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New App Measures Attention in 2 to 5-Year-Olds


Friday, November 13, 2020

​Designed with an engaging theme and graphics, the Visual Attention Processing Protocol (VAPP) application collects research data on how children between the ages of 2 and 5 process visual information in their environment.

Created by Anastasia Kerr-German, Ph.D., Director of the Brain, Executive Function and Attention Research Laboratory at Boys Town®, this app measures visual attention and brain processing efficiency during play, while keeping kids entertained and interactive. Available in the App Store, the VAPP application is accessible to researchers wishing to participate in normative data collection.

In keeping with the under-the-sea game format, the first thing children are asked to do is click on sea creatures as quickly as they see them. In the next tier of the game, children will have to make choices about the direction the fish are going and drag them to the right location on the screen. In the third part of the game, children will sort visual stimuli (sea creatures and sea trash) to the appropriate locations based on their labels.

This game tells us about how children see things and how they make choices about visual information in their environment. To keep the engagement level high, there are also parts of the game that are just for entertainment like a pop-the-bubbles segment and the ability to earn underwater treasure games. 

The Child Visual Attention Protocol application gauges how children use categorical labels and visual attention to guide decision-making, both in the moment and during a task that requires attention skills. The Protocol tests what children know and how quickly they can process and make decisions about that visual information.

Child Visual Attention Protocol appFor example, in the “Find the Fish" exercise, children can quickly tap a creature with little thought in one portion of the task, which allows us to gauge how quickly they can process those visual stimuli. During Where Are They Going?"  and “Rescue or Recycle?" children must not only see the object but must label it and then do something with it. That is where decision-making comes in. Both pieces are important when understanding the development of attention in young children.

So far, the Child Visual Attention Protocol has been piloted with a dozen or so 2 to 5-year-olds and the children have been enthusiastic about using the application. There is still a large amount of normative data to collect before this can become a potential diagnostic tool to identify children who may be at risk for developing disorders such as ADHD. But the information collected to date is promising and might eventually help identify risk for ADHD much earlier than is now possible.

This application may eventually allow for diagnosis and care of those at risk for ADHD long before the behavioral and psychological struggles these children face become disruptive to their day-to-day lives. If interventions could start early, before school age, these children may have an easier time adjusting and there may be less of an impact on their academic achievement and social-emotional health.

“My hope is that we can use this app to better understand typically developing children prior to school age so that we may begin to understand the evolution of disorders of attention and executive functioning such as ADHD. A portion of our children in the Boys Town Residential Treatment Center, as well as outpatient clinics, have ADHD, and this line of research is aimed at early identification of risk and earlier interventions," said Dr. Kerr-German.

Researchers interested in helping to collect data for this ongoing project should contact Dr. Kerr-German through the Brain, Executive Function and Attention Research Lab at Boys Town National Research Hospital®.​

Download on the iOS App Store