Exploring Attention & Focus (Executive Function) Struggles: Checklist & Resource

My child can focus on movies, video games, or Legos for hours on end—but they can’t focus on schoolwork for more than five minutes!”

Could that be you talking about your child?

There are many reasons why a child’s attention might wander—from kids just being kids all the way to attention and focus disorders (also called executive functioning disorders).

It’s also possible for a child to appear unfocused because they have a learning struggle that isn’t related to attention. As an example, a child with a writing dysfunction has to devote extra energy to schoolwork—meaning they’ll lose interest in their lessons as their energy runs down. But for a child with an attention disorder, the simple task of focusing requires extra energy!

Two disorders that fall into this category are attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a type of ADD.

  • ADD refers to a child who is not acting out or moving around, and can even look attentive during a task, but is generally absorbed in their own thoughts and daydreams—to the point that they get little done in the amount of time allotted.
  • ADHD generally includes hyperactivity. This child has a motor that is always running and that they seem incapable of controlling. They do everything in a hurry, and some part of their body is always moving, keeping them distracted.

The hyperactive (not just hyper-fidgety) child is usually easy to spot in a group. The inattentive child, on the other hand, is not easy to spot. This child may just appear to be slow in finishing work or in following directions, and they may seem lazy or uncooperative.

If your child exhibits a bunch of symptoms in the checklist below, it may point toward an attention or focus struggle. In that case, getting your child evaluated by a professional could provide incredibly helpful insights into your child’s learning challenges along with tools and skills that can help them succeed in future testing experiences, career training, college, and employment. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the post for resources that can make managing attention easier for your child!

Do any of these sound like my child?

  • Distractible
  • Not persistent with tasks
  • Performs inconsistently from one day to another
  • Daydreams excessively during school-related tasks
  • Needs to have mom next to them in order to finish work
  • Forgetful (of previously learned material, daily plans, etc.)

How about these? (If so, consider ADHD.)

  • Excess motor activity (some body part is always moving)
  • Impulsive (acts without thinking much of the time)
  • Insatiable (never satisfied with an activity)
  • Responds poorly to discipline
  • Moody
  • Experiences sleep disturbances

If you think your child might have an attention or focus challenge, check out the following resources suggested by HSLDA’s educational consultants.

Keep in mind that attention and focus disorders can overlap with sensory integration issues, and vice versa. That’s why we encourage you to move on to the next checklist in this series to see if your child might have a challenge in the area of sensory integration.

Resources to help your child with attention and focus (executive function) struggles

  • If you suspect your child is struggling with attention and focus difficulties, it’s a great idea to talk with your family medical provider or a specialist about having your child evaluated. Having a specific diagnosis and next-step recommendations can be so freeing as you and your child come to understand why learning is so hard and how together you can make it easier! Click here for creative tips to find a homeschool friendly therapist or other professional here.
  • Medication is sometimes necessary, even if only for a short period of time. Here are a few common ones, listed by how they work:
    • Stimulants (dopamine-boosting): Ritalin (methylphenidate—short release), Concerta (methylphenidate—sustained release), Adderall (amphetamine)
    • Nonstimulant (norepinephrine-boosting): Strattera
    • Antidepressants (serotonin-boosting): Zoloft, Prozac, Effexor, Wellbutrin, etc.
  • Consider making some dietary changes:
    • Reduce sugar intake; beware of hidden sugars, such as the sweeteners in fruit juice, boxed cereals, granola bars, fruit roll-ups, soft drinks, chocolate milk, pancakes, and waffles.
    • Increase raw fruit and vegetable intake; the enzymes contained in raw foods greatly assist the digestive system in absorbing nutrients, and many children are low in the vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids needed for their brains to function well. (See Children with Starving Brains: A Medical Treatment Guide for Autism Spectrum Disorder by Jaquelyn McCandless, MD.)
    • Use less processed food; the preservatives found in boxed food can be very toxic to children’s nervous systems.
  • Take a look at how much water your child is drinking; children may often be tired and have a hard time with attention or focus because they are dehydrated. (In Your Body's Many Cries for Water: You Are Not Sick, You Are Thirsty, Dr. Fereydoon Batmanghelidj recommends that children drink half their weight in ounces of water.)

Would you like specific guidance in helping your child with a learning struggle? The Educational Consultants are here for you! HSLDA members can call or email us, and we will respond personally. (Not a member? You can join today!)