NPR

A Lost Secret: How To Get Kids To Pay Attention

Maya kids do better on tests measuring attention, researchers say it's because these kids have something that many American kids have lost.
Gelmy, 9, and sister Alexa, 4, climbing trees in the backyard of their family home in the Yucatan Peninsula. Source: Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR

Fifteen years ago, psychologist Barbara Rogoff ran a simple experiment. She wanted to see how well kids pay attention — even if they don't have to.

She'd bring two kids, between the ages 6 to 11, into a room and have them sit at two tables.

Then she had a research assistant teach one of the kids how to assemble a toy.

The other kid was told to wait. Rogoff says they would tell the second child, "You can sit over here, and in a few minutes you'll have a turn to make this origami jumping mouse," — a different task altogether.

Rogoff wanted to see what the waiting child did. Would she pay attention to the research assistant. Or did she goof off?

Rogoff ran this experiment on two groups of kids, about NUMBER TK in all: white, middle-class children from California and Maya children from Guatemala, whom she had been studying for years.

The difference was like night and day.

Many of the American kids slouched in their chairs, stared at the floor or looked around the

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