Maya Children In Guatemala Are Great At Paying Attention. What's Their Secret? : Goats and Soda Maya kids do better on tests measuring attention, researchers say it's because these kids have something that many American kids have lost.

A Lost Secret: How To Get Kids To Pay Attention

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Every month, it seems there's a new study out suggesting that kids are losing their ability to pay attention. We hear a range of possible causes - video games, smartphones, social media. But some scientists think that what some kids are actually losing isn't attention but motivation. As part of the NPR-wide project How To Raise A Human, NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff explains the connection and what to do about it.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Fifteen years ago, research psychologist Barbara Rogoff ran a hallmark experiment on attention. She brought two kids into a room and had a teacher show one of the kids how to make a toy. The teacher gave the second kid another toy and said...

BARBARA ROGOFF: You can sit over here, and in a few minutes, you'll have a turn to make this origami jumping mouse.

DOUCLEFF: Rogoff, who's with UC Santa Cruz, videotaped the second kid to see what she did. Did the girl watch the other kid learn how to make the toy or goof off? First, Rogoff ran the experiment with white, middle-class kids in California.


ROGOFF: You're going to start with a spool.

So you could see in that clip that the European-American child is just sort of leaned - slouching in the chair and looking down, fiddling with the do-nothing toy.

DOUCLEFF: She's not paying attention at all.

ROGOFF: She's not paying attention at all, and this was common.

DOUCLEFF: Other kids looked around the room at posters on the wall. One little boy started making explosive noises, pretending his toy was a bomb.

ROGOFF: Throwing his hands in the air and saying, it's going to explode.

DOUCLEFF: In general, the American kids told to wait their turn paid attention to the teacher about a third of the time. Then, Rogoff decided to run the same experiment with Maya kids in Guatemala who she had been studying. When I watched this tape...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

DOUCLEFF: ...It's like night and day.

This little boy is just perfectly still staring at the instructor.

ROGOFF: Yeah, yeah, it's quite a difference.

DOUCLEFF: Why such a big difference? Rogoff says Maya kids are encouraged very early on to pay attention to what their family is doing so they can learn how to do chores and help out. But Rogoff and other Maya researchers think there's more going on. They think these indigenous children have something that many American kids have lost. Mike Esterman and Joe DeGutis study attention at the VA Boston Healthcare System where they use a standard test to measure how well people can focus - or at least that's what they thought they were measuring. But then they decided to change the test just a little bit. Right before it started, Esterman says they told the college kids...

MIKE ESTERMAN: If they did better on the task, so they had fewer lapses of attention, then it would end sooner. They could get out of the experiment sooner.

DOUCLEFF: In other words, the volunteers were motivated to pay attention. The results were shocking. Esterman and DeGutis say the motivation increased people's ability to focus by more than 50 percent.

ESTERMAN: We were kind of blown away by the size of these effects. It seems like it's a pretty important factor.

JOE DEGUTIS: Yeah. So what we're realizing is that if we're not looking at motivation, which they haven't looked at for a long time, which is crazy, then we're really missing the boat in terms of attention.

DOUCLEFF: What their research suggests is that if a kid is motivated, she's going to have much more ability to sustain attention. So it's not that Maya children have better attention spans. Instead, they are more motivated to pay attention. So why are Maya parents so good at motivating their kids? To find out, I went down to a tiny Maya village on the Yucatan Peninsula to the home of Maria Tun Burgos. Researchers have been studying her family in this village for years. On this afternoon, Tun Burgos is feeding her chickens in her backyard.

MARIA TUN BURGOS: (Foreign language spoken).

DOUCLEFF: Her three daughters are outside with her too, but they are just doing whatever they want. The oldest is chasing a baby chick that's gotten out of the pen.


DOUCLEFF: The middle girl is running in and out the yard with neighborhood kids and the littlest...

ALEXA: (Foreign language spoken).

DOUCLEFF: ...Who's just 4 years old...

ALEXA: (Foreign language spoken).

DOUCLEFF: ...Has just climbed up 10 feet into a tree. Right away, I realize what these kids have that a lot of American kids don't - an enormous amount of freedom, freedom to choose what they do, where they go, who they do it with. Even the 4-year-old has freedom to leave the house.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She wants to go out shopping.

DOUCLEFF: So she walks to the store by herself.

TUN BURGOS: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken) She knows her way.

DOUCLEFF: Now, the kids are still getting work done. They go to school, do after-school activities and many, many chores around the house. When I was there, the oldest girl did the dishes without being told. But Suzanne Gaskins, a psychologist at Northeastern Illinois University, says the kids are largely setting their schedules and agendas.

SUZANNE GASKINS: Rather than having the mom set the goal and then having to offer enticements and rewards to reach that goal, the child is setting the goal. And then the parent supports that in whatever way it needs to be done.

DOUCLEFF: She says the parents intentionally give their children this autonomy and freedom because they believe it's the best way to motivate kids.

GASKINS: They feel very strongly that every child knows best what they want and that it's only when the child wants it that it can be achieved.

DOUCLEFF: Turns out, these Maya moms are on to something. In fact, they are master motivators. Edward Deci is a psychologist at the University of Rochester and has been studying motivation for nearly 50 years. I talked to him on Skype. Guess what he says is one of the most important factors for motivating kids.

EDWARD DECI: Autonomy.

DOUCLEFF: Autonomy - the sense that children have control over their lives.

DECI: To do something with this full sense of willingness and choice.

DOUCLEFF: Deci says study after study shows that when teachers and parents foster autonomy, it stimulates kids' motivation to learn and pay attention and sustain that attention. But in the last few decades, some parts of our culture have turned in the other direction and started taking autonomy away from kids. Deci says this is a problem in some schools.

DECI: Absolutely. One of the things we've been doing in America in the school system is making it more and more controlling rather than supporting of people.

DOUCLEFF: Do you think that this lack of autonomy in schools inhibits attention?

DECI: Oh, without question it does, sure. All of the high-stakes tests that are going on and other things, all of those are having negative consequences on the motivation, the attention and the learning of our children.

DOUCLEFF: Now, many parents in the U.S. can't go full out Maya to get kids motivated. It's not practical or safe, if you live in the city, for instance. But there are things parents here can do. Mike Esterman and Joe DeGutis at the VA hospital in Boston say try to figure out one thing about your kid.

ESTERMAN: I say it like this to my child. I'm like, what would you do if you didn't have to do anything? And then you start to see, like, what actually motivates them, what's the - what do they want to engage their cognitive resources in when no one tells them they have to do anything, which is rare once, like, homework piles up and responsibilities pile up.

DOUCLEFF: Then, Esterman says, create space in their schedule so they can do it.

ESTERMAN: Exactly. So I've kind of been thinking of it as like, OK, that's the thing that I should foster and find time for you to do. And maybe that's, like, your passion.

DOUCLEFF: Because when kids have a passion, Esterman says, it's golden for the child. It's something that will bring them joy but also hone their ability to pay attention. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.


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