Signs & Symptoms

Central Coherence

Is your child getting stuck on details and missing the big picture?

Children with these challenges are said to “miss the forest through the trees.” That is, they are so focused on a single tree that they miss the ‘big idea’ or the ‘central idea’ which is the forest. When looking at a picture or telling a story, does your child tell all the details but miss the main point? Does he tell stories with no main character and no plot?

This peculiar pattern may emerge as your child describes an event or something that he saw earlier that day. He or she may get stuck in telling you all kinds of information but never get to the point. Visually, they might approach solving a jigsaw puzzle by studying the patterns and individual shapes, without even noticing the picture they are attempting to construct.

Another related topic with which difficulties with central coherence may show up is with reading comprehension. They may be able to read beautifully, and then when asked about the story, they cannot tell you anything about it. When children with these issues are asked to re-tell a story, the stories tend to lack a logical sequence and are not structured around the main idea.

What may be happening is that your child is overly focused on details and is missing the big picture, in multiple facets of life.

What do challenges with Central Coherence look like?

  • Missing the forest through the trees?
  • Not getting the point?
  • Failing to see the big picture?
  • Skipping problems and sentences when reading or doing math?
  • Noticing tiny details while forgetting important information?
  • Working more slowly because of distraction by tiny details?
  • Noticing the slightest object being moved around in the house?
  • Not making sense when retelling a story?
  • Telling stories using detail after detail but without a main idea?

Why is Central Coherence happening?

In psychology, when a child focuses so exclusively on details as to miss the big picture, we call this, ‘challenges with central coherence.’ Central coherence is seeing how many component parts fit together to make a coherent whole. Central coherence difficulties could be related to attention or rigidity. Some kids miss the big picture because they are simply not paying attention long enough to make sense of what they are hearing. Challenges with central coherence could be related to rigidity. Rigidity refers to considerable perfectionism, attention to detail and resistance to change. If your child is having trouble with this area, it could cause academic issues and social skills problems. The best way to get this assessed is to go to a school psychologist or private practice psychologist with your concerns.

How can I manage Central Coherence at home?

If you are concerned that your child may have trouble with central coherence, consider any challenges with: answering questions, reading comprehension, or story-telling.

Answering questions. An easy ‘quick check’ for one form of central coherence is to have a child sit with his or her back to you and describe a picture that you cannot see.

Children with poor central coherence may not be able to answer questions about the picture they see.

Ask your child questions like:

  • ‘Are there any people in the picture?’
  • ‘Are there any animals or shapes in the picture?’
  • ‘How many objects are in the picture?’ Describe what you are picturing based on what your child says
  • Then, most importantly, ask the child, ‘What is the main idea of this picture?”

In the picture at the beginning of this article, the child should be able to say, “there are two girls running on a path toward a forest.” Children without central coherence problems should be able to do this task fairly quickly and accurately.

If problems are noted, this concern probably requires further evaluation by a psychologist.

Reading comprehension. Another way to know if your child struggles with central coherence is through his or her reading comprehension. Children with poor central coherence tend to really struggle with getting the sequence of events and main idea in stories.

Story-telling. Finally, it may be that your child can read okay but cannot re-tell a story. If your child tells stories that are filled with details and do not make sense, central coherence could be an issue. In any of these three instances, challenges with central coherence are likely worthy of further assessment.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Central Coherence?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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