Home > Attention, Development > Do Deaf Children Lack Attentional Control? How Language may be the Answer

Do Deaf Children Lack Attentional Control? How Language may be the Answer

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 1.38.44 PM

Imagine being deaf. Do you think it would make it harder for you to pay attention to things? Make it easier to be impulsive? It is easy for many people to take for granted many of the things that they have in life. Especially some things as that are so seemingly common as a sense. However, for those people, such as deaf people, they know that there is much more to their struggle than it would appear. It is a common misconception that the only difference between those who are deaf and those who are not is the ability to hear. However, lacking the sense of hearing has far-reaching implications, some of which are still being discovered. One of these areas of implication is within the domain of attention. Attention is a fundamental cognitive ability in which one is able to select a particular stimulus from the environment and focus certain resources on it. For example, when one is in class there are many things happening all at once: other students are on their computers, maybe there is something happening outside the window, and/or your phone is ringing in your pocket. As a student, you are expected to block out all of these distractions and focus your attention onto the teacher, and, specifically, what the teacher is saying.

Attention is probably one of the most critical cognitive functions. As cognitive psychologist David Strayer (2010) once said, “Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it”. Everything that we as people do on a day-to-day basis involves attention; something as insignificant as carrying on a conversation to something as complex as tackling a problem in your calculus problem set, and everything in between. Many people assume that some things, like walking or talking for example, do not require attention, however, this is not the case. In addition, one can think of attention as limited. There is only a certain amount of attention that one has available, which can only be divided by so many things. Therefore, if a person has a breakdown in this domain of cognitive function, it can be extremely detrimental to their everyday life.

It has long been thought that children who are deaf lack control over their attention, which causes them to act impulsively. However, in a study conducted in early 2014, two researchers, Dye and Hauser, set out to see if this was true. They did this by testing two different kinds of attention: sustained and selective.

In sustained attention, the focus is on the duration of attention, and how long one can keep their attention focused on one stimulus. In selective attention, the focus is on keeping attention on one stimulus while there are other stimuli present. For example, if you needed to count all of the coins in a large jar, that would require sustained attention, whereas if you were to have to count all of the coins with someone talking in your ear the whole time, that would be selective attention (and also very difficult).

The participants in this study fall into two different classifications: students who had absolutely no hearing problems and students who were deaf, raised by deaf parents and taught American Sign Language (ASL) from birth. The participants were from two different age groups in both the deaf and non-deaf conditions, ranging from 6-8 years old and 9-13 years old.

The experimenters were able to test both types of attention using a visual continuous performance task (CPT). In this task, numbers appeared at the center of a screen. In one condition the child was required to press a button when the number 1 preceded the number 9, as shown in schema A below. The length and the accuracy of this task are used to determine sustained attention. The better a person performs this task is dependent on them pressing the button only in the one condition stated, and not missing the condition or pressing the button when the condition did not occur. This task also occurs over a certain period of time, and the length of the task implies that they are using sustained attention.

A variation of the CPT was used for selective attention in which there isn’t just one number that appears, but multiple. Numbers can appear either on one side of the target or the other, or on both sides of the target, and the target can either be present or not present. The child was asked to respond specifically to the middle number and press the button only when the middle number is a 9 preceded by a 1 that is also in the middle, as seen in schema B below. A person who is successful at this task has good selective attention because they are able to selectively focus on the central number, while not concentrating on the numbers on either side. 

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 1.45.09 PM

In terms of sustained attention, the researchers found that there was no difference between children who were deaf and those who were not. Therefore, deaf and hearing children were able to press the button while attending to the target equally well. Considering that prior studies had reported deficits in sustain attention, this finding was surprising.

In the selective attention task, the younger group of deaf children did comparatively worse than the hearing children of the same age. However this difference was not observed for the older group of deaf children. Therefore, it could be hypothesized that there is some sort of developmental delay for children who are deaf compared to those who are not in terms of developing selective attention. However, it is important to note that this only affects children when they are still young.

