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Easily Distracted Kids Are Actually Brilliant — Parents Everywhere Sigh in Relief

This week, the UK newspaper The Telegraph posted an article stating that recent research suggests: “children whose minds wander ‘have sharper brains'”.  After spending two hours with my 3rd grader doing one reading packet yesterday, I would like to say, “Thank you, Telegraph. I no longer feel the need to slam my head against the table.”

I know my kids are smart, they get good grades and most importantly they work hard. But recently, the warm Spring weather and the temptation of playing outside has made the act of getting homework done similar to what I imagine it’s like to herd squirrels on meth.

But apparently it is a good thing that my children can simultaneously solve math problems, eat Goldfish, request more juice, argue with each other, squirm in their seats, recount their day, and pet the dog with their feet .

Here’s what the Telegraph had to say about it:

…People who appear to be constantly distracted have more “working memory”, giving them the ability to hold a lot of information in their heads and manipulate it mentally. Children at school need this type of memory on a daily basis for a variety of tasks, such as following teachers’ instructions or remembering dictated sentences.

During the study, volunteers were asked to perform one of two simple tasks during which researchers checked to ask if the participants’ minds were wandering. At the end, participants measured their working memory capacity by their ability to remember a series of letters interspersed with simple maths questions.  Daniel Levinson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, said that those with higher working memory capacity reported “more mind wandering during these simple tasks”, but their performance did not suffer.

The study itself focused on a couple of basic concepts: working memory, mind wandering, a given task and task unrelated thoughts. Applied to kids and homework, it goes a little something like this:

Child sits down to a task (homework). Homework is perceived to be boring, lame, and not challenging. Working memory is not taxed by this task. Mind wandering begins and I start to hear things like: “I’m hungry/He took my pencil/ I think I hear kids playing outside, can I go see?/Why can’t I have Girl Scout cookies for snack?” These are considered task-unrelated thoughts and they proliferate during mind-wandering because working memory is not engaged.

Contrast to… Building the Millennium Falcon out of Legos. That is awesome. Working memory is engaged. Mind wandering? None. Task-unrelated thoughts? Don’t exist in part because they can’t as working memory is totally occupied with Star Wars.

So this study basically tells moms what we already know: When kids aren’t engaged, it’s hard for them to focus on the task at hand. Distractibility may in fact mean that they have a higher capacity working memory, which is associated with being smart. What the study doesn’t tell us? How to find ways to make the non-engaging (but still important) work interesting so that it gets done without it being a long and painful for everyone involved.

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