Signs & Symptoms

Selective Attention

Is your child off task?

You may notice that your child always seems to be doing his own thing. You may ask your child if he cleaned his room and get an answer like, “Did you know that a pac-man frog eats crickets?”

Your child may be able to build a Lego set for hours but not be able to focus on reading a book. Although it is a good thing if your child is able to focus on something interesting, it is also important that she or he be able to focus on less exciting things, like making a bed or completing homework.

If your child can pay attention, but often does not, it may be an issue of selective attention.

Selective attention requires us to focus on the task at hand, rather than the activity we might rather be doing.

When at work, an adult might need to shut down his favorite fishing website to get ready for a meeting, stop chatting with a friend to respond to an important email, or log-off of an on-line shopping website to finish a presentation for tomorrow. This is the skill of selective attention.

Your child may focus on one thing to the detriment of other important things around him or her. These kids are so preoccupied with one thing that it seems nothing else can get their attention.

You may find yourself saying,

“That kid is so engrossed in that video-game that a bolt of lightning could strike the house and he wouldn’t even notice.”

They seem to have tunnel vision or “selective hearing.” Examples include a child who is reading a book and doesn’t hear the smoke detector is going off or a child who can play with model trains for hours and not notice a toileting accident.

This ability to pay attention to assigned tasks is important for daily living skills both at home, at school, and in the community.

What do challenges with Selective Attention look like?

  • Doing his own thing?
  • Marching to the beat of his own drummer?
  • Having trouble focusing on schoolwork?
  • Going upstairs to make his bed and you find him an hour later engrossed in a video-game, with covers on the floor?
  • Losing his place when reading but totally focused on a video game?
  • Not completing assignments in class but able to read for hours?
  • Leaving his math book in class but remembering his supplies for art?
  • Writing creative stories on her own but can’t get that history report done?

Why is Selective Attention happening?

The ability to attend to the tasks that we have to do is known as selective attention. Selective attention is the ability to react to the important stimuli when several occur at once. If your child cannot pay attention to assigned tasks, two types of problems could be involved: 

1) lack of selective attention and/or 

2) overly selective attention. 


Lack of selective attention means that your child cannot focus on a task. A child who does not have selective attention looks like a ‘busy little butterfly’ flitting from one activity to the next. The child’s behavior is not goal-directed. The child tends to pick up a toy, examine it momentarily, set it down and move onto another toy, without really taking the time to play with anything.


Overly selective attention means that your child is focused on something other than the assigned task. The attention is ‘selective’ in that the child is selecting what to focus on and what other information to ignore. Children who struggle with over-selective attention are often able to screen out distractions when they are doing what they want to do. However, when tasked with schoolwork, they are too busy attending to something more interesting. Some children will begin homework and hear a faint noise that reminds them of a video game. Then, almost without even noticing they are doing it, they walk away, log into the game, and play happily and intensely. 


When the child hears mom calling for him to see if the homework is done, it feels like an utter surprise. It is almost as if the homework task occurred a long time ago, in a different dimension, or not at all. When asked, ‘what happened? Your homework isn’t done?’ the child looks sincerely confused. He may respond, ‘I forgot.’ This child may not be avoiding his or her homework and can’t tell you how he or she got off task in the first place. Clinically, these problems with selective attention are referred to as attention deficits.

How can I manage Selective Attention at home?

It is important to note that although your child can pay attention when interested, this does not rule out ADHD or another disability. If you see this challenge impacting your child in school or decreasing his or her ability to complete homework, it is important to look further at his or her cognitive processes, perhaps with an evaluation.

Challenges with attention processes may be the result of ADHD, a traumatic brain injury, mood disorder, or other conditions. It will be important to consider what can be done to help your child keep on task and to not behaviorally respond to distractions in the learning environment.

If these challenges result in poor school performance, family problems, or extreme emotions, it will be important to seek help quickly.

A comprehensive neuropsychological assessment completed by a psychologist will determine if these challenges are related to ADHD, a traumatic brain injury or mania (a mood condition in which a person becomes very animated and intense and can be inattentive). A number of medication interventions and behavioral interventions can help a child diagnosed with these conditions.

If you child seems unable to notice anything but an object of intent interest, then you have a different problem. Yes, it is good that your child can focus on what he wants, but it will also be necessary to learn how to do the things we have to do.

For example, if your child can build Lego sets all day long but cannot do a writing assignment to save his life, this symptom worthy of clinical attention. You might start with your child’s doctor.

Some pediatricians make diagnoses of attention problems, and others refer psychological problems to private practice psychologists. In some cases, a perseverative hyper-focus may be related to an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and treatment may help improve this symptom and other related problems.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Selective Attention?

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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