Distraction and lack of attention in children is a common problem, but “attention” is a tricky word because it does not refer to just one aspect of your child’s behavior.
It may refer to an ability to complete a complex task, the presence (or absence) of some form of automaticity in the ability to perform tasks, an ability to resist distractions, working memory capacity issues, divided attention, and so on.
Children’s lack of focus and attention varies in intensity and can manifest itself through behavior such as:
• Varying degrees of distraction
• Finding it hard to follow through instructions
• Trouble with organizing and planning tasks and activities
• Trouble completing tasks
• Day dreaming
• Jumping from one activity to another
• Impulsive or hyperactive behavior
• An absence of motivation
• Shoddy work
While having a child who is distracted easily may point to learning difficulties such as ADHD, in reality, a very low proportion of preschoolers suffer from this disorder.
Children with ADHD have great difficulties in paying attention, are very hyperactive and have trouble expressing themselves, often because of their inability to manage strong emotions.
My child gets distracted easily: understanding the reasons behind their behavior
It is important to know that your child’s capacity of attention varies depending on different contexts and situations. Their ability to concentrate and pay attention is influenced by:
1) Their emotions
It is human nature to focus on the things we are preoccupied with and your child is no different.
If they are struggling with difficult emotions such as anxiety, they are more likely to appear distracted and inattentive because their focus will be on the anxiety-provoking situation.
For instance, your child’s anxiety about their inability to read as well as his or her classmates may be reflected in behavior such as inattentiveness. Difficult emotions diminish your child’s performance, and it is therefore important to help them learn to manage their emotions in an appropriate manner.
2) Time of day
No consensus has emerged on the time that your child is likely to be most distracted, on the best time-of-day for attention, or on the days that kids are least attentive.
While there have been suggestions that material learned in the morning is remembered better in the short term (short-term memory), and material learned in the afternoon in the long term, other studies have found that kids need greater motivation in the afternoon, or that certain children, for instance gifted children or those who have certain difficulties, are more focused in the afternoon.
Generally speaking, your child is more likely to be distracted easily toward the end of the morning and in the middle of the afternoon, but it is important to respond to individual needs and to try out different activities at different times of the day to identify what works best for them.
They are also likely to be distracted easily on Monday mornings because of the weekend rhythm, and on Fridays because of accumulated fatigue.
The more motivated your child is about a specific task, the higher the chances that they will succeed in focusing and concentrating on that task.
4) Physical state
Your child’s physical or psychological state may explain why they are distracted easily. Lack of focus can point to disorders such as ADHD or psychological disorders that affect their ability to concentrate on a given task. Poor sleeping habits may also explain the behavior of an easily distracted child.
5) Cognitive development
The more developed your child’s cognitive capacities, the lower the chances that they will be distracted easily. Cognitive development is associated with the development of skills such as language acquisition, the ability to remember things, and problem-solving skills.
It can be difficult to cope with an easily distracted child. The good news is that it is possible to increase their focus and concentration, and this has been proven scientifically.
Here are five things you can start doing today to help increase your child’s attention.
How to help an easily distracted child
1) Find what works for your child
The research on children distracted easily has found inconclusive results. Some children are less distracted in the morning, others are more focused in the afternoon.
Different children’s concentration on specific tasks can vary depending on whether the task is proposed in the morning or in the afternoon.
While some children are able to concentrate on two tasks processed by different senses (for example read and listen to music at the same time), others are not.
The first thing is to understand what works for your child. Some children require background noise to be able to focus, others require absolute calm.
Observing your child to find out when they enjoy doing certain activities and under what circumstances (calm, soft music…) can help increase their concentration.
2) Help your child to focus on the objectives
One of the most common reasons that explains why your child is distracted easily is their inability to clearly identify what they are expected to do.
If they are unsure about the set objectives, they may find it difficult to identify the steps that will lead them to achieve those objectives and may therefore lose concentration.
Helping your child focus on the objectives means making sure that they clearly understand what they are expected to do. Asking them to write down or verbally state what is expected of them and/or the steps that they will take to attain their goals may help focus their attention:
- “What is the objective?”
- “What three things can I do to get there?”
- “What will I start with?”
- “What will I do next?”
- “What results am I expecting?”
Reducing distractions can also help your child focus on what they are expected to do. For instance, a clear desk or avoiding asking them to do homework in front of the TV can help them focus better.
Here is a free template to help your child with goal-setting. Remember that even younger children can practice setting goals when provided with appropriate resources.
3) Concentration exercises
Evidence suggests that concentration exercises can help an easily distracted child. Several studies have found that specific activities, easy to apply at home, can help improve children’s focus and attention.
The majority of these activities work by:
• Helping your child develop their selective attention.
• Focusing on teaching your child to learn to ignore distractions in order to reach set objectives.
• Teaching them to learn to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information.
• Teaching them to learn to select required specific information from a large amount of available information
• Raising their spatial awareness
Helping a child who is easily distracted means providing opportunities for them to work on different skills, such as focus and concentration, planning and organization, working independently, and so on.
In other words, children struggling to focus and concentrate benefit when they are allowed to strenghten different executive function skills. Executive Function Bundles are an easy way to help your child strengthen these skills through play.
4) Respond, instead of reacting to your child’s distraction
Punishing your child because they get distracted easily is unlikely to lead to the results you want. Similarly, telling them to “stop getting distracted” is unlikely to work.
The most effective strategy is to find what works for them – morning? Afternoon? Which tasks? When? Calm? Background music? – then help them clearly identify what they are expected to do and the specific steps they will take to reach their objective.
5) Mindfulness exercises can help a child who gets distracted easily
Mindfulness exercises have been proven to help increase children’s focus and attention. Several studies have found that, by helping individuals focus on the present moment, these exercises have a positive impact on overall focus and concentration.
They have also been proven to reduce anxiety and to have a positive influence on overall child behavior.
But mindfulness is not an easy practice to implement for children who generally have a hard time keeping still.
The good news is that there are relatively easy mindfulness exercises you can start doing with your child from today. And here is an exercise you can download for free to help focus your child’s attention.
When should you seek help for a child distracted easily?
Unfortunately, a child who gets distracted easily may also point to a more serious problem. It may be a sign of learning difficulty such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or concentration deficit disorder (CDD), or even psychological disorders.
Please seek professional help if you notice some of the following issues:
• Constant lack of energy
• Great trouble staying alert
• Social withdrawal
• Inability to process information despite help
• Depression tendencies
• Incoherent behavior
• Delusions and hallucinations