What exactly is ADHD?

What exactly is ADHD?

Ever turn on the t.v. and there is some breaking news story going on, and the reporters are rattling on and on about details and you think ‘Um, back up please. What the heck is going on?’

That’s how it is starting to feel with the media and the topic of ADHD. We are definitely hearing about ADHD, epidemic numbers of children are being diagnosed, that medications are overused and abused. The topic of ADHD can be controversial and sensationalized. But let’s back up for a minute…what exactly is ADHD?

ADHD, like so many conditions that affect learning and achievement, can vary as far as the symptoms. Children, especially young children, are not attention rock stars. Nor should they be. But how do you know if your child’s attention is a real problem?

This is a complicated issue, and unfortunately there are few clear-cut answers. It may help to think of attention span using a bell curve. If you were to study a large enough sample of people, their attention span levels would fall along a bell curve.




At the far right end, we have the people who have unflappable attention. They can stay focused during the longest, most boring lecture.

They can stay focused on an excruciatingly dull-looking card or chess game.

They may even be able to watch a Nascar race on television.

At the far left end, we have people who clearly have ADHD. They cannot focus, are constantly restless, daydream, space out, check out and/or can never remember anything.

The big bump in the middle represents 60% of the population. Most of us fall in this area…we can usually pay attention but may occasionally get bored and daydream, or feel restless.

So, what about that upward slope area, between the left tail and the hill? Those are the children who may or may not be diagnosed with ADHD, depending on the physician, the parents’ and teachers’ views and the expectations of the culture, school and home environment in which the children live.

So how do we, as parents, teachers and caregivers, think about children whose attention is questionable? Do they or do they not qualify as having ADHD? And do we want them to have the diagnosis?

Again, there are few neat and tidy answers whenever we talk about learning, achievement, well-being, ability and children…or people in general, for that matter. However, here are two key questions to ask if you are concerned about your child’s attention

  1. Is that lack of attention a problem in multiple settings? Settings include home, school, with friends, while participating in activities and sports, etc.

In other words, is your child daydreaming, yelling, acting or checking out in more than one place?

  1. Is your child’s attention span—or lack thereof–causing problems? Is it getting him or her in trouble? Is your child not achieving to the level you think he is capable of because of the attention issues?

Take the next week to ponder these questions… be back with more next Tuesday.

Ask Heather

Send Heather your question, and she’ll get back to you promptly.