Tracking Attention in the Classroom


Jennie Grammer







Assistant Professor



Agatha Lenartowicz
Sarah Jo Torgrimson
Remi Torres
Eve Xu


Children’s abilities to regulate attention – a key feature of self-regulation and related skills called Executive Functions (EF) – are important components of early academic success. These skills develop rapidly across the transition into elementary school, and there is increasing evidence that experience in the classroom plays a key role in their development. However little is known about the specific aspects of this environment that are driving this change. Based on the premise that contextual factors in the school environment play a critical role in shaping attentional and EF development, in the proposed study we aim to develop a new, neurophysiological based assessment protocol employed directly in the classroom to measure brain-based attentional processes. Bringing together developmental, educational, and neuroscientific perspectives, the goal of this investigation is to understand aspects of experience in school that support EF development for all children, including those who have difficulty sustaining attention in the classroom. Specifically, we are interested in examining children’s attentional focus when they are engaged in everyday school activities by exploring the neural markers of attentional processes using Electroencephalography (EEG). In doing so, we hope to better understand the factors within the classroom setting that promote the emergence and refinement of children’s attention and self-regulatory skills.


Across a broad spectrum of disciplines, spanning educational/developmental and cognitive/neurophysiological perspectives, interest in self-regulation as one important contributor to children’s academic success has grown. Despite increasing evidence for the importance of these skills, less is known factors within the school environment that contribute to the development of self-regulation. Observing young children in the classroom across the transition into elementary school, is clear that their ability to regulate their attention, working memory, and responses is important for successful adjustment to school. It is also apparent that children are constantly provided with opportunities to practice these skills in everyday classroom activities.

While evidence suggests that experience in school creates brain and behavioral changes in young children’s self-regulation and attention, the specific classroom factors and mechanisms underlying these changes are unclear. Thus, there are few evidence-based recommendations that can be made to teachers regarding specific strategies that they could employ to help children develop these skills. This is particularly true for children who have difficulties with self-regulation, and who stand the benefit the most from experiences in the classroom.

To explore the ways in which everyday classroom experiences support the development of self-regulation and attention, we plan to bring together methods for studying self-regulation drawn from educational/developmental and cognitive/neurophysiological perspectives, in order to: 1) examine the feasibility of assessing the neural correlates of attention using EEG methods while children are engaged in ongoing classroom activities and 2) explore individual differences in attention within groups of children with the goal of examining child-level (gender) and instructional (activity length/type) factors hypothesized to be related to children’s attention.

Neuroscientific Measures of Cognitive Control and Persistence:

Advances in brain-imaging techniques and growing interest in brain development have greatly impacted the rapid growth of educational neuroscience. As this field has grown, so have applications of neuroscientific methods (e.g., neuroimaging) to the study of school-related skills in reading (e.g., Noble, Wolmetz, Ochs, Farah, & McCandliss, 2006; Schlaggar & McCandliss, 2007) and mathematics (e.g., Ansari & Bibek, 2006). While this work has produced significant insights into the brain functions that underlie children’s educationally-relevant skills on laboratory tasks (e.g., Houdé, Rossi, Lubin, & Joliot, 2010), these endeavors have rarely focused on the impact of the school context on children’s growth, and little is known about whether and how performance on these tasks relates to behavior in school. As a result, far fewer findings from these investigations have informed the practices of teachers working in the classroom.
By using EEG methods with young children, is possible to gain insight into processes that are difficult to observe or otherwise measure behaviorally. For example, children often have a difficult time reporting on their level of regulation and attention. Difficulty with self-report makes it particularly challenging to examine these processes in children in early elementary school, however it is also a key developmental period during which these processes – and children’s ability to report verbally on them – change significantly. By examining electrophysiological correlates of children’s attention in real-world activities, it is possible to gain leverage on questions regarding these processes before children can report on them.

