Is My Preschooler Overly Distractible? How Can I Tell?

By Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH
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I know that most little kids have short attention spans. But I’m starting to wonder if my 4-year-old might have ADHD. He can’t seem to focus on anything for more than two seconds! How can I tell if my preschooler is overly distractible?


A young child with ADHD can have a hard time focusing on even his favorite activities. He may not be able to sit through a meal or a bedtime story.

Distractibility also often goes hand in hand with hyperactivity. Does your child seem as if he’s “driven by a motor”? Does it seem like he never slows down? Or never rests?

You’re correct that it’s very common for preschoolers to be distracted, active and impulsive. That’s why a young child won’t be diagnosed with ADHD unless his distractibility or high level of activity has a significant impact on his daily life.

For example, is your child’s behavior causing him to have difficulty with learning, making friends or other activities?

To help you put these things in perspective, a typical preschooler might sometimes have a hard time sitting still during circle time at school. Or he might be really energetic at home. But an overly distractible preschooler may have so much trouble with focus that he can’t even pay attention when he wants to.

It’s important to note that in order to be diagnosed with ADHD, a young child has to show several symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity in different settings. These settings might include at home and in preschool. The symptoms also need to have been present for at least the past six months.

I recommend discussing your concerns about your child’s focus with his teachers. Do they also have concerns about his attention span? Is he able to follow directions and participate in circle time and other activities in the classroom?

If your concerns persist, talk with your child’s health care provider, who can help to assess whether or not this may be ADHD and, even more important, provide you with some strategies to help address your concerns. If your child has ADHD, there are many behavior strategies that can be really helpful at home and in school.

About the Author

About the Author

Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH 

is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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