Why does my 4-year old have such a hard time focusing? Should I be concerned?

Q: My 4-year old has a hard time focusing when asked to pose for a picture or asked to look directly at something. We've started working on focusing for 10 seconds at a time on a particular object. Others have commented that this could be symptom of autism, but she's brilliant in every way and has no developmental issues so I'm wondering if this is something to be concerned about or just her being a 4-year old?

A: It sounds like you have a 4 year old on our hands! In order to calculate what a ‘normal’ attention span is for a child, take your child’s age and multiply by 4 minutes. A 4 year old child’s attention span can last for as long as 16 minutes. This will vary depending on the interest level of the task or activity. The higher the preference for the activity or task (e.g., video game, coloring ,etc), the longer the time your child can remain focused, and the lower the interest in the activity, the shorter the time that your child will remain focused.

The other area to assess is level of activity – would you describe your child as hyperactive or impulsive? You can determine this by thinking about how your child responds to a new environment. For example, when your child is at a friend’s house for a play date, does she touch everything and move from one object or toy to the next, spending very little time with each toy or game? If so, continue to make your observations and talk to our pediatrician. Your child may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder but this is diagnosed by the age of 5 and the inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity would need to be observed across multiple environments, such as home and school.

It seems that you are describing a 4 year old child who may be interested in the environment and wants to make sure she has the chance to experience it all. Posing for a picture is boring and looking directly at an object for any longer than a few seconds is too time consuming for someone who has too much to do! It sounds like your daughter is an energetic and curious 4 year old – enjoy her!

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Matheis

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