Why can’t my child concentrate at school?
Attention and concentration difficulties are very common in school-aged children. Every week I see kids in my clinic whose parents or teachers are concerned about their concentration levels, both at home and at school, that may be having a significant impact on their life. They may be day-dreaming or staring out the window at home or in class, or they may be disruptive, unable to complete their work and struggling with their learning.
So how do I know if my child is having attention and concentration difficulties, and what should I look for?
There are a number of behaviours that you might notice in your child, including:
- an inability to sit still
- is easily distracted
- has problems following instructions
- has problems organising themselves, or is constantly losing things
- has difficulty completing school work
- has poor handwriting compared to other children of the same age
- is experiencing learning difficulties
- displays behavioural difficulties such as aggression, moodiness or irritability
- experiences friendship issues, such as difficulty making and keeping friends
- shows clumsiness or poor gross motor skills, such as running or jumping.
When a child comes to me with attention problems, it is important to consider all aspects of their general health and wellbeing when trying to work out the cause.
Attention and concentration difficulties can have a significant impact on learning, and the challenge is to work out which comes first. That is, does the child have a primary problem with attention and concentration or is this secondary to a learning difficulty?
But before that, some of the common causes that I look for first are:
- a lack of sleep or a poor routine
- a diet high in sugar and fat with no sustaining nutrition to assist concentration in the classroom
- excessive screen-time, especially prior to going to bed
- difficulties at home, such as a recent separation of parents or a family trauma
- some medications or organic illnesses, such as low thyroid function or iron deficiency.
If your child is having difficulty concentrating in class, it is important that your GP examines your child and discusses all these issues with you. Often there are a number of causes contributing to poor attention and concentration. If you are worried that your child may have ADHD or a learning difficulty, your GP can refer you to a paediatrician who will ask you and your child’s teacher to complete some questionnaires to try to understand your child’s behaviour, including their attention and concentration levels, both at home and at school. If your child is having trouble with their learning, such as their reading or handwriting skills or with maths, then an educational psychology assessment may be needed to determine your child’s cognitive ability. They may also require testing of how they are achieving in the classroom.
How can you help your child to concentrate better?
The first thing you can do is ensure your child is getting enough sleep. Most primary school-aged children still need 10-11 hours of sleep. They typically go to bed between 7pm and 9pm, and wake between 6am and 8am. Once they are over the age of 12, 8-9 hours sleep may be enough, but teenagers often need more!
Next, check that your child is eating a good, nutritious diet with minimal junk food and sugar. Lastly, talk to your child about how much time they are spending on the computer or tablet. You might need to set some limits and make a deal or contract that there will be no screen-time until Friday night or the weekend. For school-aged children, the recommendation is no more than two hours per day of screen-time. This is hard if your child is older and is using the computer a lot for homework. If this is the case, monitor it carefully and make sure your child is not playing video games or using social media excessively. If you are not sure, speak to your child’s teacher.
What about when my child is at school?
There are a number of strategies that you can discuss with the teacher to assist with improving your child’s attention and concentration in the classroom:
- Sit them at the front of the class.
- Sit them next to a quiet student who doesn’t distract them.
- Make good eye contact with the child before an instruction is given and keep the instructions short. The child can be asked to write down keywords to prompt their memory, if helpful.
- Try to provide the child with as much one-on-one assistance as possible.
- Give the child some stretch breaks. Perhaps they can be the lunch order monitor or run errands for the teacher.
- Ask the child to demonstrate a skill to the class that they do well – build up their self-esteem!
- Give the child extra time to finish their work and reduce the amount of homework if they are struggling.
- Give positive reinforcement when the child is working well and quietly.
- If consequences are needed, make sure there is ample warning and that the consequence is immediate, clear and graded e.g. start with a short time-out and don’t be too punitive.
It’s really important to build self-esteem and foster positive social skills for children who find concentrating and learning at school a struggle. This can help prevent kids becoming isolated from their peers and losing confidence in their ability or willingness to learn or make friends.
The diagnosis and treatment of both ADHD and learning difficulties will be discussed in a separate blog. These are important issues to address, but it is important that we think of and manage all the common causes of attention and concentration difficulties first, before embarking on assessment for these problems.
We all want happy, healthy kids who are keen to learn so try these strategies first. If you are worried about ADHD and learning difficulties in your child, please get a referral to see a paediatrician from your GP.
Other helpful resources:
- Raising Children Network: Screen time recommendations: http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/screen_time.html
- Raising Children Network: Sleep recommendations: http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/school_age_sleep_nutshell.html