Pin Me

Working with an Inattentive Child

written by: Azriela Jankovic • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 10/16/2012

There are many different reasons for a child having difficulty paying attention in class or completing their homework. Instead of simply slapping a label on the child, try to identify the causes of their inattention so you can better find a solution.

  • slide 1 of 3

    Editor's Note: Azriela Jankovic, MA,Ed., education specialist, teacher, consultant, and doctoral student at USC, offers practical research-based practices to increase attention and learning. Read more on her blog.

  • slide 2 of 3

    Causes of Inattention

    iStock 000017247844XSmall If you have ever asked yourself the question, “why is this child just not paying attention?" Or have you ever said to your child “how many times do I have to ask you to do ____?" If this sounds like something you are struggling with, you may benefit from these practical, research based principles and suggestions about fostering attention.

    Working with an inattentive child can be difficult. The first step to breaking down the barriers of inattention is determining their causes.

    Stephen R. Covey, author of Seven Habits for Highly Effective People, taught: “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood." Each individual situation is different, and it is critical to clarify the particulars at hand. Let’s work through a checklist of possible causes together.

  • slide 3 of 3

    Physical and Medical Causes: Sleep, nutrition, hydration, medication, blood sugar, and any other health factors can interfere with ability to pay attention. It is important to recognize these influences in a student who may seem careless, lazy, or even hyper. Always involve competent medical practitioners to rule out serious issues. Next, other possible causes can be addressed.

    Motivational Causes: Motivation is the driving force for attention and learning. A child needs to know and understand why it benefits them to learn. By applying Covey’s principle, as parents and teachers, we can first seek to understand the current motivations of our children in order to steer their motivations in new directions.

    Emotional Causes: The power of emotions on attention is profound. Peer social dynamics, family interactions, anxiety, fear, and even excitement can occupy the mind and create a barrier to attend to important stimuli. Take the “emotional pulse" of your students in order to discover what may lie beneath the surface of their inattention. Letting them know that you will carve out time for them, or refer them for help, may free their mind up for focusing on what matters now.

    Social Causes: Peers take up a profound amount of mental energy for many children, especially in the teen years. Students need to learn social skills to navigate their worlds at recess, in emails, online in social networks, on play dates and in the classroom. Providing students with specific social skills and giving them cooperative learning opportunities to use those skills can impart these tools in life changing ways. Covey’s principle of seeking first to understand can be a great place for students to start. Another token skill for students is to practice being interested, rather than interesting.

    Beliefs as Causes: Provide students with meaningful and specific positive feedback about their accomplishments. Make sure it is authentic, and you will likely be reshaping their beliefs about their capabilities. The praises that we impart on our students have the power to become their own personal mantras.

    Overstimulation Causes: Cognitive research has proven that the mind does not multitask, but rather shifts, sometimes ineffectively, from one task to another. This is one reason why texting and driving accidents are rampant. Be mindful of all sensory stimulation in your learning environment. You may need to turn off music or television in order to insure that your instructions are registering.

    Passivity Causes: Give students choices and opportunities to participate in their learning. Rather than copying notes for hours on end, why not break up reading assignments into a jigsaw activity? Experiment with your learners and ways to involve them in their own learning in meaningful and relevant ways. Rather than giving instructions, ask them how they would approach a task. At the very least, your instructions won’t be able to “go in one ear and out the other."

    One size won’t fit all. Experiment with the above possible causes and suggestions to see what may work for your learners. Always remember to reflect about your own successes with the techniques. As you demonstrate persistence, creativity, and positive thinking in being the best educator that you can be, you also model these traits for your learners.