Attention underpins many activities integral to a child's development. However, methodological limitations currently make large-scale assessment of children's attentional skill impractical, costly and lacking in ecological validity. Consequently we developed a measure of 'Visual Motor Attention' (VMA)-a construct defined as the ability to sustain and adapt visuomotor behaviour in response to task-relevant visual information. In a series of experiments, we evaluated the capability of our method to measure attentional processes and their contributions in guiding visuomotor behaviour. Experiment 1 established the method's core features (ability to track stimuli moving on a tablet-computer screen with a hand-held stylus) and demonstrated its sensitivity to principled manipulations in adults' attentional load. Experiment 2 standardised a format suitable for use with children and showed construct validity by capturing developmental changes in executive attention processes. Experiment 3 tested the hypothesis that children with and without coordination difficulties would show qualitatively different response patterns, finding an interaction between the cognitive and motor factors underpinning responses. Experiment 4 identified associations between VMA performance and existing standardised attention assessments and thereby confirmed convergent validity. These results establish a novel approach to measuring childhood attention that can produce meaningful functional assessments that capture how attention operates in an ecologically valid context (i.e. attention's specific contribution to visuomanual action).
Authors LH and MMW are part of the Healthy Children, Healthy Families Theme of the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) Yorkshire and Humber (www.clahrc-yh.nihr.ac.uk/). Please note, the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the National Health Service, the NIHR and the Department of Health. At different points in time this programme of research has been supported by a Medical Research Council (MRC; www.mrc.ac.uk) scholarship, an MRC Centenary Early Career Award and a grant from The Waterloo Foundation (TWF reference: 1285/1986; www.waterloofoundation.org.uk/). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors would like to thank Jackie Burr, Mairi Flood, Catherine Frogley and Will Ogg for their help with data collection and Edward Berry and Bryony Maw for their valuable contribution to discussions and proof-reading whilst preparing the final manuscript.