If a young child who is focused at home becomes distracted and unable to answer questions in school, there may be several explanations. An expert on ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders offers his insight and advice.
The rule rather than the exception is to see differences in kids' behaviors in the home versus school. For parents, it’s great to be an advocate for your child and look for differences in his performance across these settings. Become a detective and try to test hypotheses about what’s going on.
If you believe it's an attentional thing where he just gets distracted, that is certainly more likely to happen when he is in school rather than when he is at home with you. But it may be other things.
Anxiety is one possible hypothesis. Kids at that age may have some difficulty with taking good risks—and answering definitely can feel risky to youngsters. The parent should find out if he’s comfortable making guesses about things. This is a necessary learning skill—for the child to take good risks cognitively and interpersonally.
Another hypothesis relates to interest level. It may be that the child has different levels of interest in what’s being read at school versus at home. His mom and his teacher should partner to figure out what’s the interest level and how variable is what the teacher is seeing at school. If still over numerous settings and times the teacher sees the child having a problem with paying attention, it’s warranted to look more at the possibility of real attentional problems.
If in fact it’s an attentional problem, the parent should be considering if there is an attention deficit disorder, which certainly can be reliably diagnosed at that age. It’s premature to suggest an evaluation, but she should discuss it with his healthcare providers. He’s old enough that he’s already gotten classified as having special needs, so it’s by no means too early to intervene.
Part of what this parent will want to do is make sure the child's IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) is addressing attentional issues or persistence issues. At the next IEP meeting, she should bring anecdotes from the teacher about his behavior and ask, in an advocacy sort of way, how the IEP address these specific issues that are being observed.
Finally, ChildMind.org would be a great resource for the parent to help her better understand her child’s behavior and its possible causes.
Steven Kurtz, Ph.D., ABPP, is senior director of the ADHD and Disruptive Behavior Disorders Center and director of the Selective Mutism Program at the Child Mind Institute, a Manhattan-based organization dedicated to bettering mental health care for children everywhere.