The brain’s “boss”: What makes kids master chefs, amazing gymnasts and musical prodigies? Attention.

Tali Health

January 25, 2019 . 5 minute read

The brain is an incredible organ helping us breathe, regenerate cells, run marathons, attempt cooking paella and nailing that karaoke song. Unsurprisingly it requires the most amount of energy, which in adults is around 20% of our body’s daily energy requirement and in 4 years olds it requires an estimated 43%. “…a 5-year-old’s brain uses twice as much glucose (the energy that fuels the brain) as the brain of an adult.” — Anthropologist Christopher Kuzawa of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Science News

Yes, that’s a lot of energy.

When kids are born their bodies grow at a rapid rate but slows right down when they reach 2 years of age because the brain’s growth takes over. (Kids’) bodies can’t afford to grow faster during the toddler and childhood years because a huge quantity of resources is required to fuel the developing human brain,” — Christopher Kuzawa

Early childhood is when the brain builds lifelong foundations but its capacity is limited so it relies on processes to run efficiently:

Neural Pruning

From when we are an embryo, new brain cells and connections between them (synaptic connections) are produced at such an amazing rate that at 2 years of age we are left with excessively larger number of brain cells and synaptic connections than we need for daily functioning. In early childhood development, extra neurons and synaptic connections are eliminated in order to increase the efficiency of neural transmissions. The brain doesn’t do it randomly but “prunes” away the connections that haven’t been frequently used and strengthened through repeating skills and experiences. So, early childhood development is the best time for strengthening those skills that you want your child to retain throughout their life


At every given moment kids are experiencing a massive amount of stimuli at once. Take a child sitting in the classroom. Their 5 senses are perceiving fellow classmates giggling, the sound of their own breath, birds chirping outside, cars going by, the teacher writing on the chalkboard, they can feel the chair underneath them, the itch in their foot and the rumbling of their stomach (almost lunchtime!), they can see kids running by in the corridor, the clock ticking (almost lunchtime!) and taste their toothpaste from the morning.

Think of the brain as a big company and attention as the boss—Attention has got to make some hard decisions.

The brain needs attention to be functioning at its best. Deciding on the primary goals of the tasks is the first step of learning, the hard part—and most important—is when your attention has to select and filter out what’s important and what’s unimportant from the world around it.

“Attention may be the most important skill you have. It doesn’t just allow you to concentrate on a task; it allows you to switch your attention, prevent impulsive responding and has been highlighted as a significant predictor of educational and vocational outcomes.” — Dr Hannah Kirk, Tali’s Chief Research Officer and Developmental Neuroscientist in the School of Psychological Sciences, Monash University.

So how does attention work?

Think of any process you do regularly, let’s use doing laundry for example. You have to sort, spray for stains, put in the washing machine, add the detergent, turn the machine on and let it wash. Just like any process, attention isn’t just one thing, it’s actually made up of different skills working together.

These skills are the ability to:

  • select one object from many in the environment
  • control the impulse to be distracted from a task
  • focus for longer periods of time (also often referred to as attention span)
  • recall (from long term memory) items, memories, instructions
  • shift focus back to a task if distracted

Some real world examples of how strengthening these skills (and their attention) helps our children to

  • Build better relationships. Because they’re able to follow and remember conversations and be “in the moment” which projects as being caring and considerate towards others.
  • Read better. Because they are able to focus on what the teacher is saying, they can take in information better.
  • Live a happier life. Being able to pay attention to our teachers, parents and friends allows kids to be better listeners and learners which boosts their confidence (I know this answer!) and we know a more confident kid means a happier kid.

Attention and Learning

When it comes to learning and completing tasks, there is more at play than just attention. What happens to that information attention provides? Where does it go? Attention helps to filter the key and relevant information into working memory, the place where new information gets ‘coded’ into long term memory.

Working memory needs attention to perform at its best, to provide information that’s necessary to the task, so it can work on that information to start building or strengthening connections and learn.

Attention skills can be trained and strengthened with specific games and programs, leading to better processing of information, which is so important when kids reach school age.

Strengthening attention early is one of the best things you can do for your little one as what they learn in their early years can carry through for the rest of their lives.

This is a really exciting time for you and your little one, they are learning about anything and everything, their perception of the world is taking shape right in front of your eyes and it’s all done through attention.

What you can do at home.

Give them a great brekky. Their brains are energy hungry organs and need a nutrient rich diet to function at its best.

Notice when they’re emotional — it’s natural for our little ones to feel overwhelmed when learning something new, take note of when they get tired, irritable or hungry. It’s been shown that when stress levels are high, the body can’t process information as effectively and kids can become really tired. If they’re struggling with attention, stop the task and return to it later.

Start strengthening their attention skills through games or by using a program like Tali Train.

In tandem with attention-training, practice mindfulness and a growth mindset with them.

Amishi Jha · A neuroscientist specializing in the brain mechanisms of attention at the University of Miami. Talking about mindfulness and the ability to train your mind into better attention.