Planning and Attention are Key to Learning


Learning can be complicated. Recognizing cognitive processes and how the brain works helps parents and academic professionals better understand a child’s abilities. How a child thinks, learns and processes information leads to academic success or failure. Many factors influence learning and knowing a child’s cognitive processing strengths and weaknesses helps parents, teachers and academic therapists be more effective in helping them navigate their way in school.



Cognitive processes are important to learning because they influence how a child approaches a specific task. The four basic psychological processes are based on views developed by Russian neuropsychologist Alexander R. Luria. A specific theory used to describe the way the brain works is called PASS, which stands for Planning, Attention, Simultaneous and Successive cognitive processes (Naglieri, 1999,2008). Reading, writing and math involve these processes and underlie the acquisition of knowledge and skills.



Planning is the first cognitive process and is responsible for executive function where goals are formulated. It helps students select or develop necessary strategies to complete specific tasks. Effective planning is critical to all activities where a child must solve a problem. It is also associated with controlling and organizing behavior, monitoring performance, and selecting and constructing strategies. Executive functioning is often referred to as the CEO of the brain and helps students use information and experiences from the past to solve problems. These mental skills are controlled by an area of the brain in the frontal lobe and are used to evaluate a task, take stock of personal surroundings, set goals, monitor behavior, gather information and structure it for evaluation.



Planning is used by students to help them evaluate a task, select strategies to create a workable plan, initiate action, monitor progress and develop additional strategies if necessary. Planning helps kids consider different ways to learn, study, gain knowledge, skills, and achieve goals. Children who are strong in planning find a variety of ways to do things, and accomplish tasks. Kids who struggle with planning are often disorganized. They find it difficult to get things done because they use the same strategies repeatedly even if they’re not effective, and they are challenged by trying to find new strategies.



Many tasks require a lot of Planning ability, but some do not. Planning is especially important when students need to make appropriate decisions to accomplish a multi-step task. For example, when a child is asked to write a paper, a detailed plan and organization are necessary to accomplish the task. First, a topic must to be selected. Next, sentences need to be constructed using correct punctuation and parts of speech, and finally, the paper needs to be evaluated for accuracy. Writing a paper involves planning because the student must make decisions about how to express their ideas and follow specific guidelines to present a grammatically accurate paper.



A student with good Planning ability is usually flexible and able to access appropriate strategies that may change as the demands of the task change. He or she will proofread their paper, make corrections and even think of a more efficient way to complete a task. In contrast, students that have difficulty with Planning may write the paper and choose not to proofread for errors, notice incorrect sentence structure, punctuation or purpose. Too often, students that struggle with Planning do not understand the goal, ignore the instructions, and quickly complete the task just to be able to submit it. When feedback is shared by a parent or teacher the child may respond with considerable emotion, shut down and view the suggestions as criticism.



The goal for parents, teachers and academic therapists is to encourage kids to develop their own plan for learning and success. Students who make good plans find multiple ways of accomplishing tasks and are effective at coming up with different strategies. Begin by encouraging kids to think smart, ask questions, use a plan, and be willing to identify different strategies to accomplish a specific task.



Attention is the ability to focus on a task and maintain alertness until the task is accomplished. Attention is a mental process that involves focus on selected external and internal events. It also involves focusing awareness on a narrowed range of ideas, events and tasks and restricting distractions. In the classroom, students need to selectively focus on things heard and seen. For many students this is difficult because they divide their attention between many tasks and allow distractions to interfere with accomplishing tasks. Attention is selection of input and “selective attention” is critical to everyday functioning. When students can’t filter out distractions chaos occurs. Reading a book, writing a paper, completing math equations and listening to instructions require a student to attend and focus.



Learning involves encoding information into long tern memory. Studies indicate that when kids divide their attention between memory encoding and other tasks, large reductions in memory performance are evident. Divided attention can have a negative impact on learning and performance. Many people feel that they can multi-task with limited deterioration in performance, but research suggests that the human brain can effectively handle one attention-consuming task at a time (Lien, Ruthruff & Johnston, 2006).



Multitasking involves switching attention back and forth from one task to another rather than processing them simultaneously. Attention is critical for learning, accomplishing tasks and encoding information. Attention comes in many forms and students can attend to things in a variety of ways. The differences in how kids attend to information are the main factors influencing how they remember. When dealing with verbal information, students engage in three levels of processing: structural, phonemic, and sematic encoding. Structural encoding is fairly shallow processing that emphasizes the physical structure. For example, structural encoding occurs when words are seen on a screen, and a child notices that the words are capitalized and how many letters are needed to form a word. Phonemic encoding emphasizes what the word sounds like and involves verbalizing the word. Finally, semantic encoding emphasizes the meaning of the word and involves thinking about the objects and actions the word represents. Levels of processing propose that deeper levels of processing result in longer-lasting memory codes. Helping students engage in deeper processing of information will help them with recall and understanding. Attention is critical to deep processing of information and promotes effective learning.



Encoding is the process of moving information into long-term memory and involves creating a memory code; attention is needed to create the code. Remembering exactly what a penny looks like is difficult for many because most people don’t pay much attention to the specific details of a penny.  Linking information to other ideas or images will help students with recall and retention. This process begins with Attention and focusing on specific stimuli or events.



Planning and Attention are critical to learning, processing, recalling information, and success in completing tasks. Identifying a student’s weaknesses and strengths will help parents and educational professionals enhance a child’s cognitive processes that are relevant to learning. It is also important that the student take an active role in meeting his or her personal academic needs. Working together, parents, educators and academic therapists can address cognitive weaknesses and implement an instructional plan that can help students succeed in school and everyday life.

About the author

Vikki Carrel

Vikki Carrel

Academic Language Therapist, Multi-book Author, National Speaker

Vikki empowers people! She is an Academic Language Therapist, multi-book author and a national speaker. Vikki grew up in Salt Lake City, met her husband at the University of Utah, and has owned several companies across the United States. In 2010, Vikki and her husband moved back to Utah from Doylestown, Pennsylvania and she founded Vikki Carrel & Company, a speaking and training organization. Read more about the author

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