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She Won't Sit Still!

Understanding what’s behind your child’s distraction can help you strengthen her ability to focus.

By Stanley I. Greenspan | December , 2009
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Like a hummingbird darting from flower to flower, some kids constantly flit from one game or activity to another. Even in class, they can’t seem to sit still and can become easily distracted by other students or movement outside the window. Ring a bell? This kind of behavior is very common among kids, but it often causes parents to worry that their child may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Applying the label ADHD can be useful in giving your child’s distraction a name. But identifying the cause could be far more helpful in improving her ability to focus. There’s a wide range of individual difficulties that can resemble attention problems. That’s why the best thing you can do if you suspect your child has ADHD is to first figure out what else might be behind the behavior. It’s important to observe your child closely. Does it seem that external events often interfere with her concentration? If you learn that sound contributes to the problem, for example, you are then in a position to help by controlling excess noise in her environment.

Process of Elimination
One child may be visually oversensitive; sunlight might easily distract him. Another child may be oversensitive to smells; the scent of his teacher’s perfume might make it difficult to concentrate. There are also children who are underreactive to things like touch and sound. This type of child actually craves an increased level of sensory involvement in order to remain attentive. As a result, he may unintentionally bounce into people, furniture, and walls. Hands-on lessons and activities are great for this kind of learner.

Auditory-processing problems can make it difficult for a child to make sense of what he hears. If you give him three or four directions—please finish your milk, get your shoes and your books, and tell Daddy we’re leaving for school—he may only be able to complete the first two steps. His problem may be managed by giving him directions in a different form, such as in writing or pictures.

Other children might have visual-spatial processing problems. A child with this challenge has difficulty organizing what he sees. If he loses a game piece in his room, instead of searching in every corner or looking under things, he may get stuck looking only in one part of the room.

Some seemingly inattentive children struggle with sequencing, which is the ability to carry out a series of complex actions. A child may be able to do only 4 steps out of a series of 10 before getting distracted. Really, he’s not “distracted” so much as he’s lost the sequence.

It’s important to note that other factors, such as worries and fears, can also cause kids to be inattentive, as can sensitivity to medicine, foods, or chemicals in their environment.

Identifying what’s sidetracking your child takes time and energy. But once you do, you can help him get back on the right path. Conferring with a professional, such as a clinical psychologist, can help everyone better understand your child’s strengths and areas of vulnerability, as well. Try these suggestions:

Focus on his strengths. This approach is far more nuanced than simply declaring your child has ADHD. Confidence may give him the boost he needs to apply himself.

Adjust your interaction to better meet your child’s needs. If she has auditory-processing trouble, talking too fast may make her tune out. Speaking more slowly can help.

Explain with words, actions, and pictures. It can help an auditory processor make better visual connections.

Don’t be shy about seeing a professional if your child doesn’t respond to your attempts at helping him refocus, or if you need help determining the cause of the trouble.

About the Author

Stanley I. Greenspan, MD, is clinical professor of psychiatry, behavioral science, and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D.C., as well as a lecturer and author. His most recent book, written with Serena Wieder, PhD, is The Child With Special Needs, published by Addison Wesley Longman.

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