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Attention development in 10-month-old infants selected by the WILSTAAR screen for pre-language difficulties


Ian St James-Roberts, Thomas Coram Research Unit, 27–28 Woburn Square, London WC1H OAA, UK; Tel: 020 7612 6249; Email:


Background:  WILSTAAR comprises a programme for identifying and treating 8–10-month-old infants who are at risk of language and cognitive difficulties. It has been adopted by health trusts, and included in Sure Start intervention schemes, throughout the UK. This study addresses one of the main queries raised by critics of the programme, by providing evidence about the psychological abilities of infants who fail the WILSTAAR screening assessment.

Methods:  Thirty 10-month-old infants who failed the screen (‘at-risk’ infants) and 30 gender- and age-matched infants who passed the screen (‘not-at-risk’ infants) were assessed using a standard, validated measure of attention, the Distractibility Task.

Results:  The at-risk infants were found to have poorer focused attention, and were more distractible, than the not-at-risk infants. The not-at-risk infants were quicker in deducing that distractor slides included in the task were of little importance, spent more sustained periods of time in focused attention on toy play, and were quicker in learning to use the information available in the task.

Conclusions:  The findings contribute to knowledge about infants’ psychological development and provide partial support for the thinking underlying WILSTAAR. Evidence was found to support concerns about the accuracy of the WILSTAAR screening assessment, and issues about the trade-off between assessment age and the inclusion of WILSTAAR in routine services are discussed.

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