The Cognitive Conversation on Attention

The Cognitive Conversation on Attention

We have been talking a lot lately about having “Cognitive Conversations” with your students.

Cognitive Conversations are discussions that bring “Front of Mind” what we can think, say and do to use our cognitive and self-regulation skills more effectively.

We notice with students that when we show them how to be  “Cognitive Detectives” and “Cognitive Scientists” who investigate to understand how to help their brains, they feel empowered. You can have a cognitive conversation about many topics, impulsivity, worry, anxiety and so on. Here is a bit of content related to our books, Bloom,  70 Play Activities and Musical Thinking, to help you have the Cognitive Conversation about attention with your students.

The Cognitive Conversation on Attention

Children with inattention often wish to be on-task, but they have difficulty re-alerting to the desired stimuli after their brain drifts off and attends to something else. We can kindly help them to understand that “Attention” is a BIG brain process that has several discrete parts.

Talking about Attention Your

Attention Cycle & Attention Engine

Begin to talk with the child about the parts of the attention cycle. We alert, we select, focus, attend, drift etc. It’s a process. Each moment we might be in a different part of the cycle. Attention is fluid, not fixed, you don’t remain in “attending” all day long. You flow from state to state.  

Within the Attention Cycle, each part has an engine that runs it. We call that your “attention engine”. When you know what part of the cycle you are in you can rev-up your engine to move to a new attention state. Cool eh! Kids LOVE it!

Here is what a few conversations can sound like – they are short and take just a few minutes. You are sprinkling these conversations into the daily lives of your students (and children). Teach and talk a bit at a time to help the student stay out of overwhelm.

CONVO #1: Introducing the Attention Cycle and Attention Engine

Teacher: “You know how you told me it was hard to pay attention in math today?”

Student: “It was so hard, I just started thinking about skateboarding.”

Teacher: “That makes sense, your brain switches to a more comfortable topic, when it becomes stressed.”

Student: “I didn’t know I was stressed. But that makes sense.”

Teacher: “Drifting is a way for your brain to take a break. Drift is part of the Attention Cycle.”

Teacher: “Since we’re going to be Cognitive Detectives here and figure this out, can we take a moment to look at the Attention Cycle picture and talk about it?” “Your attention has many parts and once you know more about them you can coach your brain to shift between attentions states.”

CONVO #2: “Let’s talk about the parts of attention.”

This conversation is a bit more detailed and is best done in quiet. Introduce just one concept at a time. Choose the one most relevant to the child’s current needs. 

Teacher: “Let’s be Cognitive Scientists and talk about the parts of our attention.” “Once we learn the science, we can teach others.”

Alerting is… Taking cognitive action with a presence of mind in which you turn on your mental energy, much like a car engine. We gotta get our “Vroom” going before we can get our “Attention Engine” working.

Selecting is…Once we are “alert” or energized, our attention engine is on. YEA! Now we focus our headlights on the person, place or thing that needs our attention.  

Attending is….Once we have selected the “salient target” (what we need to focus on) we direct our mental effort toward the target. That means, “All Systems ON” “Mental Effort Running”. “Let’s focus, listen and understand what we are hearing and seeing.”

Sustaining is….Now that our “Attention Engine” is in full gear, our job is to reduce the noise of distractions and continue to direct our mental energy toward the object of our attention. This is what sustaining is. It’s a process of re-alerting attention as the horn beeps, the child next to us moves or our teacher sneezes. Sustaining is ignoring the distractions and dialing in on what matters.

Drift is….When the competing noises, smells or visuals begin to win, the brain drifts and sustained attention wanes. This is actually a normal process. Our brains would get too fatigued if they generated sustained attention with full speed engines 100% of the time.

So the brain drifts, it takes a breather. The challenge is not the drift. The challenge is being mindfully aware of the drift, and being able to re-alert, re-select and sustain once again. 

CONVO #3: Turning Your Flashlight On

Teacher: “Now that we’ve learned a bit about the attention cycle and talked about drift. Let’s use our flashlights to help us move to re-alerting and re-selecting after we notice we are drifting.”

Student: “This is fun, Mrs. Johnson.”

Teacher: “It sure is Jason, ’cause now you are being a cognitive scientist with me.” “First we talked about what drift is and why our brain does it. Now we are practicing re-selecting a new target.”

Teacher:  “Let’s practice turning on our flashlights right here, right now.” “What do we need to pay attention to?” 

Student: “Well. we can pretend we are still in math.”

Teacher: “Okay, let’s pretend. You observe that you have drifted, what can you do?”

Student: “Well I can turn on my flashlight and rev up my attention engine. That will give me energy to point my flashlight at the teacher. She likes me, so I’ll raise my hand and tell her this math is confusing.”

Teacher: “So you’ll turn on your flashlight, point it at your teacher and now you will have selected her as the focus of your attention.” “Great work, Jason, now let’s draw it out, so we can remember what we talked about.”

Talk with the student (over time) about the different types of attention in his “Attention Engine.” This empowers him to know more about how his brain works, so he can learn to coach his brain. A little bit of Cognitive Science at a time, that’s the ticket! Move out of overwhelm and into better skill development.

The THINK CARDS really help here. They are the full page laminatable cards with sample things the child can say to himself to coach his/her own brain. You can grab them in the shop.


Here’s another helpful concept for you, The Flashlight Technique. 

AND another….

Use these activities in your classroom or practice and let us know how it goes in our Facebook Community. 


In 2017-2018, we shall be teaching more than 50 cognitive and motor activities to enhance thinking, self-regulation, learning and behavior LIVE and online for CE. We shall teach you how to use many of the activities from BloomMusical Thinking and 70 Play Activities including, “What’s in it for me?” “The Purpose Circle” “The Love Notes” “The Little Jane Fonda” and more. Produced in easy to listen to videos with useful classroom handouts, this is an activity-filled webinar series designed to enliven and transform your work integrating current science, tools, and strategies. Sign-up to receive FREE activities and learn about upcoming events and webinars here.

Let us know how the activities go with your children and students on our Facebook page. We are interested in how you and your students grow with cognitive skill education and motor movement. 

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By | 2017-08-03T08:59:02+00:00 April 15th, 2017|70 Play Activities, Activities, Behavior, Dr. Lynne, Education, Musical Thinking, Parenting, Preschoolers, Problems/Solutions, Schoolagers, Therapy, Wendy Young|Comments Off on The Cognitive Conversation on Attention
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