DEAR POLLY, I have a child in my class who just buzzes around the classroom all day! I can't keep him focused on anything! What should I do?

Polly:  "Diagnosing" a child who doesn't engage (and helping him, the teacher, and the class!) is tricky. Rather than simply explaining this in terms of behavioral issues, in recent years we've learned that, in some cases, physiological causes exist for attention deficit behaviors. There are several reasons why solving this problem isn't easy. First, the causes may stem from the child's situation in the home or in other environments. For example, the child's household may be chaotic, he may have a bullying sibling, or there may be a crisis in the family you're not aware of (serious illness, death, the acute stages of divorce, etc.). In addition, getting at the heart of this kind of issue requires a comprehensive assessment in this difficult-to-diagnose domain, so that the most fitting treatment plan can be created.

Though it can be challenging to work with this child, there is much you can do to influence his behavior. Among the strategies that work are:

  • forming a friendship with him, supporting every positive thing he does in the classroom (however small), and learning about his keenest interests;
  • adjusting your curriculum so it works better for children whose attention seems to require more than is presently offered by your program. This includes adding projects emerging from his and other children's interests that include lots of child planning and child management;
  • working with parents or guardians and your school psychologist, counselor, social worker, or parent participation specialist, if you are lucky enough to have any of these experts, to seek accurate diagnosis and effective ways of working with this child.