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Inattention is often less obvious and disruptive than hyperactivity/impulsivity, so it may go overlooked for longer. However, it is important to identify and help children with inattention, because inattention can cause long-term problems with learning and interpersonal relationships. Inattention symptoms are linked with academic problems, poorer literacy and numeracy skills, and poor school adjustment. Children with symptoms of inattention are more likely to fail a grade or receive lower grades than their peers without ADHD.

Inattention in context

Morning routines

Children with inattention symptoms often have trouble following routines. For example, in the middle of getting dressed they may stop to play with a favourite toy. As a result, they may need extra direction and reminders to help them follow morning routines.

At school

Children with inattention symptoms may have problems with motivation in terms of schoolwork. Symptoms of inattention also interfere with learning to read and to do math. Children with ADHD are more likely to need additional tutoring, and are more likely to repeat a grade than children without ADHD.

After school

After school can be a challenging time for parents and for children with inattention symptoms. Children with symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity may experience conflicts with siblings while parents are busy with household tasks.

Bedtime routines

Just like morning routines, children with inattention symptoms can have difficulties following bedtime routines consistently. They may need similar direction and reminders to help them follow bedtime routines successfully.

Leisure and recreation

Children with symptoms of inattention may have trouble taking turns during leisure activities, such as choosing what to watch on television, or who gets to go first in a game. They may also be demanding or argumentative, making it challenging to get along with peers and siblings.

Normal levels of inattention

It is normal for children to be inattentive sometimes. For example:

  • Young children have very short attention spans. Attention spans normally increase with age.
  • Preschoolers may only pay attention to a quiet activity, such as colouring or hearing a story, for a few minutes at a time.
  • Older children and teenagers may not want to spend a long time on tasks they do not want to do, such as homework or chores.

These symptoms do not necessarily mean that a child has ADHD. ADHD would only be diagnosed if:

  • the child is much more inattentive than other children of the same age, sex, and stage of development
  • the symptoms are causing problems for the child at home, at school, or in social situations

Peter Chaban, MA, MEd

Rosemary Tannock, PhD