This article explores types of attention and why attention issues are often confused for ADHD.
Does it seem like your child is constantly daydreaming? Do they forget things frequently? Do you often wonder if your child will ever start paying attention? These are common questions that parents ask themselves on a daily basis when they are coping with a child that is struggling in school. Paying attention in school affects every part of the educational journey. When there are issues with focus, it affects learning directly.
Since difficulty with paying attention is widely associated with ADHD, that tends to be the first thing parents, teachers and clinicians suspect. But there are numerous other possibilities that may be the core issue when it comes to attention and focus problems. Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD), Auditory Processing issues, even autistic-like behaviors and other disorders are often misdiagnosed as ADHD. In a recent article written by The Child Mind Institute, entitled “Not all Problems are ADHD,” it discusses multiple causes of attention issues. To avoid misdiagnosis, other possibilities (which are not always obvious), must not be overlooked.
As I began seeing more of these attention-type issues with my students, I realized that each child displayed a different type of attention issue, and these were mainstream children who did not have a diagnosis of ADHD or another attention disorder. Some were more severe than others, but the key was not only to determine what type of attention issue they had, but the right intervention to help improve their attention, focus and behavior in the classroom. That’s when I came up with three categories for attention where most of my students fall under. These categories or “types of attention” generally help me know and understand how to help them progress in their learning development. If your child struggles with attention and focus, they may fall into one of these three categories.
3 Types of Attention Behaviors
If you have been around a number of children in a school-like setting, you will notice many different levels of attention and behavior in the group. You will also become aware that the ability to attend and focus can be different for every child that battles attention issues. Through years of observing and time with hundreds of children, we want to help identify where your child or student may be struggling. These three categories may give you a better idea of where their challenges lie.
The first category we like to call the “movers.” These kids are constantly on the go and are very active, which is why people often think they have ADHD. It is difficult for them to focus on one task, because everything in their environment affects their senses. Movers tend to try and take it all in instead of focusing on the requested task before them. Usually, they move from one object to another. Even though the child is very active, they usually don’t accomplish much because they constantly lack focus.
At school, these students most likely have trouble staying seated and frequently have excuses for leaving their desk. A teacher must help re-direct their focus to get them back on task. The mover may bother other students, blurt out answers, or talk excessively. Movers tend to be very physical and enjoy movement activities. The child may go to great lengths to avoid activities that require sustained mental effort such as schoolwork or homework.
At home, the child has trouble sitting through a mealtime. Homework can be a nightmare, and parents may need to sit with the student the entire time just to ensure focus. Often, the tone of the home revolves around these little movers.
Kids identified in the mover category seem to always be in the fight or flight mode. They can be in a heightened state of awareness and have no real time to calm or relax. Sometimes a child may have trouble sleeping at night, and when they do, they move continually.
The next group is the “squirmers.” Squirmers typically do not get out of their seats frequently, but are constantly moving when seated. They fidget with their hands, feet and change body positions regularly. A common position for this student is sitting on their knees, resting their elbows on the desk. Frequently scanning the room, squirmers are easily distracted by any visual or audible stimuli around them. Sometimes these students distract others while fidgeting or making noise.
At school, squirmers fail to pay close attention to detail and make careless mistakes on assignments. Sometimes the child is listening, but is moving so much they are viewed as not concentrating.
At home and elsewhere, the squirmers have difficulties with focus in sports and other activities. For example, when playing baseball, the child may be in the outfield and looks down and sees a bug moving the grass beneath them. They bend down to pick up the bug and miss an important play. Their focus is now on something other than the game.
The final group is the “daydreamers.” These kids are usually physically present, but mentally they are miles away. They usually do not get up and have to move or make a lot of noise, but sometimes they fidget with an object at their desk. The daydreamer has difficulty with any sustained attention, but are not considered an “attention problem” and they don’t display any signs of ADHD. Because they don’t “hear” what is being said, they find someone, usually a neighbor, to repeat the instructions. Other times the daydreamer will completely miss out on the directions so they sit and pretend to work while distracted with their thoughts. The worksheet that is partially done gets pushed to the back of the desk. Out of sight, out of mind.
