How Kids Pay Attention (and Why Some Kids Struggle With It)

By Peg Rosen



At a Glance

  • Attention is what allows people to identify and take in useful information.
  • Paying attention is a process with several distinct parts.
  • Kids with attention issues can have trouble with any or all of the parts of the attention process.

Most people understand that attention plays an important role in learning. But they may not know that it’s the very first step in the learning process that occurs in the brain.

Attention is like a funnel that lets kids select and take in useful information. Once the information is there, the brain can make sense of it and store it in memory.

Paying attention may sound very simple. But it’s a highly developed process with several distinct parts. Kids with attention issues can have problems with any or all of these parts. And if they do, it can affect their ability to learn.

Here are the parts of the process and where some kids with attention issues have trouble.

Being Alert

What it is: To pay attention, a child must first be aware and alert, ready to take in information. For most kids, that means being wide awake and well rested.

A student who isn’t alert may literally have his head on his desk during class. But sometimes the signs are more subtle. A child can simply seem “tuned out” and appear to be staring at nothing.

Its relationship to attention issues: Poor-quality sleep and lack of sleep are the top culprits when it comes to alertness issues.

This is true for all kids—those who have diagnosed learning and attention issues and those who don’t. In fact, some kids who appear to have learning or attention issues actually turn out to have sleep disorders.

Sleep disorders include insomnia—problems with falling asleep or staying asleep. They can also affect a person’s ability to achieve deep, restorative sleep.

Kids with  ADHD struggle with sleep disorders more often than other children do. If you believe your child is not as “awake” as he should be, talk to his doctor. She may want to adjust his meds or arrange for a sleep study.

Selecting and Sustaining

What it is: The next step is selecting what exactly to pay attention to. That’s followed by continuing to pay attention to it.

To some extent, people use judgment to decide what deserves attention. For instance, a student can choose to pay attention to the teacher and not the birds flying around outside.

But choice and judgment play a smaller role in this process than many people realize. For example, if the whiteboard falls off the wall, all the brains in the room will automatically focus on that. It’s basic instinct.

The same is true if a teacher stands and talks right in front of a student. That child’s brain naturally focuses on what’s taking up his immediate visual and auditory space.

Its relationship to attention issues: Many kids with attention issues want to focus on the “right” thing. But their brains may have trouble picking out what that right thing is.

The other big challenge: Even when kids can pick out what’s important, they may not be able to sustain attention for a meaningful amount of time. So a child may start out listening to the teacher. But then his mind may drift to the birds outside.

Shifting Focus

What it is: Nobody can completely ignore distractions. For example, a loud noise in the hallway will catch the attention of everyone in the classroom. People also frequently shift attention to something internal, like a thought, feeling or memory. But most students are able to shift their attention and then quickly shift back to the teacher.

Its relationship to attention issues: The mechanism that lets most students shift attention easily and quickly is sticky in many kids with attention issues.

A child with ADHD may stay focused on that loud noise out in the hallway long after his classmates have returned their attention to the teacher. By the time he tunes back in, he may have missed important information.

Or he may not return his attention at all. Instead he may move on to, say, what he’s going to have for lunch and what he’s doing on the weekend.

If your child struggles a lot with attention issues there are strategies you can try at home.Medication is also an option to consider. A combination of the right support and treatment can help your child absorb what he needs to know—in school and out.

Key Takeaways

  • Paying attention is not as much of a “choice” as many people may think.
  • Kids with attention issues have trouble determining where to focus attention, maintaining attention and shifting attention to and away from distractions.
  • Educational therapies, as well as medication, can help many kids strengthen attention skills and focus more easily.

About the Author

Portrait of Peg Rosen

Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter,WebMDParentsGood Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Dr. Nelson Dorta

Nelson J. Dorta, PhD, is a pediatric neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of medical psychology in child psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.







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