Why do kids lack mental endurance - and what is endurance anyway?

The Swedish Teacher Association recently surveyed 5,000 teachers to ask what they think about children's mental endurance. When posed the question “Has the students’ endurance to complete a task in school gotten worse in the last few years?”, a shocking 93% of teachers answered yes. The results from the survey were published, with three accompanying articles, in the latest issue of the teacher association publication (1). 

There are of course many limitations to what can be concluded from such a survey. Firstly, endurance was not measured by any psychological test and there was no quantitative measure of performance. Secondly, there was no comparison with other countries or with previous surveys that would allow us to see whether Swedish students are worse than students in other countries, or if there really is a trend over time.

But if we assume that the responses really reflect an increasing problem with lack of endurance – what does it mean, and what is the reason? Endurance is not a term used in cognitive or clinical psychology. Does it refer to grit and conscientiousness, or does it refer to attention?

Many of the questions, as well as the citations in the articles, refer to the inability to perform a mentally demanding task, such as reading or listening, for more than a few minutes. This is not the type of behavior characterized by the grit questionnaire, which has questions like “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.” Instead, it sounds more like problems with attention, such as inattention is defined in the DSM-V. This definition includes statements such as “often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activity” or “often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort.”

The prevalence of ADHD diagnoses has increased lately. The US National Survey of Children’s Health showed a 42% rise in ADHD case identification between 2003 and 2011 among children and adolescents, as reported by parents (2). The latest survey found a prevalence of 11% in children aged 5-17 (14% in boys) which is higher than before (3).

An increase in prevalence could be due to many things, including a rise in awareness and reduced stigma or better access to mental health care. But if you ask the teachers, they blame the phones: 87% of teachers in the survey think it is “All the fast clicks they are used to in the digital world.” Here they are backed up by research, at least when it comes to the  use of social media and its constantly distracting messaging. This research includes a pre-print from my group which linked usage of social media to inattentive symptoms (4).

However, attention is a skill that can be trained, and a lack of attentional training could also be a cause of impaired attention. Recent PISA results have documented a decrease in reading habits, with Sweden taking second place on the top list of the largest decline. The time children used to spend training their attention through reading, is now instead spent on Social Media diminishing the capacity.

Reading is not the only tool to increase attention. Another type of training is the attention and working memory training we have developed (5). But improving your attention by training, reading or other mentally demanding activities takes weeks of hard work, which requires grit.

So how to get more grit? A prerequisite is a growth mindset, i.e. a belief that your abilities (such as your ability to focus) can be improved by training. Growth mindset can be induced by interventions (6). Getting more of a growth mindset would increase grit, which would facilitate training, which improves attention. So, in the end – endurance might be both about grit and attention.



1. https://www.vilarare.se/amneslararen-svenska-sprak/elevhalsa/larmet-sa-rasar-elevernas-uthallighet-i-skolan/

2. Visser SN, Danielson ML, Bitsko RH, et al. Trends in the parent-report of health care provider-diagnosed and medicated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: United States, 2003-2011. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. Jan 2014;53(1):34-46.e2. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.09.001

3. Ruben and Elgaddal (2024) NCHS Data Brief No. 499, March 2024; https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db499.htm).

 4. Nivins, S, Mooney, M.A., Klingberg T (preprint) Screen time use and longitudinal effects on ADHD symptoms in children https://osf.io/preprints/psyarxiv/m3bkh

5. Klingberg T, Fernell E, Olesen PJ, et al. Computerized training of working memory in children with ADHD--a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2005;44(2):177-186.

6. Yeager DS, Hanselman P, Walton GM, et al. A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature. 2019;573(7774):364-369.

Torkel Klingberg

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience

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