People’s ability to stay focused varies greatly. The average adult can concentrate, on something new and difficult, for about 20 minutes. Younger children have much shorter attention spans but as they grow older their ability to concentrate normally improves.
Children face problems when their ability to stay focused is poorer than what is expected by parents and teachers. It can be difficult for teachers to notice when a child has lost concentration. Consequently, the child may miss out on a lot of the lesson because they are ‘day dreaming’.
Some children with poor attention also find it very difficult to stay still. It is easier to notice that these children are struggling and they are more likely to get in trouble with teachers.
Children with concentration difficulties or ADHD may also be impulsive. They may say or do something before they have considered the consequences. This isn’t because they are deliberately ‘being naughty’ but because they genuinely find it difficult to stop and think before acting.
Other reasons for concentration difficulties
Not all children who have difficulty concentrating at school have an attention problem. There are lots of other reasons why children struggle to focus. For example:
- Not understanding the lesson
- Difficulties reading and writing
- Language problems (including being taught in a second language)
- Distracted by bullying
- Feeling very anxious
- Low mood
How can we help?
Here are some of the main approaches to trying to help children who have attention problems:
Changing the environment
Understanding the child’s abilities and then finding the best way to work to their strengths is one of the key roles of a psychologist. Together with parents and teachers we aim to develop strategies that help the child. Strategies might include:
- Having the child sit at the front of the class so that the teacher only needs to tap on their desk as they walk past to get them to refocus.
- Asking the child to study for 10 minutes (or whatever they can manage)and then taking a short break before coming back to study.
- Switching between tasks to maintain interest (for example study 20 minutes of Maths then 20 minutes of Science rather than trying to study one subject for a long period of time).
- Pre-planning responses in common social situations so that there is less likelihood of the child acting inappropriately due to impulsive behaviour.
Teaching strategies to the child
Older children and young adults can learn strategies to manage their concentration so that they are less reliant on parents and teachers. For example:
- Making Mindmaps during lessons, lectures or whilst reading text books to make it more likely that they will stay focused
- Setting an alarm or timer that reminds them to get back to refocus.
- Using a Smartphone to organise themselves and remember what they need to do.
Medication for ADHD
Medication is often used to improve a child’s ability to focus. This certainly seems to work well for some children. However, there are sometimes side effects. As a Clinical Psychologist I don’t prescribe medication – I would normally refer to my psychiatrist colleagues if this was an option that someone was interested in. A good psychiatrist should be able to talk you through the potential benefits and any risks. These articles also provide some good information:
- Royal College of Psychiatrists UK: ADHD
- CHADD US National Resource on ADHD article on Managing Medication
Selecting the right approach for each individual
Every person and every child is different. It’s important to understand your child’s individual strengths and difficulties so you can tailor your approach to get the best outcome.
Any questions or comments?
Did you find this article helpful? If you have any questions on this topic write them in comments section at the bottom of this page and I’ll reply to you as soon as possible. It would also be good to read any comments or opinions you may have.
If you’d like more advice on how best to help manage your child’s attention difficulties feel free to arrange an appointment with me.
Further Information …
I’ve included some links to websites that I have found useful below. You’ll notice that most of these resources refer to the diagnostic terms for attention problems: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
If someone has great difficult with attention in most situations then they might receive a diagnosis of ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’. However, you’d need a trained clinician to make that diagnosis for you. We tend not to use diagnosis except in special circumstances – you can read why here.
However, the information in these links should help any young person who has trouble concentrating.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has a good guide which explains more about ADHD.
Great Ormond Street is a famous children’s hospital in London. This is their page on ADHD.
The Understood Network is a US based not-for-profit that aims to educate about ‘kids who think and learn differently’.
The UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists information on ADHD.
The US organisation ‘Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder’ (CHADD) has detailed information about ADHD including this article on medication.