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Ask the Experts

Does My Easily Distracted Son Have ADHD?

By Dr. Joseph Gianesin, Behavioral Consultant


I've noticed that my 5-year-old has an issue with keeping focused on what is asked of him. When I ask him why he didn't listen, he says he forgot. He promptly says he's sorry and then will turn around and do it again. When I ask him why he said he was sorry, said he would not do it again and then did, he says that he couldn't help it.

He's very bright and sociable. His teacher has now contacted me at least five times since school started with what she considers "disruptive behavior." One involved him making a gift for another friend against school policy. Another was regarding him not following her directions and having to repeat herself. Another involved talking to his friends and in her words, "disrupting their learning." Most recently, she said he left the class area to get water without asking for permission.

When I spoke to him about it, he said he was thirsty and that the teacher had not told him he could not leave the class area to drink water. Their classroom is set up in a community-type environment and he does not literally leave a given room, but rather a given area, to go to a common area a few feet away.

I'm not sure what part is typical 5-year-old behavior and which part is more serious, such as perhaps ADHD. What can I do to help him?


It is hard to answer some of your initial questions without knowing more about the situation. As you described, your son is having difficulty staying focused, listening and following directions from both you and his teacher. You are interested in knowing whether this is developmental or whether this might be something more serious, such as ADHD.

Most 5-year-olds, especially boys, have difficulty at this age with the skills you have described. Kindergarten is usually a time for them to learn these new skills and be socialized to a school setting and its behavioral expectations.

I am reluctant to jump on the ADHD diagnosis this early. Questions I would ask you to clarify are whether he attended a preschool or day care setting, and if so did he display the same types of behavior? Can he concentrate and stay on task for 25-30 minutes of time? Is he impulsive and easily distracted? These questions may help clarify whether it is developmental or something more serious.

Generally, professionals inquire where the problem behaviors are occurring. If they are present in all of the child's environments (home, school, scouts, etc.), then we often deduct that there must be something more serious we need to investigate and assess.

At this point, you need to observe and monitor his progress developmentally. Try the following techniques to help him improve his ability to focus and listen.

  • First, give only one or two directional commands such as: "Pick up your toys and put them in the box." Many kids with mild ADHD or inattentiveness cannot handle three or more directional commands.
  • Second, have your son repeat back to you what you have requested of him. "Tell me what I just asked you do."
  • Third, make sure you get good eye contact and that his attention is focused on you before you make the request.
  • Fourth, reward him when he follows through with what you have asked by praising him for doing it right.

You can try these techniques to see if they are effective with him. If they are, request a meeting with the teacher to share your success and your techniques. If this doesn't work, you should consult your school counselor or school social worker who can assist you in thinking through the next steps. These mental health professionals have knowledge about these type of issues and know resources in the community that can be of great assistance to you.

Dr. Joseph Gianesin is a professor at Springfield College School of Social Work. He has more than 25 years of experience as a child and family therapist, a school social worker and a school administrator. Along with his academic appointment, Dr. Gianesin is a program and behavioral consultant for public schools in Massachusetts, helping them develop and manage programs for children with significant mental health problems.

