Children Ignoring Distractions: Fact or Fiction?

Kids are notoriously bad at ignoring distractions, on average. Of course, there are individual differences even in adults – some people are more distractible than others. But kids are performing at a much lower level when it comes to resisting temptation. One well-known study is the Marshmallow task (you can watch a really cute video of this here). In this task, researchers sit kids, typically 4-year-olds, in front of a marshmallow. The kids are told that the researcher has to leave for a little while, and that if they don’t eat the marshmallow until the researcher comes back, they can have two marshmallows. The researcher leaves the kid alone in the room for 20(!) minutes, and goes to watch their behavior through a monitor. It had been found that the length of time the kid could resist eating the marshmallow (most kids are not able to wait the whole 20 minutes) is correlated with a host of outcomes. So the researchers sat the kids down, measured how many seconds these kids could wait before eating the marshmallow, and then tracked the same kids down when they were young adults. They found that the longer the kid could wait, the better their school grades and SAT scores were, and the higher levels of life satisfaction they reported.

Interestingly, a research done recently is looking into some strategies that may help children (and adults) to ignore distractions and keep focusing on the task at hand. You could think of not-eating-the-marshmallow as a task, and the smell, sight, and thinking of the taste of the marshmallow as distractions. Researchers in Germany compared two groups of kids: one was given an if-then strategy (“if I see moving pictures, I will ignore them and keep working on this game”), and the other was given a general intention indication (“I will ignore distractions!”). The groups were otherwise comparable in terms of age, language, and temperament (that is important when you compare two groups; you want to make sure that the differences between the groups is not a result of one group being accidentally comprised of older kids, smarter kids, etc.). So basically, giving these children the if-then strategy helped them resist the temptation of distraction from a boring job.

Now we go into a bit of speculation. It is generally known that children talk to themselves when doing tasks, and they typically repeat what they were told. For instance, when my toddler is building a jigsaw puzzle he’d typically say now “see the yellow stripe? It goes with the other yellow stripe!” and the way he says it leaves no room for mistake: he’s repeating a strategy my husband and I taught him when we were working on puzzles together. Later on, children internalize these sayings, and use “inner-speech” to guide themselves through tasks (that is, they talk to themselves in their head). Adults do it too; if you ever had to assemble IKEA furniture, you know what I’m talking about. The idea is that children would internalize what they were being told – mostly by their parents. If parents formulate more “if-then” rules – that is, identify a problematic situation and spell out a concrete solution to the problem – then kids will be able to internalize this structure and use it more often, thus increasing their ability to resist temptations. For instance, I’m going to try a couple of these on my toddler: “if you feel like hitting your sister, stop and go jump on the mattress instead”. Or: “if you feel like banging something, put the iPad slowly on the table and grab a doll to bang”. I’ll keep you posted with the results. In the meantime, what strategy works for you with keeping away from distractions? What helps your children? Do you find that it’s the same things (more or less)?

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