At home, the daydreamers frequently struggle to process the language they hear. Parents may deem this as a hearing problem, when really the child is daydreaming and just didn’t process what a family member said. The child’s inattentiveness usually goes unnoticed until they begin school full-time. Because they aren’t constantly moving, they seem fairly calm. Most parents don’t even realize this is an attention issue. Daydreamers also say “huh?” or “what?” often in conversation.
What attention issues may look like in your child
Understanding these categories help in identifying where a child might be struggling and what underlying learning skills are deficient and why. I want to introduce three students with different stories but one commonality and that is poor attention skills.
James is a squirmer. He is constantly wiggling in his chair at school. He does not get his assignments done and is very distracting to others because he is constantly tapping his feet, chewing on objects and laying on his desk. He struggles to focus on the teacher because of environmental stimuli. By the time he controls the wiggling and scanning of the room he misses part of the lesson.
Alicia is a daydreamer. She tries very hard to be “good.” She sits up tall and doesn’t move around. She attempts to pay attention, but is soon looking past the teacher dreaming about what she will be doing after school. When she does listen, she gets is inconsistent messages. Alicia is frequently seen fidgeting with her pencil. She usually has to ask her best friend what the directions were for the assignment.
Corbin is a mover. He loves science and basketball. He talks constantly with his friends and neighbors at school. Corbin loves to run wherever he goes, pushes past people to get to the front of every line and talks out of turn frequently. This mover is very interested in what other people are doing instead of doing his own work.
What could be the cause of attention issues in your child
Interestingly enough, not one of these students has an Attention Deficit Disorder. Poor attention may be a symptom, but is not the real problem. If a child has trouble with developmental learning skills, the attention system will be stressed. In each of these scenarios, there is a core issue to why focus is a problem.
James, our fidgety student, can’t sit still in his chair most likely because of a combination of sensory issues, poor core muscle, and a retained primitive reflex called the Moro reflex. More in depth about primitive reflexes in the article, but in short, these reflexes are present in infants to help with adaptation as a newborn. If these reflexes do not integrate or disappear when they were toddlers, they can affect development and inhibit easy learning.
Because James’ retained the Moro reflex and shows signs of sensory issues, it has caused him to fidget and wiggle in his chair. He may also tug at his clothing, chews on his pencil or other objects, and displays poor posture. If he spends his energy on trying not to move then he has zero stamina to focus on learning.
Alicia, our quiet daydreamer, most likely struggles with an auditory processing problem. An Auditory processing disorder is a breakdown of what the child hears and what the brain processes. This can cause extreme difficulty with understanding the spoken word and then recalling what was said. This is why she struggles to remember assignments and has difficulty recalling details for a test or research paper.
Alicia tries hard to listen, but what she hears is spotty, inconsistent messages that do not make sense. She attempts to fill in the gaps for a while, but pretty soon gives up and starts thinking about exciting adventures.
Corbin, our athletic mover, most likely struggles with a Sensory Processing Disorder and also shows some signs of dyslexia. His body can’t stay calm and he has poor balance and coordination, clumsiness, spatial issues, disregards personal boundaries and is often distracted by noises most people filter out, like the tapping of a pencil or a voice in the hallway. He is smart and very clever. He has memorized words so people do not immediately recognize a reading delay. However, he cannot sound out new, multi-syllable words. Sometimes when he looks at an assignment it looks as though the words are moving around. Corbin has figured out that getting in trouble for “entertaining” his neighbors and being loud is better than anyone finding out he can’t read.
Don’t ignore attention problems
Although the examples above aren’t “real” students, these three scenarios happen everyday in our schools and to the students that we teach at our center. Problems with focus that surface in school are a sign to parents that their child is struggling with an underlying developmental or learning issue. This should not be ignored. Attention problems usually don’t just go away and your child won’t grow out of it. The student may get better at disguising the issue but it is still lurking. In many of these cases we often find that when a parent puts their child on medication for attention issues, it only masks the problem instead of fixing the problem. It is only when the right intervention is implemented to target issues that disrupt learning that we see real change in the child’s learning ability. This is often done with movement and music therapy along with other activities that improve gross and fine motor skills, decoding, comprehension exercises and visual planning.
When it is determined that a child’s attention problems are a symptom of an underlying issue, it takes extra effort on the part of the parents, teachers and educators to help bring awareness, increase skills and tackle developmental processing dilemmas to reach a positive outcome.