If you have a child who finds it difficult to pay attention, you must first consider how the brain functions. This plays a vital role in the reasons your child may not be able to concentrate.

So to start with, let’s analyse why an ordinary person may not pay attention.

First, does the person we should be paying attention to hold any rights to be heard by us? Or, do we owe the person trying to tell us something anything that means we should be paying attention?

Also, is the actual information being given to us worthy of interest? Let’s face it, not everything is interesting to our brains, and we’re not obligated to listen to anything that’s uninteresting.

This can, of course, become an issue in the classroom!

Listed below are a few examples of basic brain skills. You may not be aware how these skills can affect attention.

5 reasons your child may not be able to concentrate

1. Primitive Reflexes

Primitive reflexes are essential in normal development. Response to these reflexes prepares the child for progressive development. (Fiorentini, 1976:5)

Some common primitive reflexes include:

  • Moro reflex. This is the baby’s initial flight or fight reflex. You’ll see your baby do this when there’s a sudden movement, loud noise, or just as your baby begins to sleep.
  • Rooting reflex. This helps with baby’s breastfeeding instinct, and can be activated by stroking a baby’s cheek.
  • Palmer reflex. This is the automatic flexing of the hand muscles that allows baby to grab on to things (such as your thumb).
  • Asymmetrical tonic neck reflex. When you lay a baby on their back, and turn their head to one side, the arms and legs they’re looking at should extend, while the other side should contract. This is the beginning of hand-eye coordination.

If an infant’s brain has developed normally, primitive reflexes should be well integrated within the first year of birth. Numerous factors can affect the normal development of primitive reflexes, such as traumatic births, c-sections, falls, lack of tummy time, delayed crawling, head trauma, etc.

To survive, he is equipped with a set of primitive reflexes designed to ensure immediate response to this new environment and to his changing needs. (Goddard, 1996:1)

If natural development has not occurred, these primitive reflexes are retained. As a result, more mental energy is used up trying to override these automative responses. This draws us away from the task at hand, and impacts our ability to concentrate.

2. Lower brain development

In the womb and in the early months of life, the higher centres of the brain are not fully developed. During this time we are protected and assisted by primitive reflexes controlled by the lower centres of the brain. headstarthealth.com.au

We develop automatic basic brain skills when the pons, which is part of the brain stem, and the midbrains are fully developed. Until this point, we’re still working with primitive reflexes.

One example of a developed midbrain is where we automatically assign and refine extraneous sensations.

This could be the sound of an air conditioner, or perhaps a bright light. The developed midbrain assigns these sensations to the ‘do not disturb’ basket. This allows our brain to pass only relevant information straight to the cortex. Again, this enables us to concentrate on the activity at hand.

If this lower brain development is slowed, the cortex focuses on finding ways to compensate for the missing automatic brain functions. This might be met with success or it might not.

Either way, the cortex is no longer doing its particular task effectively and so becomes distracted.

3. Body awareness

One of the most basic demands of existence is interpreting sensory stimuli and responding to them. A reflex exemplifies the function in simple form … Ayers, 1980:8

Sensory stimuli are basically anything that stimulates your senses: see, hear, taste, touch, smell.

Body awareness is impacted by our sense of touch (as well as spatial awareness, which develops later). If we don’t have a good sense of our body (where it is and what it can do), distraction will set in on whatever we’re doing.

For example, if we don’t feel where our feet are, we’re going to be distracted with that. The brain will choose more primitive reflexes over other things. In toddlers this can lead to poor balance and poor coordination. As the toddler develops further, this can lead to poor spatial awareness and bad falls.

4. Vestibular processing

The vestibular function is what gives us a sense of balance.

Vestibular function deficiency usually cause a high level of alertness and vigilance, problems maintaining focus, problems paying selective attention, and alterations in precision and attention to stimuli. Wang, Wang, & Ren, 2003

The vestibular system regulates many automatic functions such as having great muscle tone, maintaining a stable sight, and holding our balance.

If we are plagued with poor Vestibular processing, it disrupts our ability to stay focused. For a child, this may make it hard to sit still and pay attention.

Now, you might think a child who taps the foot or makes random movements is not paying attention. But this isn’t true. In fact, these unusual movements actually enable the brain to wake up.

Low muscle tone makes it hard to sit in chairs without stooping or slouching. People end up yelling at kids saying, ‘sit up straight.’ The fact is, they can’t sit up straight if they haven’t developed the postural support necessary.

When the visual field is obscured, our attention becomes challenged even further since words start to move around the book as we attempt to read and write. This, by the way, is not a Dyslexia situation as it would be convenient to think it is. Rather it’s a symptom of poor vestibular processing.

Poor balance is also a known distraction. We spend extra-cortical activity trying to ensure we don’t tumble off the chair. Getting up and moving around may help, since it’s easier to achieve balance on the move than when still. Let the kids move around!

5. Eye teaming

When a child’s visual processing skills are weak, it takes extra effort to keep their eyes turned correctly, focused, aligned, and then to recall or process what they’re learning.

As a result, the child may appear to daydream, fidget or simply choose an activity that doesn’t cause as much stress on the visual system. This could also result in frustration or disruptive behaviour.

The child doesn’t understand that something’s wrong; they’re simply adapting to the environment as best they can. The Visual Learning Centre has more on what appears to be ADD, could just be a vision problem.

Good eye teaming enables our eyes to connect and disconnect to see just one object even though each eye carries a distinct field of vision.

We need our eyes to team up anytime we do tasks at close range like reading and writing.

Without good eye teaming, distortions may arise whenever we read and write, words may get blurry, or lines of text cluster together, making it strenuous to concentrate.


Reflex action is the deputy of the brain, and directs myriad movements, thus leaving the higher powers free to attend to the weightier things. (Halleck, 1898)

Children who seem not to be paying attention, may in fact be missing certain essential brain processing functions. The above 5 reasons your child may not be able to concentrate may give you some insight into what’s really going on.

Understanding how to pay attention is not necessarily a matter of choice, even though saying “pay attention” suggests otherwise!

To find out more about how babies and toddlers develop, check out our Development section.

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As an Educational Kinesiologist, Kerri Bainbridge helps children overcome barriers to learning from internal stressors that disrupt receptive learning. Brain Gym® and Kinesiology work together to improve the physical skills required for learning. Kerri works with children experiencing developmental delays, learning and physical challenges such as bed wetting, and social and emotional challenges.

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