By Patricia A. Hutton

Research suggests that intelligence and performance emanate from the ability to control selective attention. Selective attention is the capacity to focus on task-relevant information, experience and activities while ignoring those that are irrelevant or distracting. To perform academically, one must control the thoughts that one has.

Two factors work against the development and control of selective attention by many of our Buffalo Public School students.

The private lives of many of our Buffalo students are filled with distractions, frequently dramatic and traumatic. In such an environment, it is understandably difficult to develop selective attention.

It has oft been stated that poverty is the biggest driver of the district’s low numbers. The development of selective attention is related to economic status by virtue of the relationship between economic status and time orientation toward the future versus the present, which determines impulse control and the ability to delay gratification.

For the middle class and wealthy, the future is important and decisions are made against future ramifications because individuals believe that they can change the future with good choices in the present.

The poor are oriented to the present and decisions are made for the moment based on feelings or survival because individuals believe that they cannot do much to mitigate chance.

With present-biased preferences, individuals tend to make impulsive choices, driven by a tendency to overweight rewards and costs that are in close temporal or spatial proximity or are salient. Empirical research has found that time-horizon perspectives are good predictors of school investment by secondary education students and educational achievement.

Achievement levels of third-grade students have been demonstrated to be a good predictor of long-term school performance and adult status, and there is evidence that time preferences are firmly established, for life, by adolescence.

Each of these factors suggests an educational strategy for improving student achievement:

• Make greater use of experiential learning and cognitive apprenticeship teaching techniques to assist student focus.

• Center early child education programs on the development of future-oriented time preferences and an internal locus of control to help them become effective learners with selective attention.

Patricia A. Hutton, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Canisius College.