Distractibility / inattention

What’s the Difference Between Inattention and Distractibility?

By Jenn Osen-Foss

What’s the difference between inattention and distractibility?

Jenn Osen-Foss

Instructional Coach, Clear Creek Amana High School, Tiffin, Iowa

Inattention and distractibility go hand in hand. In fact, children who are inattentive are often described as “distracted.” And kids who are distracted are often described as having trouble paying attention. So that means these two term are basically describing the same thing, right? Not quite.

Kids who are inattentive can’t seem to pay attention. Parents and teachers often describe them with words like “careless,” “neglectful,” “absent-minded” or “daydreaming.”

The term “distractibility” refers to kids who can begin to focus on an activity but often quickly lose focus. Their attention is easily shifted. They get distracted by outside stimuli or even by their own thoughts. Often inattention can be the consequence of being distracted.

Over the years, I have worked with children who were inattentive, but not distracted. These students had difficulty producing work that was up to their ability. They often turned in incomplete or sloppy work. I noticed that the more steps there were in an assignment, the less likely these kids were to complete it correctly.

As a parent, you might have experienced something similar. Maybe you gave your child a list of four chores to be completed before dinner one day. When you checked that afternoon, she said she was done, but there were only two chores complete and the cleaning materials she used had not been put away.

Better communication strategies can often make a big difference with inattention. They can also help cut down on frustration. Parents often can’t understand why their child seemed to be listening to their instructions but didn’t follow through on them.

With distracted children, it’s often much easier to see when they are distracted. They change the subject mid-sentence or suddenly turn to stare out the window at a chirping bird. They can’t stay focused on their work if there’s any noise or visual stimuli.

You might see this at home—staying on the chore theme—when you ask your child to empty the dishwasher. And you find her, 15 minutes later, eating a piece of fruit from the fruit bowl by the dishwasher, and the chore only half done.

Another example parents might see is when they ask their child to get ready for bed but find them in the bathroom playing on their phone instead of brushing their teeth and winding down for the night.

Children who are inattentive or easily distracted may be more stimulated by background noise and other sensory information than other kids are. To help them, limit the time they spend working in high-activity areas with background noise and movement near them.

You can try to prevent inattention and help your child get back on track. Encourage the use of checklists and daily planners. Be prepared to redirect your child back to a task, whether homework or chores.

About the Author

Portrait of Jenn Osen Foss

Jenn Osen-Foss is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions and co-planning.

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