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Ask the Experts

My Child Can't Focus in Math Class

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist


My fifth-grader has a problem staying focused in math class. I have made several changes at home like adjusting his time to one hour a night of television. Play Station has been put away and I have him do multiplication every night.

I have kept in contact with the teacher to see if she has seen any improvements, and she has not seen any change. She said she will give him until the beginning of the nine-week grading period and if there has been no improvement she suggested he should see our family doctor. What is your input on this issue?


It never hurts to consult your family doctor when school problems crop up; this way, you can rule out medical explanations and present the teacher with a clean bill of health. Or, if medical intervention is required, your doctor can get you started on the right path. Before you call the doctor, however, try to get a clearer picture of the exact nature of the math teacher's concerns.

Because you didn't mention any problems with math in earlier grades, and the teacher identified "focus" as the problem, it would appear that your son's skills and abilities are not in question and the teacher is leaning toward a medical explanation, such as ADHD.

For a diagnosis of ADHD, some symptoms must have been present before the age of 7 years; did your son have hyperactive-impulsive or inattentive symptoms earlier that were easily managed until now? If so, you may be looking at a disorder that can no longer be managed without medical support.

If not, consider other factors that may be involved. In the fifth grade there are increased challenges for children in many areas, including both academics and behavior (for example, greater independence is required of fifth-graders as they are being prepared for middle school next year). Has the level of work become too challenging for your son? Consider having him work with a tutor or other educational specialist, as the work will only get more challenging over time.

Finally, bear in mind that sometimes fifth-graders' social lives begin to eclipse academics, as adolescence begins to bloom and peers take on greater importance. Your son's lack of focus could be something as simple as the peers he sits next to in class, especially if he is trying to impress them.

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.

Comments from readers

"My 2nd grader is failing his math scores are very low I dont know wat to do,he been day dreamin in class sometimes I dont know if is becouse his thinkin of his father because he dosnt look for him at all I really dont know wat to do,because he dosnt open his mind to me "
"My daugther has the same problem she never focus on math and when FCAT was coming she was so nervous is good you look for a tutor and is good to study for about 20 minutes or 30 every night ask him to show you what is he studyind at school,use the internet to look for easy explanation about topics is good that your son sees that you are helping doing the things together .I have to study a lot of Math again to try to help my daugther now she is improving too.I thoght she had a brain problem but thanks God no we only have to be patient and keep doing Math everyday."
"We are experiencing a very similar situation with our seven year old daughter. She is a very bright girl. Describing her as creative and imagintive is an understatment. She makes all A's in her other subjects but she failed math for this grading period. Last year she had straight A's. However, we began noticing her 'focus' issues last year. At first we thought it was the teacher and her disliking of out daughter. Conferences were held, phone calls and emails were weekly if not daily, and an appointment with the pricipal was had to offer issues and solutions from both sides. After a while it seemed to be better, then summer hit and she was just a six almost seven year old little girl again. But here we are again just after the begining of the second semester having incredible issues with her behavior and now math grades. When it comes to here knowledge base, she completely grasps the mathmatical concepts and theories but she failed. After the second meeting of the year yester! day with her teacher, we have now learned that she is the most called upon child in her class--not for answers to questions, but for bad behavior and not paying attention. I think that there is a clinical diagnosis for her issues but my wife isn't eager to admit that her little angel may have an attention problem. Fortunatley, one of my wife's best friends is a child therapist for a school. She has convinced my wife to look beyond the inclination of self blame and have the girl tested for focus issues. I don't want to hurry into any medication-corrected diagnosis such as ADD or ADHD. I am not oppossed to drug administration for our daughter but I am not fond of it. Career types will tell you that CBT (Clinical Behavioral Therapy) is the first treatment besides medications, but I know there is something else we can do before we resign ourselves to a drug regimine (sp). Any suggestions. Your thoughts are appreciated. "
"I don't think it's ADHD, because the teacher said it is only affecting him in Math class. Math is hard for everyone, and if a kid is not disciplined to apply himself he will zone out."
"My child has a similar problem. Since 2nd Grade his teacher noticed he had focusing issues. We then got a form from his school nurse that he needed Glasses. When they examined his eyes, the optometrist asks us if he has difficulty focusing in class, if he easily forgets things, stumbles over objects and if he has a very bad handwriting? I answered yes to all of his questions and he diagnosed my son with Convergence Insufficiency. A eye problem that is highly confused with ADD. My son is not hyper, and he is very smart but he doesn't seem to focus very well. This year we got him Prism eye glasses. He is failing math but I'm hoping with his eye glasses he will pass. Maybe a simple eye exam is just what your son needs to answer all yours, his teachers questions. Thanks, Myrna"