In the past few years there have significant advances in EEG technology which now make it possible to collect high-quality EEG data with individuals while they are engaged in everyday activities. This means that it is possible to not only conduct lab-based tasks as researchers have historically done, but also to examine EEG data collected while children are engaged in classroom activities (Dikker, et al. 2017). Given the power of EEG methods for assessing the neural correlates of young children’s attention, a particular strength of this design is the inclusion of multi-method measurement. The integration of both behavioral and neural outcomes has the potential to elucidate the mechanisms underlying associations between school experiences and the development of self-regulation.

Conducting Electrophysiological Studies in the School Setting:

For the past 9 years members of our laboratory we have been conducting investigations at the intersection of research on education, developmental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience using EEG methods to study the nature and sources of growth of self-regulation directly in elementary schools. To date, as a part of these research efforts, we have collected data with over 600 children, including students at the Lab School. Based on this work, it is clear that it is possible to collect high quality electrophysiological data directly in the school setting with larger, more diverse groups of children than typically participate in the laboratory setting (e.g., Grammer et al. 2014), allowing us to examine Event-Related Potentials (ERPs) derived from EEG data that reflect neural correlates of self-regulation directly, without having to rely on behavioral assessments that may be only indirectly related to the underlying neural activity.

The current study will develop an attention assessment tool using portable electroencephalography (EEG) recordings, performed in real-time during mock classroom lessons. This tool will be used to explore the different types of classroom activities that promote the development of attention for individual children. The first aim of study is to validate neural correlates of attention collected while children are engaged in classroom activities. The second aim is to determine group differences in children’s attention in the classroom across activity type (whole-group vs. small group, teacher-led vs. student led). To this end, children will be asked to participate in a one-on-one assessment conducted with a trained experimenter as well as 3 consecutive days of 1-hour mini lessons led by an experienced teacher. The one-on-one assessment will consist of a behavioral assessment of attention, executive functions, and academic skills (about 1 hour). During the mini lessons, which will be themed on learning and the brain, children will be engaged in a range of activities (whole-group instruction, book reading, individual work), while EEG is being recorded.


1. Validate neural correlates of attention collected while children are engaged in classroom activities.

2. Examine differences in children’s attention in the classroom across activity type (whole-group vs. small group, teacher-led vs. student led).


Our findings will help us understand the brain processes underlying children’s self-regulation in the classroom. The knowledge gained from this investigation has considerable educational relevance, and we hope will lay the foundation for future research examining aspects of the classrooms setting that can support the self-regulation skills of all learners, which can in turn inform teacher practice.

In addition, we anticipate that data generated from this investigation will serve as the critical foundation for a series of empirical papers and grant proposals that will allow us to continue to explore the classroom factors that promote self-regulation in young children.


We plan to present the findings from this work at research conferences and publish the results of this investigation in peer-reviewed journals in developmental science, cognitive neuroscience, and education. We also share what we have learned with teachers, staff, and parents in the Lab School Community through presentations, newsletters, and other methods.




All children in Kindergarten and Primary grades enrolled in the after school program in summer and regular school sessions will be invited to participate. There will be no additional exclusion criteria.


Participants will be recruited through the UCLA Lab School after school program. In addition to a consent form, parents will be provided informational materials regarding the ERP assessments to be conducted (see attached). After the parent consent is obtained, child assent will also be obtained. Children who agree to participate will then be engaged in one assessment and three days of age-appropriate science lessons and activities themed on brain development and neuroscience at the Lab School after school program. All assessments and activities will be conducted by trained members of our laboratory, all of whom have extensive experience teaching and conducting behavioral and ERP assessments with young children.

The initial assessment will be conducted one-on-one and will consist of measures of children’s attention, working memory, and response inhibition using a computerized battery called EF Touch (Willoghby, Pek, & Blair, 2013). In addition, children will be engaged in math and reading subscales from the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement including Math Fluency, Applied Problems, Letter Word Identification, and Passage Comprehension. This assessment will last around 45-60 minutes.

