Core abilities include memory, attention span, processing speed and impulse control. These are factors that affect ability in all other areas; deficits in core ability will detrimentally affect ability on the other aspects of function.
Memory is very easy to assess as it is required in day to day life. I used to have a very good memory. My mother has a story about me when I was three years old. She met up with her brother with me in tow. As he left, he told my mother his new phone number and she wrote it down on a piece of paper. That night, when she wanted to ring him, she could not find the paper. However, I recited back to her the number that I had heard him say. It was correct. Sadly, following the birth of my children, I can no longer remember anything, which is highly frustrating.
Thankfully, my children have inherited my memory, and I often joke with them that they “stole” my memory. I first realised that my daughter had a very good memory when she was about 18 months old. I mislaid my keys. She watched confused at what I was doing as I upturned the flat, until eventually I said out loud “Where have I put my keys?” This was a rhetorical question as I did not really think that anyone would be able to tell me. However, Big Sis got up, walked to another room and showed me exactly where I had left my keys. It was not as if she was playing with them or she had seen them recently as we had been together the whole time. She had seen me put them down some hours earlier, and was able to recall exactly where she had seen me put them down, even though I could not. These days whenever I need to remember something, I just tell Big Sis to remember it and I know that I need never forget again (probably until she has children of her own that “steal her memory”).
Following this incident, it is a given that any CP worth their salt would play memory games with their children. Matching pairs is a good memory game that is easy to play with children (select 10 or 20 pairs of cards and place them face down in random order, each player upturns 2 cards at a time and if they are a pair, they get to keep them, the winner has the most pairs at the end of the game). Other games that I played were putting random objects on a tray and then taking one away and seeing if they could deduce the missing object, or the game “I went on holiday and I packed in my suitcase…” which then involves each person adding to an incremental list of random objects to remember. From games such as this, it is possible to get a good idea of a child’s memory. You can of course also do the more formal testing “digit recall” as in an IQ test, where you recite a random string of numbers and ask the child to repeat them back in order, in reverse order or after a time delay. My telephone number trick as a 3 year old would have been an example of a time-delayed digit recall. A time-delayed 11 digit recall is pretty good for a 3 year old, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it now.
Children’s attention span increases with age. An easy way to think about what the average attention span of a child at a particular age is; is to think about school lesson lengths. Educationalists through the years have structured lesson times to roughly match the attention span of the children in their class. Thus, at reception (age 4-5 years), activities are likely to change every 10-20 minutes. By Year 3 (age 7-8), lessons will be between 20-30 minutes, by year 6, 30-40 minutes. At Year 6 (age 10-11), the brighter pupils will be sitting 11+ exams which require attention and concentration for up to 75 minutes in an exam setting. By eighteen, A-level students are treated to the joys of triple maths or triple French; that is a whopping 120 minutes.
You can easily observe your child’s attention span by trying to engage them in a task they should enjoy and seeing how long they last. Which of us parents have not spent ages getting out painting equipment only to find that the child has wandered off after 5 minutes and we are left painting by ourselves. Whenever you do this, you can time how long it actually was that they were engaged in the task and at least you will be able to console yourself on the increasing attention span at each iteration while you tidy up the painting paraphernalia.
Attention span should be tested over a variety of activities, for instance drawing/ painting, puzzles, board games, craft activity, as well as on more academic tasks. Most children with even very poor attention span are able to watch TV and play computer games, so psychiatrists generally do not include ability to watch TV for hours as an indicator of good attention span.
Attention span can be trained. I remember that around the time that Lil Bro turned 1 year, I read somewhere that: children who were regularly read stories from an early age started school ahead of the class. I was already regularly reading to Big Sis but had not started as early as 1 year. Since no one ever tells you when the right time to start reading to a child is, I decided to try it with Lil Bro. On the first day, it was a disaster. Practically after 1 page of “Dear Zoo” he was off, despite my attempts to cajole and encourage him to sit for longer. I could have just given up and thought “Heck, he’s too young – it’s a waste of time at this age”, but for some reason (probably the article that had extolled the benefits of regular reading) I tried again the next day. To my surprise, he lasted 2 pages! This intrigued me enough to continue and I found that by the end of a week or so, he lasted for the whole book.
Pop quiz: Can you deduce from memory the item that has been removed since the last picture of this tray…?