My Child is Easily Distracted in Class: Should I Be Worried?

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:

  • Fidgeting
  • Daydreaming
  • Organisational problems or often losing things
  • Difficulty staying on-task or finishing activities 
  • Challenges related to following instructions
  • Poor handwriting compared to other children of the same age

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.

Possible reasons why a child has trouble focusing

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:

ADHD

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.

Learning difficulties

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.

Anxiety

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

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.

Stress or trauma

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.

Inappropriate lesson level

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.

Immaturity

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.

Sleep or nutrition

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.

Ways to help a child overcome low levels of concentration

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. 

  • Specific educational techniques may be employed to keep lessons interesting. Perhaps varying the pace of tasks, having short breaks between activities or increasing motivation through small rewards can help an easily-distracted child with paying attention.

  • Establishing a lesson routine gives children a clearly-defined framework to help them navigate a lesson. They’ll understand what they’re currently doing, and what is coming next, as part of the overall lesson structure. However, although a routine is important, it’s also helpful to make some changes now and again to keep lessons engaging, and not allow them to become boring or monotonous – this will quickly cause a child to lose interest.

  • The environment in which children are trying to concentrate can have a significant impact on their ability to focus. The child’s teacher could consider where in the room a child is sitting, as it can be beneficial to situate an easily-distracted child near the front of the class. In addition, teachers may consider minimising distractions such as background music or unhelpful visual stimuli in and around the classroom to help the child focus.

  • Different students learn in different ways. Where some children are able to retain information through listening, others perform better if the information is conveyed to them visually, and some children (sometimes referred to as kinaesthetic learners) have a learning style better-suited to physically ‘doing’ activities. Educators could adapt their methods to incorporate the elements best-suited for every learning style.

  • Although it can be frustrating to repeatedly perceive a child as not listening, it is potentially harmful to scold them. Try to remember that there are often important reasons behind a child’s concentration difficulties. Rather than reprimanding, teachers and parents may attempt to understand what is distracting the child, before helping them manage their concentration better, in a way that suits the child.

  • In the school setting and in everyday life, children who are easily-distracted can benefit from closer supervision to help them keep focused. Supervision can help children to reflect on their own progress, and overtime, with the right encouragement, take small actions towards improvements.

My child has difficulty paying attention. Should I be worried?

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.

At Psymplicity Healthcare, we provide expert medical advice. Our trained medical secretaries are available to discuss any concerns you may have and can offer helpful resources on how to help your child.
Mavish Sikander

Mavish Sikander

Mavish is a BABCP Accredited CBT and EMDR Therapist and CBT Clinical Lead at Psymplicity.

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