Why Some Children Pay Better Attention Than Others

Have you ever wondered why some students seem to be able to pay attention better than others? Our guest blogging Occupational Therapist shares insight into why some children pay better attention than others. Click through to read more about her insight.

Guest blogger Loren Shlaes is a registered pediatric occupational therapist and regular contributor to the special needs blog at Pediastaff (where this post is also being published). This is the fifth in a series of posts from Loren about how to help students who may be challenged with attention, sensory, or other issues be successful in the classroom. Most likely, you have at least a few students with these challenges every year, but even if you don’t, the information in these posts is relevant to all teachers.

Even though this example Loren uses is set in a kindergarten classroom, the information in the post applies to all grades and will really help you to better understand what is happening in your classroom.

Scene: A typical kindergarten classroom. Children are working independently and in small groups. The room is busy and noisy. Scents from the cafeteria are wafting up because it’s close to lunchtime. Now let’s focus in on three children as they go about their school day:

  • Child A walks aimlessly around the perimeter of the room. He is occasionally instructed to pick an activity from the shelves and get started on it or to join other students as they work at one of the small tables coloring and cutting. He picks up a random item and attempts to comply, but as soon as the teacher’s back is turned, he resumes wandering.
  • Child B has chosen a picture book as his activity. He is sequestered in the corner, turning the pages, and does not appear to be aware of anything around him.  When the teacher calls the children to attention by clapping her hands sharply, he doesn’t look up.
  • Child C is sitting at one of the tables working on a puzzle with several of his classmates. While they figure out where to put the pieces, they chat about what they did over the weekend and compare various sports figures.  When the teacher comes over to the table to check on their progress, they look up briefly, nod when she tells them they have a few more minutes before lunch, then get right back to work. When the puzzle is completed, child C sweeps it into the box, gets up, and puts it on the shelf.  He then gathers up his lunchbox and his catcher’s mitt in preparation for recess.
Of the three children in this scenario, which one do you think will have the most chance of succeeding in school? Child A could not focus in the noise and chaos of the classroom and so could not engage in goal-oriented behavior. Child B was able to concentrate on his solitary activity but only by completely shutting out everything around him to the extent that he was not able to hear the teacher when she called the class back to order. Child C demonstrated the highest level of attention. Despite the noise and chaos in the room, he was easily able to do several high level tasks at once while retaining a conscious awareness of everything else that was going on around him, filtering out what was not relevant to him and responding appropriately when it was.


This type of attention is called joint or flexible attention. It is the ability to concentrate on some things to the relative exclusion of others. The ability to maintain sufficient alertness and arousal to be available for learning and to attend to what is important and filter out what is not while shifting between several tasks at once is a complex, high level skill.


What is required for a child to be able to sit for long periods, work in a noisy atmosphere, curb impulses, and focus on challenging tasks?


  • A strong, stable body that supports him effortlessly against gravity.
  • Good visionMany children have undetected visual issues. A child who rubs his eyes, can’t copy from the board, slumps down over his work, habitually sits at his desk with his head resting on his hand and turned to the side, reverses letters after the age of seven, flinches when a ball is tossed to him, has a short attention span for tabletop activities, and is resistant to doing written work may be having difficulty with close vision.
  • Adequate nutrition. Why is it that people know very well that putting second rate fuel in their cars will cause them to run badly but then routinely feed their children bad food? Second rate fuel in a child’s body will have exactly the same effect. It will cause him to function poorly. A child cannot be at his best on a diet of salty, sugary, chemical-laden, highly processed food. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins provide the nutrition necessary for the body’s ability to support learning and to grow and develop. Sugary breakfast cereals, artificial juice drinks, frozen pizza, and toaster waffles do not. A classroom of children who have breakfasted on Froot Loops, been fed a midmorning snack of blue gummy bears and Hawaiian Punch, and then eaten chicken nuggets and fries for lunch, are not being provided with the necessary fuel to focus, attend, solve problems, and curb their impulses. Healthy snacks, and nutritious breakfasts and lunches, along with frequent drinks of water, are essential to the child’s ability to learn.
  • Good respiration. Shallow breathers and children who are chronically stuffy and have a hard time concentrating because their brains are starved for oxygen.
  • Sufficient exercise to develop and strengthen their nervous systems and promote healthy digestion and elimination and for the manufacture of neurotransmitters that support learning.
  • Efficient, reliable sensory processing. Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system takes in and perceives environmental information gathered by the senses. If the child’s nervous system does not adequately filter and discriminate, he is going to have difficulty maintaining his focus because everything is bothering or distracting him. If his nervous system is misinterpreting what is happening around him, his behavior is going to reflect that.
A child who habitually wanders around when it’s noisy, tunes everything out, slumps at his desk, and can’t keep up because he can’t pay attention is living in a body that does not support learning.

Want to read more from Loren? Here are the other posts in this series:

Loren ShlaesLoren Shlaes is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration, handwriting remediation, and school-related issues. She is also a manual therapist and a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. Her informative site won the “favorite resource for therapists” poll conducted by Your Therapy Source. Her writing has been featured on Parents.com, and she is a regular contributor to the special needs blog at PediaStaff. She is in private practice in Manhattan.

Minds in Bloom would also like to thank PediaStaff for collaborating with Loren to make this series possible. PediaStaff places pediatric therapists in schools, clinic, and hospitals throughout the country. In addition to their highly informative blog, they also have a huge Pinterest presence with over a hundred boards pertaining to education, child rearing, special needs, and various kinds of therapies. This post can also be viewed on the PediaStaff blog.

Did you learn something new from Loren? Do you have ideas to add? Please comment.

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