Queen’s University Belfast: Children can’t avoid mind wandering at school but it can seriously affect learning

It’s impossible for children to avoid daydreaming or “mind wandering” in the classroom but it could be seriously affecting their ability to learn, a study by Queen’s University Belfast psychologists has found.
While mind wandering is an everyday experience for both adults and children, this is the first study that looks at its impact on learning for young children.

In the study, researchers played a story to 97 children aged 6-11 and asked them a question every two minutes to check if they were paying attention. They discovered that the children were “mind wandering” a quarter of the time (25 per cent) and they couldn’t help it.

The study found that the frequency of mind wandering didn’t change with age but that it had a detrimental impact on learning as children who mind wandered the most remembered less about the story than those who mind wandered more frequently.

Dr Agnieszka Graham, Lecturer in Applied Developmental Psychology at Queen’s, led the research study which has been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

She comments: “In school, often children can get in trouble for mind wandering, it is sometimes viewed as a sign of disrespect or misbehaviour if they are not paying attention. However, our research has found that children, like adults, are unable to fully concentrate all the time, it’s likely that their minds will wander for a substantial proportion of a typical school day.

“Our findings indicate that further exploring the causes and consequences of mind wandering in these early years at school could provide a solid foundation for developing interventions to help children detect when their minds strayed from the task at hand and refocus their attention.

“The more we can learn about mind wandering in the classroom, the better we can design our teaching strategies and educational spaces to optimise learning and engagement.”

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