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 7 year old daughter is having alot of issues in school since kindergarten her progress reports have displayed the same issues such as: easily distracted by peeers, not focusing on work, lieing, zoning out, and the biggest one is talking Way too much. My daughter talks so much it actually drives people crazy. She actually flows into a totally different subject and has branched off conversations. She is exellent in reading and science but very bad in math. This year she has tested bellow state requirements. I dont know what to do, I work with her alot at home but it doesnt seem to stick... "
"I have a son 10 years old, diagnosed 2 years ago with ADD. He has had behavioral issues in school since kindergarten. (biting, then hitting). He is 10 years old and still having difficulty controlling his actions. He gets angry, hit a child or lashes out, and then is remorseful. I have just heard about behavioral therapy and want to find a good reputable therapist in my area. Are there resources you can recommend that will help me find the help that he needs. I live in Birmingham, AL"
"I have a 5 yr old son after being in Kindergarten for 4 weeks i get a call from the teacher saying my son is very smart, but has very disruptive behavior. Teacher states, she needs to repeat herself & often give him warnings, she has a technique in which all the kids start with green card at the beginning of the class, if they get a yellow card it means they have been given a warning of behavior, Orange means they have been given at least 3 warnings & have to go to time-out & at last Red card means disruptive behavior they were given alot of warnings & child still refuse to listen & call parents to help. Well my son apparently has been getting yellow cards & occasional green cards, but last two days, he got orange & this morning i walk in to his class & teacher tells me, she needs to talk to me regarding his bad behavior because, he got a red card for the first time. My son is very smart, but he just has alot of energy, he also went to preschool & i got the same info from th! e pre-school teacher, but much more worst where i had school counselors calling all the time & sending letters to take in my child for sessions. I feel bad because if anyone should help my child should be me, that is my last resort. My son also tends to get upset all of a sudden & starts misbehaving or when his cousins are around, he will be happy playing with them & the next thing you know,he hits them all of a sudden for no reason. Anyone have any suggestions? Please help...."
"I have a 12 year old boy with dyslexia and the Dr. said he is some what add. He has been put in In School Suspension more than 10 times this school year. And its all petty stuff he gets sent their for. He didnt bring his notebook to the library the class room was across the hall all he had to do is walk over and get it. Chewing gum in class, talking, left his band instrument at home. Hes a good kid. I think the school is hard on him because I dont let them give him swats. So for every little thing they sign his conduct sheet. My child is in the texas 504 program. Is it even legal for them to send him out of his class room that much for petty stuff. Thanks for your help, Kim"
"my son is 12. He keeps getting suspended from school for disruptive behavior and clowning around in class. I don't know what to do because he is very quiet at home and does not disply any of these behavior when he is home."
"My son is 5 years old and has type 1 diabetes and also attends kindergarden. He has trouble paying attention and focusing on the teacher when she is explaing a lesson. He also is getting up when he shouldnt and doesnt sit still in his seat. He attended pre school and that teacher said he wasnt ready for kindergarden but I sent him anyway. He has trouble with the sounds letters make and sounding out words and then relaiting them to the witch letters make those sounds. Any info would be great on what I can do to better help him. Ive tried just about everything I can come up with."
"speaking to the parents with the 3 year olds - my 3 year old is a handful, i describe him as an 'airhead.' there are times he listens so little that i question his hearing but if you whisper, 'ice cream,' from another room he can hear you so i know it is not his hearing - he is not agressive but he can be bursting with energy, that is not over the top though - unless he is interested in doing what you are asking him it is guaranteed that he will wander off task - i do make eye contact and keep things to one task at a time with a lot of praise - recently, i ask him to repeat back to me what i have asked and 9 times out of 10 he tells me that he doesn't know, this is what concerns me, is it his age? disinterest? or a problem? he can sit and read a book or color or play with super heroes for decent amounts of time so it's not like he never has the ability to focus or sit still - i don't want to jump to a label for him but i hate to find out 2 years down the road i should hav! e seen the signs.....any thoughts?"
"Kinder mom I have a 5 year old son who is 1/2 done with his first year of school. It's a traditional school so it's a bit harder and runs from 9-4pm. He attended preschool but the setting was diff 5 kids to a teacher. He did great and was very happy to attend school. THis year is a little diff. he still likes going to school it's just that he has a hard time focusing in school. The teacher wants to hold him back this year because she feels he is not ready for 1st grade I on the other hand think it's just the setting (higher standards) They teach the spalding method and the grading scale is like 93-100% = A what do I do should I change schools and bump him to 1st or hold him back and let him tough it out???"
"I have a son who is about to be 10 and he is very difficult, but very smart, he is reading a book about WWII. He can't stay focused and on task the teachers say. And he pushed a kid in the hall and was sent to ISS(in school suspension} He can't leave others alone and disrupts class. I know my son and he is a bit of a smart mouth, has a bad temper. I have him on omega-3,calm child, attentive child, and happy camper. It seems to take the edge off. I had him on stattera and it made him worse. If anyone can help me or give me some advice. I am at wits end."
