Selective Attention

Is your child off task?

Is your child:

  • 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?


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.


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.

f your child cannot pay attention to assigned tasks, two types of problems could be involved, as follows:

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 do 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. Selective attention refers to the ability to concentrate on tasks when several stimuli are present, whether the tasks are interesting or uninteresting.

This type of focus requires the child to inhibit the urge to focus on something else. For many children whose problem is a lack of selective attention, they cannot stay on task long enough to finish the task in front of them.

A recognized expert in child development explains the importance of attention to the acquisition of other skills in the following way:

“Attention is critical to optimal development in all developmental domains. In order to learn, the child must attend to the most salient factors and features of the environment. Several aspects of attention are significant for learning. Selecting, focusing, sustaining concentration, switching attention, sharing attention, dividing attention, ignoring distractions, and modulating the intensity of attention are all important.” (Linder, 2008, p.316) [4]

As mentioned above, modulating the intensity of attention is a critical skill. Some children with ADHD have what are called ‘extremes of attention.’ They can focus on certain things too much and on other things not at all.

When they are unable to focus at all, the challenge could be inattention or impulsivity; these two challenges may go hand in hand.

Some kids have overly selective attention, which means that they can focus but then they are fixated. Clinically, what is happening is that they tend to intently focus on one thing to the point that other stimulus do not reach the threshold of salience.

In other words, they are so enthralled with what they are doing, and so uninterested in the task at hand, that they don’t even notice the world around them.

For example, they may be so busy putting the perfect little decoration onto a cupcake that they do not realize the cupcakes in the oven are on fire. The sights and smells of billowing smoke may not even enter their conscious awareness. This is extremely selective attention.


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.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Memory problems (Remembering): difficulty with attention will often lead to challenges remembering things
  • Executive functions (Organizing): attention problems can be related to difficulties related to planning, sequencing, and organizing information
  • Processing speed: attention problems may be related to difficulty processing information
  • School problems (Learning): attention problems often impact learning because a child does not hear or ‘encode’ (hear and remember information) Many children with attention problems also struggle with learning due the tendency to be unorganized and inefficient in their work


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): challenges sustaining attention; distractibility; impulsivity; difficulties with sustained attention, shifting attention, focusing attention, and difficulty screening out other sensory elements are signs of ADHD
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: children who play extreme sports or have recently hit their heads should be monitored for signs of brain injury. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) may result in unexpected memory loss as well as emotional changes, headaches, and challenges with attention
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: extremely/over-selective attention is common in individuals with ASD


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Neurologist: to look at other brain-based causes for visual memory deficits if these deficits seem to be severe across multiple settings. It would be important to rule out TBI.
  • School Psychologist: to determine your child’s learning needs based on his or her neuropsychological profile; perhaps an IEP, 504 plan or RTI is warranted to help your child. Perhaps tutoring is recommended and your school psychologist can help you locate resources.
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to examine symptoms in a mental health and/or behavioral context

These professionals may recommend the following tests for this symptom:

  • NEPSY, RAVLT, CVLT: to examine memory, attention and processing strengths and weaknesses with this measure for children. The NEPSY provides a number of batteries looking at attention, motor, and memory
  • WISC-V: to establish a baseline of intellectual abilities, which can help us understand your child’s cognitive processing and determine what interventions may work best. The cognitive assessment is important because it will provide an idea of cognitive strengths and weaknesses
  • TOL-2, CTMT, WCST: to assess areas of executive function and help to determine the skills and resources a child has, such as the ability to plan, organize, and to pay attention
  • Stroop: to evaluate inhibitory control and executive functions
  • Test of Variable Attention: to evaluate attention and impulse control
  • ADOS: to consider symptoms of executive function and attention that are accompanied by poor social and communication skills


[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] ADDItude Editors (n.d.) Focus the Attention of Distracted Children

[3] Gitelman, Darren (2003). Attention and Its Disorders Imaging in Clinical Neuroscience. British Medical Bulletin (2003) 65 (1): 21-34.doi: 10.1093/bmb/65.1.21.

[4] Linder Ed.D., Toni & Petersen-Smith Ph.D., Ann (2008) Administration Guide for TPBA2 & TPBI2 (Play-Based Tpba, Tpbi, Tpbc). Paul H. Brookes, Inc.


Image Credit:
Description Bored Student playing with Paper Airplane Day Dreaming
Stock Photo ID: #174639964 (
By: ShaneKato
Previously Licensed on: May 13, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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