Before participating in the lessons, a member of our research team will contact the parent/guardian of the participating child to describe the ERP testing procedure and answer any questions they or their child might have about the process. Each lesson will be 1 hour in length, and on each day of the lesson, 3-4 children will be selected to wear the EEG cap. Thus, of the 10-12 children engaged in activities, a subset will wear an EEG cap. Each participating child will have an opportunity to wear the EEG cap during one day of lessons. Using child-friendly procedures developed by our laboratory for collecting EEG data in schools with young children, before beginning the lessons, the experimenter will explain EEG data collection to the child, providing information regarding the technique and answering any questions they might have about the procedure. Following this, the experimenter will set up the EEG equipment, and children will participate with the rest of the group in the hour-long lesson and activities.

Electroencephalography (EEG) measures naturally occurring electrical brain responses from the surface of the scalp. It is a noninvasive procedure and measures brain activity by placing electrodes on the scalp. There are no X-rays or radioactive materials used to measure the brain activity. Children will wear a cap that fits like a swimming cap, and saline (concentrated salt water) will be added to the cap at each electrode site. The electrodes in the cap are remotely connected to data acquisition software that will collect EEG data while children are engaged the lessons and activities. EEG recording will be conducted using four portable Smarting systems manufactured by mBrainTrain. The Smarting system is a fully mobile EEG device that is lightweight, wireless, and uses active electrode technology in which the first stage of amplification takes place at the electrode itself which enables the system to tolerate high electrode impedances. Children’s EEG signal will be recorded with 24 Ag/AgCl scalp electrodes. We have found that electrode application using this system is fast and comfortable for children as young as 3 years of age, with set up and removal of the equipment totaling 15 minutes. Wearing the electrode caps, children are free to move around their classrooms unimpeded by wires. All materials are thoroughly cleaned and sterilized between uses.

During each session cameras will be set up to video record the session. Video recording allows us to do offline coding of group activities. Only the experimenters and the participating children will be video recorded.

In addition to the child assessments, we will also ask that parents of participating children complete questionnaires and a brief demographic survey, which will be sent home with the parents after consent is obtained. Specifically, parents will be asked to fill out the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functioning (BRIEF2) to assess global executive functioning (Gioia, Isquith, Guy, & Kenworthy, 2015). We will also ask that parents report on their child’s attention using both the Strengths and Weaknesses of ADHD symptoms and Normal (SWAN) Behavior Scale and the Conners’3 for standardized scores for inattention and hyperactive-impulsive dimensions. In the case where children are above a pre-defined cut-off on these metrics, parents and children will be invited to participate in further assessment at UCLA’s Semel Institute with a trained clinician. Doing so is not required for further participation in the investigation.

Teachers will also be asked to fill out the BRIEF2 and Connors’3 so that we can obtain a more comprehensive view of children's daily self-regulation and executive functioning both at home and inside the classroom. The experimenter will hand deliver the questionnaire to the teacher after the child's first session. The experimenter will communicate with the teacher to pick up the completed questionnaire from the teacher at the teacher's convenience.

In addition to the efforts made to develop child- and school-friendly methods for conducting EEG assessments, each of the additional measures proposed have been used extensively by members of our research team with elementary school-aged children. All additional individual assessments and questionnaires have been selected based on the validity of measurement that they provide. To validate the EEG methods, it is critical that we compare these data to well validated behavioral metrics of children’s self-regulation and attentional skills.


Warning: Array to string conversion in /opt/data/www/connect/wp-content/themes/ucla-connect-test/templates/content-single-project.php on line 29




EF Touch
WJ Tests of Achievement Subscales
Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functioning 2 (BRIEF2)
Family Background Questionnaire
Remote amplified EEG


EEG/ERP methods make it possible for us to examine the processes association with skills that are difficult to measure in young children. Given evidence that EEG methods are sensitive to individual differences to attentional processes which are not easily accessed via self-report or behavioral methods, these methods are being employed in this investigation to provide insight into the classroom factors that promote attention.

In addition to the efforts made to develop child- and school-friendly methods for conducting EEG assessments, each of the additional measures proposed have been used extensively by members of our research team with elementary school-aged children. Moreover, all additional individual assessments and questionnaires have been selected based on the validity of measurement that they provide. To validate the EEG methods, it is critical that we compare these data to well validated behavioral metrics of children’s self-regulation and attentional skills.