"Hello everyone! I am so glad to hear all your opinions about ADHD. My son just recently turned 8 and his teacher would often mention the word 'inattentiveness.' I have a feeling that she is trying to suggest that my son has ADD or ADHD. The teacher even wrote it down on the report card that he might need to seek some medical attention. Now, he is attending summer school. On our way to the school he mentioned that his 2nd grade school teacher did not give a lot of example on their lessons. I thought maybe my son is a combination of haptic and visual learner and it is unfortunate that his previous teacher could only reach out to those students who could perfectly understand her by giving just one example. Therefore, I am not going to give into their request to get him tested for ADHD. I am hoping for the best would try other alternative to improve his attention. Just like what you said 'boys will be boys.' "
"My son just finished kindergarten. During the school year he would get in trouble for disruptive behavior (talking w/ friends during class time), being disruptive at naptime (he hates taking naps unless he is exhausted}, and things of that nature. He even started getting marked as the troublemaker by the teachers because of this. My son is a very affectionate person and everyone that knows him thinks the world of him because he is so kind, smart, helpful, and well mannered. He even got in trouble for kissing another classmate and for trying to get others to listen to the teacher. I finally got through to him that he has to let others get in trouble for themselves. He is very bright and makes great grades. He had bit a child early on in the year once so because of the continued disruptive behavior the principal threatened to kick my son out if his 'aggressive behavior continued'. I agree that the problem might be more with the classrooms than with the children. At t! hat age they are very inquisitive. Experts will tell you that they are like sponges so they will soak up whatever they can. Whatever you want and don't want them too. I know in my son's case, they had 2 teachers and 31 kids in the same class as well as an aide. I don't think anyone could concentrate in that environment. Please don't jump to the conclusion that your child must have ADHD because in todays society there is just too much stuff. Five is a time when they should be exploring and learning, not being hushed and doped. I almost broke down and gave in too drugging my son because of the principal but I am glad that I didn't. My son is now beginning to settle down on his own. All kids are different and they just need to mature in their time. Be patient, it will come."
"I think this is typical of any 4 to 5 year old. I'm not an expert, but I have been around boys this age and their curiousity and energy makes it hard for them to focus. My 4 1/2 year old can be a hand full at times, but literally getting in his face with eye to eye contact when I am giving him instructions really work. Also, making him aware of the consequences when the instructions are not followed and following through with the consequences help. I have also realized that I can get him to do more with high high praise. I mean, overdramatized praise. He is more willing to comply with my wishes. Good Luck Parents"
"As a kindergarten teacher for the past ten years and the parent of a kindergartner (boy), I can see both sides of the story. It is very important for children this age to have routine and to understand simple rules and simple consequences. Any five year old would have difficulty in a room lacking some structure.I would ask the teacher about routine/structure/ and rules/consequences and then reinforce them with your son at home. He may not even know what is expected of him if it is not clear.I am all for praising the positives. If he is a very bright student, I would also want to be sure he is being challenged and is working on his level. A 'bored' child can be a behavior problem. Also, in the defense of teachers...we are not allowed to give a diagnosis. We can state what we are seeing in the classroom. Good Luck!"
"My son is 4 1/2 and he has been in daycare since he was 6 months old. His situation is the same as this parent. He hits other children, does not listen and says that he forgets. He has been diagnosed with having ADHD. The thing to look for is the impulsive behavior. Also, I took my son to a child psychologist for a behavior assessment and they gave me and his teachers forms to fill out. When I went back to the psychologist with the forms, they then did the intake and ask for more feedback about his home enviornment, play groups and other social settings. If it is ADHD, you should have it treated righted away. The symptoms can get worse very easily. My son is currently on medication because his behavior was getting worse and worse. The teachers tend not to want to help the parents and will generally prefer to just label the child. I hope this information helps you because I am dealing with the same situation 24 hours a day, 7 days week."
"I have been having the same problem with my son. I was also wondering if he had ADHD. I had already asked the teacher if she thinks he should repeat kindergarten. She said no he is very smart. He just has to learn to focus. So at home I am really working with him. This article really helped. Thanks so much. "
"Please don't jump to ADHD! A friend who taught in the 'community type environment,' rather than individual classrooms, says that some children, quite a few as a matter of fact, (especially boys) tend not to be 'mature enough,' at the tender age of 5 or 6, or even older, to accomodate the rules and regulations of the open classrom, and tend to do better in a more structured, closed-off environment where there's not quite as much stimuli to distract them, i.e., the traditional classroom setting. This sounds like a perfect example of, 'boys will be boys.' Continued communication on what is expected and appropriate is a must, but all parents, even kindergarten teachers need to positively address such issues and reward children for good behavior, and not just acknowledge the not so good. Give him lots of hugs and kisses when he does ANYTHING good, and he'll strive to earn more."
"I am happy to see I am not the only one. My difference is that I have a 3 1/2 year old little girl. I have her with a behavioral therapist 20 hrs per week at her daycare. Recently a report indicated she might be regressing not progressing. I am hoping this is just her way of adjusting to our new home and maybe just a little typical 3yr.old behavior. I am open to any advice. Thanks"
"This was great. I sometimes wonder the same thing about my 3 year old son. He doesn't usually give eye contact, usually will not follow directions unless it is something he is interested in. I'm never sure if it is a '3 yr old' thing or ADHD."