Understanding Your Child’s Trouble With Focus

Does your child constantly forget things, make careless mistakes and seem like she’s daydreaming? If so, you may wonder why she can’t or won’t pay attention.

Many kids with those symptoms have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But there are learning issues that also make kids appear inattentive. Learn more about what causes issues with focus and how you can help.

What You Might Be Seeing

Focus problems don’t always look the same in different children. And the signs can change over time. You may notice your child getting lost in her own thoughts. It may seem like she’s tuning you out. She may also get distracted and have trouble finishing tasks and following directions.

If several of these signs are present for at least six months, it’s a good idea to talk your child’s teacher and doctor. You can work together to get a better idea of what’s causing these issues.

What Can Cause Issues With Focus

A number of learning and attention issues can interfere with a child’s ability to focus. The one most closely linked to attention problems is ADHD. That may surprise you—perhaps you picture kids with this condition as hyperactive, and your child isn’t. But there’s a type of ADHD (sometimes called ADD) that doesn’t include hyperactivity.

Here are some of the issues that can cause trouble with focus.

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder:ADHD is the most common brain-based condition of childhood. In fact, 8 to 10 percent of kids in the U.S. between the ages of 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with the disorder. For kids with ADHD, the area of the brain that controls attention may take longer to develop and may work differently.

Kids with ADHD may not be able to:

  • Know when to focus on small details and when to focus on the bigger picture
  • Filter out unimportant sights, sounds or information
  • Pay attention without getting distracted
  • Hold a train of thought when interrupted
  • Follow through on a task without needing to hear directions several times
  • Concentrate on one activity at a time
  • Follow spoken directions
  • Process information quickly
  • Keep up in conversation

The signs of ADHD can change over time. What a child struggles with in preschool or grade school may look different in middle school or high school.

Issues with executive functioning: This set of mental skills helps people pay attention, plan, prioritize and start on tasks. If those skills are weak, it can cause some of the symptoms you may be seeing in your child. Many kids with learning and attention issues, particularly ADHD, also have weak executive functioning skills.

Auditory processing disorder (APD): This listening comprehension problem can cause issues with focus, but for a different reason. Kids with APD have trouble processing the sounds of language. If your child struggles to pay attention when people are speaking, that might be the cause.

How You Can Get Answers

If your child has had trouble focusing for at least six months, it may be time to seek professional help to find out why. Observing your child and taking notes of her behavior will be helpful to the professionals who evaluate her. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Talk to your child’s teacher. If your child’s issues with focus are affecting her schoolwork this is a good place to start getting answers. The teacher can be a great source of information and help. Ask if there are informal accommodations that may help in the classroom, such as seating at the front of the room and away from windows and doors.
  • Look into an educational evaluation. If you suspect that your child’s focus issues are due to a learning or attention issue, you or your child’s teacher can request that the school evaluate her. (The school can’t do the evaluation without your permission.) If the school agrees, you won’t have to pay for it.
    Depending on the results, your child may be able to get services and supports to meet her needs. The school would commit to providing them in writing, through a 504 plan or an IEP. Supports might include extra time on tests and projects, or written notes of classroom lessons.
  • Talk to your child’s doctor. You can also start getting answers by talking with your child’s doctor. Together you can create a plan for figuring out what is causing your child’s issues with focus. The doctor may be able to rule out certain medical reasons, or diagnose ADHD. But you may also get referrals to specialists for further evaluation.
  • Consult with specialists. Your child’s doctor may refer you to more than one specialist. An audiologist would look for hearing issues. A speech pathologist would look for language disorders. And a neurologist, psychiatrist or developmental-behavioral pediatrician would look for brain-based medical issues including ADHD. You may also be referred to a learning specialist who will look at how your child thinks and learns.
  • Talk to a learning specialist. This professional can evaluate your child for learning and attention issues using the same tests the school would use. But you will need to pay because it’s a private evaluation.

If your child is under age 3, you can contact your state’s early intervention system. You may be able to get a free evaluation without a referral.

What You Can Do Now

Whether or not you know what’s causing your child’s issues with focus, there are things you can do to help. Here are some steps for managing the challenges and building your child’s attention skills.

  • Learn as much as you can. Once you know why your child has trouble focusing it’s easier to find the best ways to help. You may also find that you have more patience when her daydreaming and distractibility keep her from doing what you asked. Best of all, your understanding can go a long way toward building her self-esteem.
  • Observe and take notes. By observing your child’s behavior you may notice patterns in when she can and can’t focus. This can help you can make changes at home and try strategies to improve attention. Taking notes will also be helpful when you’re talking to your child’s doctor, teachers and specialists.
  • Give your child a time frame. Having deadlines for completing things can help her budget her time and focus on the task. It can also reduce the stress of having to keep after her. Set a timer, giving her enough time for her to successfully complete the job. As she gets better at staying on task, you can reduce the amount of time accordingly.
  • See it through your child’s eyes. Unless you have focus issue yourself, it may be hard to understand what your child is going through. Through Your Child’s Eyes can give you a sense of what it feels like to have trouble paying attention.
  • Try new strategies. Not sure how to handle a situation or help your child deal with attention problems? The behavior advice in Parenting Coach can help.
  • Connect with other parents. Raising a child with focus issues can be hard. But it helps to know you’re not alone. Talk to parents in similar situations. These parents know what you’re going through and can share insights and strategies.

Seeing your child drift off or not follow through on a task can be frustrating. Knowing what’s causing the behavior can give both of you a direction to move in to get help. If your child’s behavior doesn’t improve significantly with your help, you may want to see a health care provider and discuss treatment.

Focus issues are very common, and there are many things you can do to make paying attention easier for your child.

Amanda Morin