Distractibility- Another Perspective

I had one of my ‘aha’ moments in physical therapy a few days ago and I’ve been thinking about this whole notion of ‘distractibility’ ever since.

I’m a pretty intelligent adult, with many academic credentials and yet I watched myself acting like a grade-school student who really didn’t care much for the lesson my teacher was so kindly trying to explain to me.

You see, my therapist has been working on an issue I’ve been having with my shoulder and she was concerned with the lack of progress. After my treatment, she invited me into another room and took out a moveable model of the shoulder. She started to patiently explain all the detailed parts, how the muscles, tissues, etc. fit together and how they affect each other. I realized that my mind wasn’t keeping up with the scientific explanation because I started to think about what I was going to eat for lunch. I knew her lips were moving but my mind was elsewhere.

I did not want to appear to be rude so I told her that I was losing the thread and she acknowledge that I had a ‘glazed over’ expression on my face. I joked that even in high school I had a hard time concentrating on the workings of the body. I was a ‘student of human emotions’ and left anatomy to the kids who wanted to go into medicine.

As I drove home I was laser focused on something that really mattered to me ~ the way we understand children, their behavior and the labels we give to them. My hunger no longer grabbed my attention as I pondered many of the ways in which we ‘diagnose’ attention deficit.

I know that I do not have ADHD yet the therapist could have stood on her head and I still would not have been focused on her facts about the way ligaments work.

There are many definitions of distractibility. It is generally considered to be a ‘condition’ of being easily sidetracked and unable to pay attention or stay on task. The attention that should be directed towards a person or task is diverted to other objects, thoughts, feelings, etc. While distractibility can occur in response to external as well as internal stimuli, there are several explanations that often are not considered when trying to figure out a child’s issue.

I believe that once we take impulsivity and hyper activity out of the mix and just look at the issue of staying focused on a task, we will be less inclined to rush to put children on medication.

   The DSM-5 gives these signs of inattention:

  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities.
  • Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities.
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g., loses focus, side-tracked).
  • Often has trouble organizing tasks and activities.
  • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
  • Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, mobile telephones).
  • Is often easily distracted

Distractibility is one of the nine basic traits described on the temperament scale. As with all hard wiring, parents and teachers become concerned when a child is ‘too much’ of any one trait. It is said that ‘A distractible child notices everything going on around her and may even be diverted by her own thoughts and daydreams.’

My experience at physical therapy led me to wonder about the ways we analyze what is really going on a with a child’s distractibility.  Please consider the following:


~ Children are more than their symptoms. They are more than their    behavior.  Something else may be going on:

Learned Distractibility:  As I observe families interacting with children I notice that adults often interrupt kids while they are immersed in an activity. An example with young children is a four year, happily sitting at the table, coloring, and dad walks into the room and says, “So, what did you do in pre-school today?” If adults are not mindful, this sort of benign disturbance happens many times each day. Over the course of the early years children grow used to a sudden break in concentration and it begins to ‘feel normal.’ Often, as these children grow older, the same lack of parental consciousness results in allowing television, computer and conversational noises impact the sense of quiet that is needed for concentrated attention to homework.

Parenting Styles:  Living with a parent who struggles with time management often creates a sense of urgency when having to get ready, leave the house, come in for dinner, etc. Children are often caught ‘off guard’ and told to STOP what they are doing. Their desire to finish something takes second place to mom or dad’s insistence for compliance. Over the course of years, living with this demand to break concentration begins to ‘feel normal.’ There are some adults who use ‘control’ as their base for discipline. Often their children will ‘tune out’ their parents’ voices as a way of gaining some sense of self- empowerment. These parents tend to complain that they have to give commands over and over and still the child does not listen.

Stressed Home Lives: The pressure and tension of daily life can spill over into the morning and evening routines of children’s homes. Yelling, arguing, and threats of punishment cause the brain to stay in a guarded state, making it hard to concentrate on homework, organization skills and following through with responsibilities.

Emotional Turmoil:  When a child lives with emotional upheaval one of the ways they cope is by ‘tuning out.’ They create a rich inner world and are often accused of ‘daydreaming.’ These kids find safety in their secret world because staying focused in their physical reality becomes too uncomfortable. Their brain develops this habit of ‘tuning out’ and it then extends into their school situation.

Children who are exposed to adverse childhood experiences may become overloaded with stress hormones, leaving them in a constant state of over-arousal and alertness to environmental and relational threats. Therefore, they may have difficulty focusing on schoolwork, and consolidating new memory, making it harder for them to learn at school.

Strong Willed Children Who Won’t Play the Game: Let’s face it. The way traditional school is set up does not work for all children. In some ways school is a game ~ a game of following rules, concentrating and often having to pay attention to boring lessons and subjects for which they have no interest. I recently spoke with a mom who was concerned that her nine-year-old son was not paying attention in class. I asked her when he did seem to pay attention and she replied when it had anything to do with race cars. Her initial thought was that he was just lazy and I helped her realize that there was more to his lack of attentiveness. We put a plan into action where together with his teacher, they would add reading, writing and math problems that had to do with his favorite subject. Within a few weeks they saw a change in his overall attitude, which spilled into his desire and ability to stay more focused in other academic areas. 

There are some children who display multiple levels of distractibility and often the use of medication becomes their gateway to success. Too often, however, the medication dulls their sparkle and they become mere shadows of their feisty, gifted selves. My concern is that we do not rush to the ‘easy’ way out and let a pill take us off the hook for being more mindful in the way we set up our children’s lives.  I encourage all educators and parents to do the hard work of self-reflection and make the vital changes needed in our homes and schools.