Attention Problems

teen boy holding pen with top lip not paying attention

Attention is the word used to describe the ability to focus on things and process information from our surroundings.

Attention is complex but can be divided into four main types:

  • Selective – we block out certain features in the environment to concentrate on one task
  • Divided – we pay attention to two tasks at the same time
  • Sustained – we concentrate on one task, event or feature in the environment for a long time
  • Executive – we make steps towards a particular end by paying attention to what really matters

Attention span

Attention span is the amount of time spent concentrating on something before becoming distracted. Distraction occurs when attention is moved to another activity or sensation in a way which is uncontrollable.

Being able to pay attention well is a very important part of child development as it helps to protect from danger and allows for the learning of new skills, both at home and at school. It also is crucial for memory.

Attention span guide

The normal attention span for children is thought to be on average 2–5 minutes per year of life. For example:

  • 2 years old:       4–10 minutes
  • 3 years old:       6–15 minutes
  • 4 years old:       8–20 minutes
  • 5 years old:       10–25 minutes
  • 6 years old:       12–30 minutes
  • 7 years old:       14–35 minutes
  • 8 years old:       16–40 minutes
  • 9 years old:       18–45 minutes
  • 10 years old:     20–50 minutes
  • 12 years old:     24–60 minutes

More about attention

Attention is ‘elastic’ in that it varies throughout the natural life span and from one situation to another. It also differs between individuals. Because we live in a demanding world full of stimuli, all of us find it hard to pay attention sometimes and children are no exception.

Having a persistently short attention span, however, can have a negative impact upon many areas of life including education. This, in turn, may lead to reduced opportunities in adulthood. For this reason, children with attention difficulties need thorough investigation as well as support and understanding.

The most common concern that parents/caregivers have, when seeking help for attention problems in children, is that of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental condition which often runs in families. However, a whole range of factors can affect the ability to pay attention well and it is important to consider these, especially because some can be easily remedied and lead to improvements.

Causes of attention difficulties in children

Worry and anxiety

Children who are anxious can become preoccupied by worried thoughts, meaning they are not fully present in the moment. They may also choose to avoid things which make them anxious.

What you can do:

  • Daily nurture and talk time
  • Build self-esteem
  • Attend to lifestyle
  • Teach them how to Belly Breathe

Further advice can be found on the Young Minds website.

Stress or trauma

Children who witness (or hear) violence or other disturbing experiences can become highly stressed and even suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD can mimic those found in ADHD and include difficulty in concentrating.

What you can do:

  • Find support for problems within the home, including domestic violence (see below).
  • Seek professional help for the child.

The following organisations provide support and advice:

Learning difficulties

Any child with a learning difficulty is likely to have problems in paying attention as humans naturally prefer to do what comes easily and tend to avoid what is hard. They may also have low self-esteem and be reluctant to focus due to a fear of failure.

What you can do:

  • Seek educational support
  • Encourage skills in areas of strength
  • Keep life simple
  • Break down tasks into small steps
  • Reward for effort as well as achievement
  • Address sensory issues

Information about support services and local opportunities for children and young people with SEND is available from Essex Local Offer.

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Children with high ability

Children who are very able sometimes demonstrate poor attention because they become bored easily. They have a need for challenge to stretch their minds and may resort to day-dreaming or disruptive behaviour if they are not stimulated enough.

What you can do:

  • Identify high potential in a child.
  • Make sure school gives work which is appropriate for the child’s ability.
  • Ensure they access to a range of extra-curricular activities.
  • Aim high.

Some useful advice can be found at Potential Plus UK.

Lack of sleep

Many studies have shown that not getting enough good quality sleep affects the ability to function during the day. Children have greater sleep requirements than adults and need to be properly rested to enable them to fully pay attention, especially in the classroom.

What you can do:

  • Ensure regular routines at bedtime.
  • Refer to our guidance on sleep.

Find support and advice from the National Sleep Foundation.

Sleep apnoea

This is a sleep disorder in which breathing is affected during sleep. It is more common in children who are overweight and causes snoring, snorting, pauses in breathing and restless sleep. Because children with sleep apnoea have interrupted sleep, they may have difficulty paying attention during the day.

  • Ask for your child to be seen by an ENT specialist.
  • If you child is overweight, adjust their diet and increase exercise.

More information and suggestions of fun ways to stay healthy and activity is available from Change4Life.


Attention processes take place within the brain, and the brain needs fuel, in the form of food, to work at its best. Children who are hungry find it hard to focus. Equally, eating too much sugar can result in low brain energy which has been linked to poor concentration.

What you can do:

  • Give a varied diet including oily fish, wholegrains, fruit and vegetables.
  • Limit sugar and unsaturated fats.
  • Make eating breakfast a daily habit.
  • Have regular eating routines.
  • Reduce the risk of dehydration by encouraging children to drink plenty of water every day.

More information on healthy eating is available from Change4Life.

Screen time

In one study, researchers found that two or more hours per day of screen time made a child eight times more likely to meet the criteria for ADHD compared with children who spent 30 minutes or less per day on devices. Visual imagery on televisions, games consoles and smart phones is fast, fleeting and addictive. This excitement can children to be poorly motivated in other areas of life and become reluctant to attend to more mundane tasks like doing homework or picking up socks.

What you can do:

  • Monitor and limit screen time in all home settings.
  • Replace screen time with creative and social activities.
  • Talk to (older) children about why too much screen time is unhelpful.
  • Adults and older siblings can be good role models by limiting their own screen time.


Glue ear, a common childhood condition, may cause a child to ‘switch off’ and not pay attention, especially when being spoken to. Auditory processing disorder (when the brain cannot process sounds in the normal way) may also contribute to a reduced attention span.

What you can do:

  • Get the child’s hearing checked.
  • Make the school aware.
  • Make sure the child can see your face when you speak.
  • Seek advice if you suspect auditory processing problems.

Further information is available from the National Deaf Children’s Society.

Neurodevelopmental problems

As previously mentioned, persistent attention difficulties may be due to a child having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This condition is linked to brain development and can only be diagnosed following careful evaluation by a specialist doctor. Attention difficulties are also common in children who have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and children who have speech and language problems.

What you can do:

  • Seek advice if you think a child has developmental problems.
  • Follow recommendations if a diagnosis is given.
  • Consider other causes of attention difficulties as these can exist alongside any diagnosis given.

More information and support is provided by the following organisations:

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