Yes. We will have a parent permission form due to collection of electrophysiological measures and video data.

Direct recruitment will occur before and after school where the researchers will have a conversations with the parents about the study. Researchers will visit parent workshops and events at the center to give more information about the study and collect consent forms from those interested.

The teacher's will be asked to insert the recruitment letter, ERP pamphlet and parent permission in form of a "backpack" packet in the children's backpacks and/or cubbies. If parents agree to allow their child to participate, they can return the consent form to the teacher who will give it to the principal investigator. In the consent form will be information to contact the principal investigator for more information or questions.


There are few risks associated with participation in this study. Children will feel the saline solution in their hair while wearing the cap to record brain activity, but most children do not show sensitivity or discomfort during these procedures. In addition, since children will be participating in small groups, it will be possible for them to know who else is participating in the investigation. Participating in part of the investigation involves doing so in a group. Thus, this could result in a potential breach in privacy, as group members may become aware that others in the group are also study participants. All individual assessments, parent, and teacher questionnaire data will be collected individually and securely stored. The alternative to participating in the study is not to participate. Parents and children may elect to not participate in the study at all, or to participate in part of the study.


There will be no deception involved in the investigation. Children and families will be provided with general information about the research findings following the completion of the investigation.


Once children have assented to participate, the experimenter will assign unique numerical identifiers to each child. We will use the numerical identifiers on all individual participant data to ensure confidentiality. All identifying information will be kept separate from the EEG data and any other measures assessed during the session. A document containing the matched child name and numerical identifier will be stored under lock and key separately from individual child data. Only key research personnel (PI, Co-Investigator) will have access to the document with names and matching identifiers.

At the end of the study, the identifying information document linking the data to the numerical identifier will be deleted. Videos of each child participant during the assessments will be maintained for coding purposes only. Each video will be labeled with the same numerical identifier as the EEG and behavioral data. The videos will be stored on a UCLA password protected and encrypted server. In addition, the videos will be stored on an external hard drive in a locked filing cabinet in the lab. After research assistants have finished coding the videos of child assessments, the videos will be deleted permanently. This task will be performed by the principal investigator or co-investigator at the completion of the study.



Members of our research team have been involved with staff and families at the Lab School in a number of ways for the past 4 years. My initial involvement started through engagement in the Complex Learners working group, and related supervision of a group of undergraduates enrolled in a research course designed around assisting complex learners at the Lab School. I also served on the UCLA Lab School Research Review Committee. In addition, one of my graduate students (Sarah Jo Torgrimson, a former CONNECT Fellow) and I conducted an investigation with Kinder and Primary students called Project PEAR. In this investigation we explored the neural and behavioral correlates of children’s self-regulation, motivation, and persistence. This work has resulted in a number of presentations and 3 articles that are in various stages of the writing and peer-review process. In addition, results of this work have been shared in various ways with the Lab School Community. As a result of this involvement, I have had a great opportunity to learn directly about the school culture, values, and instructional practices. The project proposed here is a reflection of the questions generated in part from these experiences.


Teachers and staff will not be the primary focus of the investigation, so we will not be consenting them to participate. We have extensive experience conducting school-based research and appreciate that teacher’s time is in short supply. Thus, we have designed this investigation to have minimal teacher involvement, and will instead involve working with children during the after school hours while they are in the after school program. However, we will ask that teachers assist us with sending consent materials home and provide us with times that are convenient for us to work with students in their classrooms. We will also ask that teachers fill out questionnaires on participating students in their classrooms.


All research will be conducted by members of our research team.


Self-regulation, attention, classroom experiences


If available, we would request standardized information on children’s academic skills in reading and/or mathematics.


Working with members of the Connect team, we will coordinate space to conduct the research. Otherwise, there are no special requirements.










Warning: Array to string conversion in /opt/data/www/connect/wp-content/themes/ucla-connect-test/templates/content-single-project.php on line 29