How to Help a Distracted Child

Dear Sharon,

How can a parent know the difference between a child who has a learning difficulty and a child who is just distracted? It seems that we hear so much now about kids having various “issues”. If my 6 1/2 year old son isn’t concentrating on his schoolwork does that mean he might have an issue we should be addressing? Should he be tested? He doesn’t seem at all interested in the learning process and is “video game” addicted.

Your question is on the minds of many parents today. Unfortunately I can’t answer your individual question but I can share some general ideas that I hope will be helpful.

When a parent is worried about their child it is often best to share those concerns with people they trust and respect.

Teachers and other school professionals who have worked with or observed children in their care can be very reassuring and/or make useful recommendations. They might offer suggestions of things to try at home, explain that they are not concerned, or give examples of successes or progress that a parent might appreciate hearing. They can also let parents know if tests or an evaluation might be helpful in determining what educational tools or settings could be most supportive to individual children. If school personnel are considering an evaluation I often suggest that parents ask questions about the information testing might provide, i.e. the services a child would be eligible to receive or specific teaching methods and/or resources that might be made available in or outside of school. Knowing more about the entire evaluation process can help parents feel more at ease.

Pediatricians or other trusted health care professionals who have known a child over time can also be helpful in answering a parent’s questions and/or making similar recommendations.

Reaching out to other parents who have had school age children can be invaluable. When parents talk to each other they usually hear stories about children who have confronted similar challenges. It is often helpful to feel less alone when thinking about difficult topics such as being distracted in school, but there also might be a wealth of information about things that other parents have found helpful in this and many other situations. Parents can talk to others informally or look for workshops or support groups that meet in their neighborhood. is just one of many internet sites that list parent resources.

I believe that lots children go through phases of being distracted and/or disinterested in school. It is important to remember that a child’s relationship to schoolwork can change from one grade to the next. Sometimes children become more confident or focused as they grow older, sometimes a new teacher can make a big difference. The beginning of a school year might produce a teacher who enjoys the challenge of engaging distracted little ones or simply gets “a kick” out a particular kind of student. This can make a world of difference in a child’s ability to concentrate on even difficult or “boring” material.
Interest in video games is also common. A sheet of math problems or a book that is challenging to read often feels overwhelming when compared to the excitement and success easily attainable in a video game. I often suggest that parents spend some time watching or playing video games with their children. It can help young ones feel less alone and more engaged. Distraction in school can be a sign of disengagement.

Many Moms and Dads also successfully limit video game time. When doing so I recommend that they replace video screens with interactive games that parents and children can play together. Ball, board, card, craft, and even cooking activities often expose children to forms of involvement and focus that can then show up in school. Laughing, being physically active and/or enjoying each other’s company can also help lighten a child’s mood. It is usually easier for children (and adults) to focus on challenging things after they have enjoyed the company of people they love.

Children who are distracted in school sometimes feel discouraged or unsuccessful in the academic arena. Helping a child with homework in an easy and supportive manner or getting a tutor or teenage homework helper to stop by and talk about schoolwork can also make a difference.

Parents I know have also found it helpful to visit or volunteer in their child’s classroom. It has given them a better understanding of the different factors involved in their child’s relationship to school. It can also generate ideas to broaden the teacher’s and/or child’s understanding of what might be helpful.

Thanks for asking this important question and good luck with the school year ahead!