How Can I Help My Preschooler Be More Attentive?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist


My 4-year-old daughter recently started preschool. This is her first time in school. Her teacher says she has problems listening and following directions. I don't notice these behaviors at home. How can I help her be more attentive in school?


At four years of age, children are full of energy in many different ways. Physically they show dramatic increases in motor skills, meaning they can run, jump, climb and skip faster than ever. They need frequent opportunities to engage in physical activity to burn off excess energy. They can draw, color, cut and paste with greater efficiency than ever before, increasing their interest in all kinds of crafts and art. Cognitively their thinking abilities have grown to the point that they enjoy pretending, and they especially love to explore and ask questions about absolutely everything. Socially 4-year-olds are very interested in other children. They are eager to play with new friends, using all of the skills mentioned above. As such, starting your daughter in preschool was a terrific idea! This school year she will learn many important skills that will serve her well when she starts elementary school next year.

Listening, paying attention and following directions are among those important skills; obviously, your daughter will need them throughout her school career. However, because she is young and has not been in a structured school setting before, it's not surprising that these skills are not well developed. It is relatively early in the school year, and your daughter may still be a bit overwhelmed and over-stimulated with all of the exciting opportunities she is faced with each day.

Ask your daughter's preschool teacher to clarify what she meant by the comment. For example, does your daughter fidget during floor activities such as story time, or rush through one activity so she can move on to the next? Such behaviors are normal for her age. Or is she disruptive, such as showing aggression towards others or blatantly defying the teacher's directions? These would be legitimate concerns.

You mentioned that you have not seen these troublesome behaviors from your daughter at home; if you have rules in place for her and you set limits when she misbehaves, then you probably do not need to change anything you're doing at home right now. However, if your daughter is indeed disruptive or aggressive at school, or if her behaviors continue as the school year progresses, schedule an appointment with her pediatrician to get a medical opinion and rule out any physiological issues. Be sure your doctor includes hearing and vision screening in his evaluation.

Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

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.