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A child with AD/HD is usually described as having a short attention span and as being easily distracted. In actuality, distractibility and inattentiveness are not synonymous. Distractibility refers to a short attention span and the fact that some children can easily be pulled off-task. Attention, on the other hand, is a process that has different parts.

We focus (pick something on which to pay attention), we select (pick something that needs attention at that moment) and we sustain (pay attention for as long as is needed). We also resist (avoid things that remove our attention from where it needs to be), and we shift (move our attention to something else when needed).

When we refer to someone as distractible, we are saying that a part of that person's attention process is disrupted. Children with AD/HD can have difficulty with one or all parts of the attention process. Some children may have difficulty concentrating on tasks (particularly on tasks that are routine or boring). Others may have trouble knowing where or how to start a task. Still others may get lost in the directions along the way. A careful observer can see where the attention process breaks down for particular child.

Symptoms of inattention as listed in the DSM-IV are:

  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities.
  • Often has difficulty sustaining attention in 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 (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions).
  • Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities.
  • Often avoids, dislikes or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (such as schoolwork or homework).
  • Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities (e.g., toys, school assignments, pencils, books or tools).
  • Is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.
  • Is often forgetful in daily activities.