Determining if a child does indeed have a concentration difficulty can be a long and complex process, however a crucial one in determining the most efficient and effective intervention and support plan for each individual child.
Some kids start to show difficulties with concentration as early as 4-5 years of age, some later in Grades 1 or 2 when they start formal schooling and difficulties with formal activities such as reading and written work are noticed. Children entering the senior primary phase may also begin to struggle as the workload begins to increase. However many children go by undiagnosed, especially girls who are on the more inattentive side but tend to manage and get through school with a few wobbles here and there.
With the inattentive child, it is not that she/he cannot concentrate at all, it is more the case that they are just concentrating on something different to what is expected of them at the time. For example, when a teacher wants the child to focus on writing sentences, he is concentrating on who is walking past the classroom or on sharpening all the pencils in his pencil case, or if a mother wants a child to focus on eating her supper, she is focused on playing with her Barbies instead. Needless to say, this can create many problems at home and in the classroom.
Often parents feel confused when it is suggested that their child might have a concentration problem when they see them spending hours focusing on a movie, building Lego or playing computer games. One explanation for this is that the brain activity necessary for some of these activities like TV watching is only slightly more than when you are asleep, so you don’t actually need much concentration to do this.
A second answer is related to the characteristic ability some individuals have to “hyper-focus”. We often see that children can get really sucked into activities like Lego or reading to the point that nothing distracts them at all. However they become so lost in their activity that whatever is happening around them may be blocked out, like a parent or teacher giving a new instruction, the school bell going signalling a change of activity, or even internal needs like hunger or needing the toilet. Switching focus immediately and on demand, is difficult for these children to achieve. Some may continue with a previous task or instruction assuming they are on the right track, not even realising that the instruction has changed or they may perseverate on an element of a task. This may also create problems with time management.
Children with poor focus may have lots of things going on at the same time – they will start a task, leave it halfway, then do something else. Some are capable of still getting everything done, just not one at a time. Most struggle to concentrate for the full duration required for a task, especially if that task is boring or repetitive. That’s why so many battle with the structure of formal school. As soon as they get bored, they need to stop and do something else, hence their frequently incomplete work. Their favourite question is “Do I have to do all of these?”
Another confusing observation for parents and teachers is often seeing a child get difficult items right on a task but the easy ones wrong. This is very often due to this inability to sustain attention on repetitive type tasks. Often one finds that a child starts off a set of work well, then as soon as it gets too repetitive, the brain gets bored or lost into something else. It is often the section of work in the middle where there are the most mistakes due to the inattentiveness during completion. Then suddenly a child might realise that they are almost at the end of the task get excited and then start to refocus again, or examples at the end become harder and more challenging, hence they finish well.
Have you wondered why a child can spell “Tyrannosaurus Rex”, but can’t spell “there”? This is again due to sustained attention. The intricate name of a dinosaur is much more interesting to spell than the word “there” which a child might see several times a day.
Another common feature of concentration problems is the tendency to be easily distracted. Distractions can be external such as noises, objects in a room etc. or internal such as one’s own thoughts. These children may get “lost” in the goings on of the classroom and may often ask for/need repetition of instructions or information.
Some children may also have difficulty with impulse control and it is hard for them to stop, think and then act. They may often be demanding and want their needs met immediately, find it difficult to wait their turn, interrupt others or blurt out answers. They may also be more emotionally volatile and get into conflicts with peers more often.
Hyperactivity is also a characteristic of poor concentration. Hyperactive behaviours are often reflected in a child who seems to be always on the go. Behaviours range from gross movements such as jumping, running, climbing etc.(in a context where this is not appropriate) or smaller movements such as fidgeting or even excessive talking.
It is really important that difficulties with concentration are identified early as they can impact significantly on and result in gaps in learning.
Dealing with poor concentration is not a simple, quick fix approach as it often entails lifestyle changes, shaping life skills such as time management, planning and organizational skills , facilitating more efficient learning methods, enhancing social skills, and nurturing self esteem. In the next article we will take a look at some of the strategies parents and teachers can use to assist a child with concentration difficulties.