Although it was formerly thought that deaf children were inattentive and impulsive based on multiple previous studies, the authors showed that this thought might not actually be true. Children that grow up with ASL as a first language do not necessarily fit within this category of impulsiveness, and are different than deaf children who grow up without deaf parents.

However, it is very important to realize that not all children are fortunate to grow up in a family speaking ASL. In a very similar study done by Quittner et al. (1994), participants were fully hearing, deaf with cochlear implants or deaf with no cochlear implants. These researchers had very different findings from Dye and Hauser (2014); they found that children participants who were deaf lacked visual attention in comparison to those who were not, and they used this finding to support the observation that deaf children are more easily distracted.

This brings up a very interesting question about the different environments that deaf children are raised in and how that can affect their cognitive abilities. These two papers indicate that there must be a difference between growing up with a language, such as ASL, from birth, and developing without language or acquiring language late. The importance of language in development is well known (click here to look at some of these examples from the Cog Blog), and is just as, if not more, applicable to the development of deaf children.

All in all, parents of deaf children should make it a priority for their children to start learning ASL as early as possible, in order to ensure the proper cognitive development. This is especially true of the cognitive development of attention, which as shown earlier, is so vital to the daily living of each individual.


Click here for link to article


Dye, M. W. G., Hauser, P. C. (2014). Sustain attention, selective attention and cognitive control in deaf and hearing children. Hearing Research. 309, 94-102.

Quittner, A. L, Smith, L. B., Osberger, M. J., Mitchell, T. V., Katz, D. B. (1994). TheImplact of Audition on the development of visual attention. Psychological Science. 5 (6), 347-353

WikiHow. (2014) How to fingerspell the alphabet in American Sign Language. Date accessed: Nov 10, 2014. http://www.wikihow.com/Fingerspell-the-Alphabet-in-American-Sign-Language

Categories: Attention, Development Tags: ,
  1. December 1st, 2014 at 12:00 | #1

    This is such a great post! I think it does an excellent job defining the different aspects of attention in ways that are easy to comprehend. We have learned about the overlap between language and attention in class, like how failures in attention can lead to misinterpretations and low comprehension. It was interesting to see a new dimension of this relationship, the attentional control of deaf children. It is particularly interesting to me that differences in the selective attention task seemed to disappear as the children got older, indicating some sort of developmental delay. Maybe there is something about learning a language that accelerates the development of selective attention. The behavioral aspect of attention was the most interesting to me, and its connection to language has some interesting parallels to Emily Tolman’s post “Parenting Tips: How Bilingualism Can Save You From the Terrible Twos.” Emily’s post shares the findings that children who are bilingual appear to have even better attentional control than children who are monolingual! Also, in the Bailystok and Craik (2010) study that we read for class, it is apparent that children who speak two languages have higher levels of executive control, indicated by their performance in a dimensional-change card-sort task. Both of these blog posts and the study from class suggest that there is something about language learning that may reduce undesired behaviors in children. Finally, I appreciated the thoroughness in which this post addresses the effect of context on behavior and cognitive abilities. It appears that learning a language can be beneficial to multiple aspects of development, and parents and educators of deaf children especially should not underestimate the importance of learning ASL.

