WASHINGTON — How can we help kids cross streets more safely? Improving their abilities to concentrate and switch their attention may be part of the answer. British psychologists studied these two central attentional skills in children ages four to 10 in relation to how safely they crossed the street. The results suggest that children who can concentrate and switch their attention better may cross more safely.
The psychologists explain, “If a child approaches the road talking to a friend, they both need to switch their attention away from the conversation and toward the road situation. Conversely, once their attention is focused on the road it is important that they are not distracted by further conversation.” The findings appear in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).
George Dunbar, Ph.D., of the University of Warwick; Ros Hill, Ph.D., of Aston University; and Vicky Lewis, Ph.D., of The Open University used a computer game to gauge the “attention switching” skills of 101 children. In this game, children pressed either a green or a red key, depending on whether they thought a frog was hiding in a given spot. As the frog kept switching, researchers tallied the time it took the children to keep up. The researchers also assessed the concentration of a representative subset of 35 children, by asking them to pick one of six images on a computer screen to match a target image -- despite the serious distraction of a cartoon video that started before children finished the task. The researchers also observed how much distraction slowed the childrens' responses, and they measured impulsivity by which children rushed to respond, with many errors.
Then, to see how well these lab measures correlated with real-world behavior, Dunbar et al. covertly videotaped those 35 children crossing streets on the University of Warwick campus (with their parents, the safest method). They tallied how safely the children crossed by checking whether they walked or ran, held their parent’s hands, stopped at the curb, looked for traffic, stepped out into traffic before their parents, and so on.
Attentional skills significantly correlated with pedestrian behavior, in different ways. Children who were better at switching attention on the Frog Game were more likely to look at traffic when about to cross a road. Children who were less able to concentrate in the lab when challenged by a distraction also tended to be more impulsive; children rated as more impulsive tended to cross the road in a less controlled way.
The biggest improvements seemed to come between the group of four-five year olds and the group of five-six year olds, the difference between preschool and kindergarten age. Finally, concentration, but not switching, correlated with impulsivity, suggesting that these two skills (concentration and attention switching) represent distinct aspects of attention.
The authors point out that if children’s attentional skills for computer games correlate with real-world safety behavior, as they did in this study, then training children with computer games specifically to concentrate and switch attention better may well transfer to the real world and make them safer pedestrians. However, the authors caution parents that it's part but not all of the puzzle.
"Your child can appear to be safe, without being safe," says Dunbar, "by having some skills and getting by. Others, by actively managing their own risk, provide a safety margin. The judgement of what your child is ready for has to be an ongoing and gradual process, in which you monitor and reinforce their skills. They're only safe when they can, and will, do what needs to be done to control the risk of an accident." He cites as two of the greatest risks: crossing roads with peers, without supervision ("they may know what they should do, but their motivational focus is elsewhere"), and when they begin walking alone after dark.
Article: “Children’s Attentional Skills and Road Behavior,” George Dunbar, University of Warwick; Ros Hill, Aston University; Vicky Lewis, The Open University; Journal of Experimental Psychology – Applied, Vol 7. No.3
(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and after September 12 at http://www.apa.org/journals/xap/press_releases/september01/pr1.htm )
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