What are the common signs that a child may be struggling with attention problems?

Attention problems can take a number of different forms. One common difficulty children have is with their ‘sustained attention’: this means that the child finds it hard to maintain attention over a long period of time. This might be seen as ‘flitting’ from one activity to another, becoming bored quickly, making ‘careless’ mistakes during long tasks due to ‘switching off’, problems listening for a long time, and having problems finishing a whole activity (such as a long game or homework session). This can look like ‘laziness’, not caring, or poor motivation, and it can reach a point where the child starts to avoid activities that require concentrating for a long time because they know how difficult it is for them.

Another sign of attention problems is distractibility, which is a difficulty with ‘filtering out’ or resisting things that compete for attention: examples are when a child cannot concentrate in a noisy or visually stimulating environment, they get ‘side-tracked’ by other fun things in the room when asked to do something, and they find it hard to focus on just one thing. There are also frequently problems with ‘holding in mind’ the information needed, particularly large volumes of information: this can seem like forgetfulness, losing the ‘train of thought’, or a difficulty with long or multiple instructions.

Children’s attention problems often go unrecognised, especially if the child is quietly daydreaming and not causing trouble in class: or conversely they may be seen mainly in terms of their behavioural problems rather than their attention issues. Lastly, there can also be problems with ‘executive function’ in children with attention issues, and this area is dealt with in another question below.