  2. December 3rd, 2014 at 23:46 | #2

    Leah, your post was of special interest to me since I worked at a school for the Deaf two summers ago. This is the first time I have taken anything cognitive psych related and have applied it to deaf children! The majority of children that attend this school received cochlear implants at a very young age (as young as 1.5 years old) and are raised by hearing parents. At school, the children are not taught ASL, but instead taught SEE (Signing Exact English). With SEE, all of the syntax and grammatical rules of English apply (this is not necessarily/rarely the case with ASL, which was founded by a native Frenchman). The school accepts students from ages 2 to approximately age 10. After having one-on-one time with these students, the results of Dye’s study do not sound unreasonable. I can understand why there was a significant difference in selective attention for young deaf vs. not-deaf group, but not in the older group. The majority of preschoolers and kindergartners had limited attentional resources and were constantly looking at their surroundings (especially when the implants were off). With the older kids, you could tell how hard they were trying to keep up, make eye contact, and attend to instructions. In congruence to the study’s hypothesis, there is a developmental delay with these children most likely due to their later acquisition of the English language and the lack of skills needed to attend to a single task when living in a hard-of-hearing environment. You mentioned in your post how deaf children acquiring language can lead to lesser cognitive abilities compared to children who were taught ASL at birth. I would be really interested to see if SEE would lead to different results than ASL, since SEE is more in tune with the syntactic demands of the English language. This is also reminded me of a paper we recently read on the cognitive advantages of bilinguals (Bialystok & Craik, 2010). The paper shows that bilinguals have advanced executive control when completing nonverbal tasks; this is in part due to the activation of both languages and the intentional toggling between two languages. Even though the kids at the summer school are not technically bilingual, they are constantly switching back and forth from a visual language (through SEE) to an auditory language (through their implants). Could these children who live in this dual-environment ultimately have enhanced control in attention in later years?

    On another note, since selective attention was the main focus, I wondered about the drastic differences in the unattended channel for deaf versus not-deaf children when selective attention is needed. For example, for a hearing child, we learned in class that sensory information such as tone and gender of voice would enter into the unattended channel during a classic shadowing task. For a deaf child, this sensory information wouldn’t even reach the unattended channel because it cannot be heard. Yes, this sort of defeats the purpose of the shadowing task if the voice that is supposed to be not attended to can’t physically be heard, but what if being able to literally “tune out” all of those other sources that are dividing your attention is actually an advantage in some ways? When you mentioned all of the classic distractions of the classroom, I immediately thought about how the kids at summer school wouldn’t even notice half of those things probably because they wouldn’t hear it in the first place. Having one less distraction allows the kids to put all of their attentional capacity into what is supposed to be attended to, rather than having a constant breakdown in attention (because of auditory stimuli). And even though being deaf may have its disadvantages in a hearing-dominated world, it certainly doesn’t have to be viewed as a burden. Thank you for this lovely post!

  3. October 21st, 2015 at 23:14 | #3

    I really enjoyed this post. I had never really thought about attention in children before, other than when thinking about my summer camp counselor experience when realized that I had only about five seconds to say everything I needed to say because soon thereafter, the children’s attention was no longer on me. When reading the post, I was actually surprised to read that previous findings suggest that deaf children actually have less control over their attention. In class, we talked about the idea that visual attention requires a lot of control because of the sheer amount of visual stimuli in our environments. We cannot possibly focus on all of it because attention is limited. Due of this, I would think that deaf children would be even better at selective attention because they must perceive language visually, rather than hearing it, in order to communicate. Much of the research we discussed in class used listening to measure attention, which does not work to back these findings, but one particular study example that utilized listening could also be used to argue that deaf children should have equal, if not better, attention capabilities. The dichotic listening task, whose purpose was to listen to alternating words and digits across ears and then report what they heard just in one ear, found that people will actually report what they heard in a way that makes meaning (i.e. a full sentence), even if the meaning comes from the information played in both ears and not just the attended one. This finding suggests that attention follows meaning. Deaf children make meaning out American Sign Language, and therefore it could be argued that their attention is even more focused because they must stay attentive to derive meaning.
    Additionally, Posner and Snyder (1975) studied the difference between automatic and controlled processes in attention and they found that with sufficient practice, complex tasks can become automatized. Therefore, while attending to visual information can be difficult because there is so much that goes on to tax our visual attention capacity, it could be argued that it becomes an automatic process in deaf children who must pay attention to the sign language they are seeing and, therefore, they are highly skilled at controlling their attention. Based on all of this it was, for me, exciting to read that Dye and Hauser (2014) found no attention differences between deaf children and hearing children.

You must be logged in to post a comment.