Introduction: The present paper makes a critical review of the research findings in the field of cognitive psychology presented in the article by Bertrand and Camos “The Role of Attention in Preschoolers’ Working Memory”, from the scientific journal Cognitive Development. The article under analysis focuses on the problem of enhancing preschoolers’ working memory, which belongs to cognitive abilities and provides the maintenance of information despite distraction. In particular, the major tasks of the study were to determine the role of attention in recall performance and distinguish the influence of motor activity on the process of memory maintenance.
The topic raised in the article is especially important since the prior research examined working memory in adults and older children but almost ignored preschoolers. Bertrand and Camos refer to the previous three studies, which examined the role of attention in working memory of children under 7. Along with that, they stress the contradictory claims in those studies and aim at providing additional evidence to be critically reflected in the light of the further debate on the issue.
Thus, the prior research has stated that the qualitative change in memory maintenance strategies can enhance the performance of working memory. At the same time, recent research has debated and reappraised this qualitative change. For instance, it has highlighted the negative effects of temporal decay and concurrent attentional demand on memory maintenance. Bertrand and Camos review the findings of the studies, which dealt with these two issues in children of preschool age. All in all, the previous research indicated the difference in working memory functioning between the adults and older children, on the one hand, and the children under age 7, on the other hand. More specifically, the decline in preschoolers’ recall performance occurred due to the fact that young children are not usually inclined to use any maintenance mechanisms and consequently easily forget. However, the results were mixed and lacked unambiguous and valid conclusions. Overall, Bertrand and Camos (2015) focus on the further examination of the role of attention in the working memory performance of the children under age 7.
Method: The researchers examined the impact of various conditions on the working memory of preschool children. One of them was the immediate recalling and the three other conditions implied delay, namely: 1) unfilled delay, 2) low-demand, and 3) high-demand distracting tasks in the delay of retention no more than 4-6 s. Besides, the theorists observed whether preschoolers can use attention and its mechanisms to maintain information and what condition promotes their use of attention. Participants in the study were 5-year olds in the first experiment, 4-, 5- and 6-year olds in the second and third ones. Each experiment had its specific goal and different combinations of conditions within the same task but with the age range of preschool participants. Specifically, in the filled conditions, children performed the motor activity of walking that requires additional attention and central processing resources. The unchanged task was to reproduce a series of plastic fruits of different colors, namely tomato, banana, orange, grape, and lemon (three fruit for 4-year olds, four – for 5-, and five – for 6-year olds) either without or with a delay (4-6 s). In particular, the children had to pick up the previously shown and named fruits from the toyshop.
As it has been already mentioned, conditions and goals in the three experiments differed. Thus, in the first experiment, 5-year-old children did grocery shopping. The first condition was to reproduce the items immediately after introduction. Further, in case of a 5-s delay, they had to: 1) just wait for the opening of the shop (unfilled); 2) walk directly to the shop (concurrent low-demand motor task), or 3) to walk on the path with two plastic pads, which had to be stepped on before reaching the shop (high-demand attentional task). In the second experiment, which contrasted the same four conditions, the researchers took into consideration developmental changes across the preschool age range and explored the role of attention in working memory at three ages (4, 5 and 6 years). The only change was the U-shape path instead of plastic pads in the high-demand conditions for the younger preschoolers with the consideration of their safety. Due to the probability of additional cause (namely, visibility or non-visibility of the shop) for the attentional increase in the high-demand condition, there was a need for the third experiment. Thus, the third experiment tested two recall conditions with the shop being visible in one and hidden in the other whereas the concurrent distracting task was the same: walking straight to the toyshop.
Results: The results of the first experiments led to a number of conclusions. First, the order of conditions had no effect on span; second, the introduction of an unfilled delay reduced the span compared to immediate recall but no significant difference in recall performance was apparent if compared to the filled conditions. The most important finding in the light of general discussion seems to be the unexpected improvement of the children’s recall while performing a low-demand task. In contrast, recall performance declined with the increase of attentional demand of the concurrent distracting task in the high-demand condition. The second experiment, which focused on the preschool age range, found out that younger preschoolers’ recall was lower compared to that of the older children’s. Additionally, the results concerning the impact of the aforementioned four conditions replicated the findings of the first experiment. Experiment 3 indicated that the hiding of the shop did not have any effect on recall performance, so it enabled the researchers to discard this factor while examining the high-demand conditions.
Discussion: In contrast to the prior research, the study under analysis examined the impact of four conditions within the same working memory task on preschoolers’ recall performance taking into account preschool age range from 4 to 6 years. The findings have shown that the reduction of recall performance emerged from both the unfilled delay between encoding and recall and the increase of attentional demand in the concurrent distracting task. At the same time, the low-demand motor activity enhanced the preschoolers’ use of attentional maintenance mechanisms and thus improved recall. Consequently, the principal merit of the current research is the evidence-based claim that the children of age under 7 are able to use attention for the benefits of working memory in favorable situations, which enable them to use attention resources for keeping the memory traces active.
On a related note, the theorists claim that the beneficial effect of walking on the recall performance highlights the theoretical implications about the favorable impact of dual-task conditions on working memory but only with low-demand attentional tasks. In other words, the current study’s principal implication suggests that although preschoolers experience difficulties in focusing their attention, especially for memory maintenance, they can demonstrate the ability to utilize the attentional refreshing mechanism (more characteristic of adolescence and adulthood) and keep the focus of attention on memory traces. Finally, the researchers suggested that moderate physical engagement of the young children can help eliminate their passivity in implementing memory maintenance activities. In brief, this finding supplies evidence-based arguments for the preschoolers’ cognitive improvement in the process of physical activity, which increases arousal, promotes the allocation of additional attentional resources, and supports goal-maintenance.
The study results did not indicate any interactions between the age and control of attention although the previous research distinguished its considerable developmental improvement throughout the preschool period. To overcome these limitations, further research is needed to examine the effect of developmental change on the control of attention during the preschool age period, specifically, with other tasks and delays. It is also necessary to explore the contexts favoring preschoolers’ use of attentional mechanisms as well as the role of motor activity in cognitive performance enhancement.