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Ask the Experts

My Child Has Trouble Listening in Class

By Dr. Michelle Alvarez, Consulting Educator

Question:

My second-grade daughter has a very hard time listening in class. If she listens, she does her work very well, but she is easily distracted.

My mom, who is a retired teacher, told me that my daughter started school too early and she was pushed too early, so she wants to play now. I tried sending her to piano classes to concentrate and focus. She is very outspoken and loves to dance and sing. Do you think it is the school or she is bored?

Answer:

The good news is that your daughter does have periods of time where she listens and does her work very well. This is what the focus needs to be as you explore the issue.

Ask yourself : What is happening at the time she is listening and completing her work that could be replicated at another point in the day when she is having trouble focusing? First begin by working with school personnel (teacher, school social worker, school counselor and/or school psychologist) to collect information about the times when she is listening/focusing. This can be accomplished by asking a member of the student services team (school social worker, school counselor, or school psychologist) to do a formal observation of your daughter and have them interview your daughter. Ask the teacher to share a list of the number of completed assignments and those that were not completed.

There are some environmental conditions that could contribute to her inability to focus that may not be present when she is able to focus. Was a window open? Was the air conditioner or heat running? Were other students noisy? Was the class a structured or unstructured class? Was it an assignment that required movement around the room?

The subject matter can also contribute to her inability to focus. Is she stronger in math than reading? Is the work too easy or hard for her? Does she not like gym or art? The time of day can also impact her ability to focus. Is she having trouble right after recess, at the time the class is changing subject areas of study, after movement to another classroom?

Once your team identifies at what time of day, in what subjects or settings she is doing well, you are ready to address when she is not able to focus. The data collected for when she is doing well (how often and under what conditions) can be used to try to replicate her behavior in other situations. Some ideas for addressing the issue include:

  • Have your daughter write down the directions so she can easily refer back to them.
  • Ask the teacher to move your daughter's desk to a place where she can focus.
  • Place a study carrel, which she could choose to move to when she is having trouble focusing, , in the classroom
  • Have your daughter monitor her ability to listen/focus on a sheet of paper by listing subject areas and having her place a smiley face if she could concentrate and a frowny face if she had trouble. (This could give you ongoing feedback and alert you to times of day or subjects where more support would need to be in place.) If the work is too easy, ask the teacher to add a more difficult task that she will be able to do once she finishes the assignment; if the work is too difficult, ask the teacher if she can complete a shortened version of the assignment and do a task she enjoys (reading, drawing) after she has completed the assignment.
  • Work with the teacher on a method where the student can take a short break from an assignment and then return to complete the task. The break would not be disruptive to the class but could give her time to refocus on the assignment.
  • Both you and the teacher could work with your daughter on ways to help her practice sustaining her attention, modeling at home some of the techniques listed above during the time she completes her homework.
  • Have the school social worker, school counselor or school psychologist meet with your daughter to help increase her time on task.

After you have tried different methods to help your daughter listen and then complete assignments, go back and repeat the observations and interview to see if there has been any change in her ability to listen/focus. If not, try some other methods of helping her and then meet again to look for change. It is an ongoing process and data collected should help you and school personnel decide what is working and what is not.


Dr. Michelle Alvarez is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Indiana and project director of Safe Schools/Healthy Students for the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation. A former school social worker in Pinellas County, Florida, she is co-editor of School Social Work: Theory to Practice and chair of the National Association of Social Workers, School Social Work Section. She is also the parent of a special needs child.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/5/2008:
"My son (very bright) has issues w/this too. He gets distracted very easily by noises etc. (I have the same problem so I think it's hereditary.) But one thing - in real life, I don't think most teachers are going to allow a child to do a shortened version of an assignment because it's too hard (unless the child has diagnosed learning disabilities)."
02/8/2008:
"Thx, My son is exactly having this problem, may be this will help a lot. Thx a lot this was very informative."
06/6/2007:
"Hi, My name is Nakia. My son does not pay attenion in class. He top of the class. But he not paying attenion. The teacher thinks it is ADHT. I don't want to give him any medcation to him. HELP!"
10/23/2006:
"I think your advice is good but my son who is seven and is having problem in school like the little girl. But he grade are not good he just starting to like to read and math is not that much better. He has been in school from the age of three. The school that he attends says he needs to stop playing but he has said that he just wants to play. When he puts his mind to it he gets good grade but he is always in trouble in school. The school thinks he need to see a psychologist but I can not afford one so what can I do to help him. He is so easly distracted but if it's just him one on one he dose so much better."
10/4/2006:
"I just had to comment on this article, which I have never done before. First to Massachusetts, I think it is wonderful that your daughter's teacher recognized that it could be ADD she is dealing with. I was diagnosed at age 36, mainly inattentiveness. My 2nd grade daughter has demonstrated symptoms since age 4-5. But we have been trying to deal with it behaviorally at home. Every year I have discussed what she may deal with in school to her teachers, who do not see the problems we see. She has come home this year struggling more than ever to keep up in class and because she is not hyper or her desk is not messy her teacher does not think it could be ADD. There could be worse things your daughter's teacher could have said to you. I would count it a blessing that she is more informed about behaviors in girls. I appreciate this articles answers for steps of observation in class, which parents would like to do themselves but are not welcome to. Our school has a SAT Team which! is usually requested by a teacher who is having difficulty with a student, but can be requested by a parent who knows about it. These instructions sound like that, and helps to know what to discuss at our upcoming Parent/Teacher Conferences. Thanks!"
09/20/2006:
"Maybe we need to focus more on why the 2nd grader's mom thinks it's okay for her daughter to be misbehaving in class. Teachers complete courses in behavior management and teaching all styles/abilities of learners these days. What is lacking these days is respect for the teacher. Is her daughter hearing at home that it's okay that she disrespect the teacher because she would rather talk to her friend or draw pictures on her paper? Instead of putting the teacher in the hot seat you may want to cut to the chase and give the child some healthy discipline... The longer a parent waits to teach their child respect the more sorrowful they will become and the more consequences the child and parent will face. Hold your daughter accountable for her behavior!"
09/19/2006:
"Thank you so much for sharing this question and answer on GreatSchools.org! My daughter had the same problem last year, after discussing the problem with her teacher many times, her teacher suggested that my daughter may have ADD. My husband and I were very upset by this. Our daughter was always able to focus and complete a task at our home, so we were not sure what was going on in class. Anyway, her classroom teacher, although nice, had a very disorganized style (ie. papers stacked up, pencils, office products in piles all over the place, etc.). It was an extremely distracting atmosphere for our child, who prefers a more 'organized' style, 'there's a place for everything'. This year she has a teacher who is extremely organized and structured. My daughter loves her and is thriving in the class! We do owe her first grade teacher a big 'Thank you' for suggesting the placement, we only wish she had considered this possibility before she jumped to tell us something so serious/distressing as our daughter having ADD! THANKS AGAIN!"
09/19/2006:
"Michelle, Identifying when and what the student is doing at times when they are focusing is a great idea. But i'm always skeptical when you use the words 'have your child' do this or that. I think it would be more productive if you were to use 'motivate' your child or student. We are talking about 2nd graders who have problems focusing. Practice maintaing the student's attention is the key...but motivating them to do so is the solution. One other thing....having a school counselor, psychologist or an additional teacher is not realistic at many schools. "
09/19/2006:
"These are great ideas as I face the same thing with my son and I'm trying to pinpoint what the triggers are. What I've seen so far is that he does very well with math, and loves to read, but things that require lots of writing are more difficult for him."
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