Overactivity or Difficulty Paying Attention

Many children of all ages have difficulty paying attention or controlling their activity level from time to time. Such difficulties may be particularly noticeable in young children, ages 6 years or younger. This is because parts of the brain that control behavior and attention are still developing at this age. In fact, these abilities continue to develop until children are between 10 and 12 years old. Additionally, it is not uncommon for a child’s ability to concentrate and control behavior to be temporarily affected by changes in routine (e.g., sleep schedule) or environment (e.g., new home, new school).

In some cases, a child’s overactivity and difficulty paying attention may be severe or persist over time. When these problems interfere with learning and relationships, an evaluation by a professional may be needed.

Checklist of Symptoms

Below are lists of symptoms that children with inattention or hyperactivity often show. When considering whether you’ve noticed these behaviors in a child, ask yourself if the behaviors:

  • Have been happening for at least 6 months
  • Happen in more than one place (e.g., home, school, daycare)
  • Are causing significant problems for your child


  • Difficulty sustaining attention during tasks or play
  • Does not pay attention to details or makes careless mistakes
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Does not follow through on instructions or does not finish activities
  • Difficulty organizing activities or school work
  • Often loses things or is forgetful
  • Easily distracted


  • Often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat
  • Has difficulty staying seated in class or other situations in which this is expected
  • Often runs around or climbs excessively on things
  • Seems to be in constant motion, always “on the go”
  • Has difficulty playing quietly
  • Talks excessively


  • Often blurts out answers
  • Often interrupts others during conversations or games
  • Has difficulty waiting or taking turns in school and play situations

Possible Diagnoses or Explanations of Behavior

As discussed above, difficulties with attention and overactivity can occur for a number of reasons. This includes both high and low intellectual abilities. Children with high intelligence who are placed in a school environment that is not challenging enough may appear inattentive or restless due to boredom. Children with an intellectual disability may also show inattention if the academic setting is too challenging for their ability level.

Below are a few common childhood disorders that could cause problems with attention and overactivity. Click on the disorder name to learn more about it from the A-Z Disorder Guide provided by the NYU Child Study Center.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Approximately 3 to 7 percent of school-age children have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which causes a child to have difficulty staying focused and controlling their energy and behavior. Children with ADHD often have problems at home, school and with friends.

Learning Disorder

Children who have a learning disability often feel restless and impatient at school because of their difficulties understanding and completing academic tasks. They may also try to avoid tasks that they struggle with.

Anxiety Disorder

Children who have an anxiety disorder may have difficulty paying attention due to their worrying and nervousness. They may also feel restless and on edge, which can make them fidgety and make it difficult for them to sit still.

Depression/Bipolar Disorder     

Mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, can also affect a child’s motivation to complete tasks or activities and their ability to concentrate.

Learn about Evaluation and Treatment of mental health problems among children.



Information provided on this website about common emotional and behavioral problems experienced by children is drawn from sources including:

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Boston Bar Association. (2009). The Parents' How-to Guide to Children's Mental Health Services in Massachusetts (2nd edition). Boston: Author.  URL:http://www.bostonbar.org/theguide/bba_theguide_jan2009.pdf. Accessed: 2010-12-09. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5ur8YAB1Z)

Klimkeit, E. I., Mattingley, J. B., Sheppard, D. M., Farrow, M., Bradshaw, J. L. (2004). Examining the Development of Attention and Executive Functions in Children with a Novel Paradigm. Child Neuropsychology, 10 (3), 201-211.

NYU Child Study Center. A-Z Disorder Guide. URL:http://www.aboutourkids.org/families/disorders_treatments/az_disorder_guide. Accessed: 2010-12-09. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5ur83VhUw)


Date reviewed October 29, 2014