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Difficulty with concentration is one of the most recurrent challenges that school life can present to a child, with many parents and teachers often quick to worry that ADHD is the cause. Whilst it’s certainly true that ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)is characterised by attention difficulties, it may not be the reason for all attention difficulties. However, if you do suspect ADHD, it is important that parents consult with experienced medical professionals for a children’s ADHD assessment and formal diagnosis.
For young students in the classroom, difficulty with paying attention may be apparent with the following signs:
In this post, we’ll outline both how ADHD can impact concentration in a child and other factors that can cause distraction. We’ll also discuss some of the strategies parents and teachers can use to help children manage concentration difficulties.
In the classroom, children may experience difficulty focusing for a range of reasons. While ADHD could be a reason, there are alternatives too. Below we explore some of the reasons why your child may be distracted in the classroom:
For children with a neurodevelopmental condition like ADHD, brain functionality can have a significant impact on concentration.
Compared to their neurotypical classmates, the child’s ability to apply sustained and consistent mental focus is effected, and they may have difficulty ‘blocking out’ sources of distraction. These distractions can be both internal, such as thoughts, or external, such as classmates talking. Children with ADHD will exhibit behaviours such as ‘window-gazing’ or listening to background noise. They may have difficulty controlling impulses and hyperactive tendencies which can also cause distraction.
Qualified medical practitioners can provide expert help when it comes to assessing a child for ADHD, but at home and in the classroom, encouraging children to be more mindful of their actions and providing them with a clear structure for tasks where things are broken down can help. This will support them to focus for more sustained periods, as they will be able to break down each action that is required of them into manageable chunks. It can also help to build in short breaks or small rewards after each chunk of task is complete.
Children may also find it difficult to stay focused if they have a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia or auditory processing problems. Children with dyslexia can sometimes experience low self esteem, because certain tasks such as spelling are more difficult for them and take longer to complete. Therefore, the child may try to hide or prevent their embarrassment by engaging in unrelated thoughts or behaviours.
Learning difficulties related to auditory processing can make it challenging or impossible for a child to clearly hear what the teacher is saying, which can lead them to lose interest or make frequent mistakes, and this may appear as though the child is not concentrating.
For some children, anxiety is not uncommon. This can be persistent anxiety or anxiety during transitional stages in their childhood, for example going to a new school. As with adults, anxiety can impact concentration. Both the worries that trigger anxiety and the physical experience of anxiety can lead the child to appear distracted and unable to focus.
One cause of this anxiety may be separation anxiety from a primary caregiver. Another source of anxiety can be unrelenting high standards (perfectionism), whereby the child might worry about their work being good enough. Whatever the trigger for anxiety, the fight or flight system forces a person to pay attention to the trigger. When the trigger is worry, they’ll appear to not be present but focused inwards on their thoughts and physical anxiety.
OCD, (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), is a type of anxiety disorder that can be similarly distracting and effect concertation. The child may experience obsessive, intrusive thoughts, preventing them from fully concentrating on the task at hand, and simultaneously they may feel urges to carry out compulsions (for example, pencil-tapping or hand-washing).
When these thoughts and behaviours occupy the attention of someone, it can outwardly appear like they are not paying attention. Moreover, children may often hide their compulsions out of fear of embarrassment. A high-quality medical assessment can help arrange an OCD assessment for your child.
In some cases, a child may have trouble concentrating in class because of underlying trauma, such as the results of domestic violence or bullying. The mental impact of distressing events can lead to hypervigilance – a biological response to ensure survival. Children with hypervigilance will constantly be assessing potential threats around them, making it difficult to focus on schoolwork.
Many children struggle with paying attention in the lesson if the material is too easy or too difficult for them. If the material being taught is considerably above the child’s learning ability, the child may find the material overwhelming, thus over-stimulating, making them likely to disengage. Conversely, if the material presented is below the child’s learning ability, they may not find it stimulating enough and again, disengage.
Children may have difficulty concentrating for reasons related to their development and school-specific skill sets. For instance, if a child is very young or new to the studying environment, they may struggle to concentrate because of a lack of practice. Similarly, most children need time to develop certain organisational skills integral to effective concentration, and the time it takes to develop these skills varies from child to child.
It’s vital for children to get the recommended sleep each night, as this is essential in building the energy levels required to concentrate in class, as well as it having other physical and mental health benefits. In addition to having a good sleep routine, having a good meal routine is equally important. Children can also have problems focusing because of hunger; skipping breakfast can make a child prone to distraction.
Though there are many reasons why a child may become easily distracted in the classroom, parents and teachers can take certain steps to help the child stay on-task. It’s important to note that these strategies are recommended as a guideline; what works for one child may not work for another.
The reasons why a child has difficulty paying attention can vary, and sometimes they are relatively minor causes that parents can help manage without professional consultation. In other situations, there may be more persistent issues (such as ADHD), which cause an inability to focus in class. Parents may opt to seek professional recommendations in helping their child focus in the classroom more effectively.
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