, attention plays a role.

People who like to categorize children (and don’t we all, in some ways?) might think of some children as watchers and others as doers. We know better than to consider these “learning styles,” yet they might describe how children make sense of their environment. Some might attend first and then experiment; others might jump in first—and then probably never spend a lot of time attending.

Another place where attention has an interesting role is in mastery pleasure, when a child looks at what he or she has accomplished, indicating to us adults that the child finds the accomplishment reinforcing. Compare this to the child who does something and shows no affective response. We don’t know whether that kid found the activity reinforcing or not, unless he or she returns to it, which after all is the definition of reinforcement.

Attention and engagement, therefore, are intertwined but it research is needed to find out more about the connection between the two.


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