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Divided Attention: What It Is and How to Improve It

Divided attention is a higher-level skill where you have to perform two (or more) tasks at the same time, and attention is required for the performance of both (or all) the tasks.

Examples include driving a car while carrying on a conversation with a passenger, or eating dinner while watching the news. If the task is to write a story, a learner must be able to think about their characters and plot, as well as spelling and punctuation rules that apply.

When people are required to do more than one task at a time, performance on at least one of the tasks often declines. It is generally agreed that humans have a limited capacity to process information. When several tasks must be performed at the same time, the demands of the tasks may exceed processing capacity.

Research has shown a link between reading difficulties and deficiencies in divided attention. For example, studies have shown that dyslexics make more errors and need more time on Stroop tasks than non-dyslexics.

In psychology, Stroop effect refers to a phenomenon whereby it is easier to say the color of a word if it matches the semantic meaning of the word. For example, when the name of a color (e.g. “blue,” “green,” or “red”) is printed in a color not denoted by the name (e.g. the word “red” printed in blue ink instead of red ink), naming the color of the word takes longer and is more prone to errors than when the color of the ink matches the name of the color. Stroop tasks are commonly used to measure divided attention.

How to improve divided attention

The good news is that divided attention can be improved with practice. Spelke, Hirst, and Neisser studied accuracy and response time of performance by participants reading short stories and writing down dictated words. The participants’ initial performance was very poor when both tasks were performed simultaneously. But, after participants practiced the tasks five days a week for 85 sessions, their performance in both tasks improved.

One exercise a child can do at home to improve divided attention is to practice Stroop tasks. Using the image below, let them look at the words and say the color of each word. Do NOT read the words ― only say the color of the words. For example, if the word “PURPLE” is printed in a red color, they should say “RED”. The intention is to say the colors as fast as they can, and always strive to do it faster! The child will struggle at first because they will be more likely to read the words.