Why Your Child May Have Trouble Staying Focused

Ahh, spring is in the air…and thoughts wander. Maybe that’s all that’s behind your child’s daydreaming and short attention span. But there are other culprits—two of which are quite common, though often unrecognized—allergies, and vision problems.

My son and I wake up to spring’s fresh air with sneezes and blurry vision—a reaction to pollen. Freshly mowed lawns and the fragrance of gardens in bloom, while beautiful to look at, leave our heads pounding and our sinuses clogged. Perhaps that’s why on this lovely spring day my thoughts have turned to memories of homeschooling—the last minute adjustments to my grand lesson plans in order to accommodate our foggy brains and constant fatigue. I’m also reminded that because of my allergies, I recognized my son’s early symptoms and started treatment. Otherwise, I may have simply written off his complaints as excuses for not doing his work. After all, allergies didn’t seem to keep him from playing games or asking to have friends over.

However, in spite of actual training to recognize the other culprit, and years of spotting it in other children, I completely missed it in my son. After four years of college, persevering in spite of constant health battles, he told an optometrist what he had never bothered to mention to me—headaches and nausea while reading. It’s not as if he’d never had eye exams. In fact, he eventually filled what the doctor said was “such a mild prescription that he might not want to bother.” It wasn’t until he went to an optometrist trained in vision therapy that further testing was recommended. After several months of therapy, voila, no more symptoms.

Both allergies and vision problems can cause any or all of the following physical reactions: headaches, fatigue, blurred vision, dizziness, nausea, irritability, day dreaming, and short attention span. If these symptoms appear at times other than during reading or writing, a physician can quickly test for allergies in common categories. However, if you observe any of the following behaviors as well, have the child examined by an optometrist or ophthalmologist offering vision therapy: “avoidance of near work; frequent loss of place; omits, inserts, or rereads letters/words; confuses similar looking words; failure to recognize the same word in the next sentence; poor reading comprehension; letter or word reversals after first grade; difficulty copying from the chalkboard; poor handwriting, misaligns numbers; book held too close to the eyes; inconsistent or poor sports performance” (PAVE, Parents Active for Vision Education, www.pavevision.org).

I should mention here that I had not observed these difficulties in my son beyond what I considered normal for his age and auditory-kinesthetic learning style. He didn’t like handwriting or workbooks, and preferred I read to him—but he didn’t avoid reading whatever I assigned, could read out loud fluently, and comprehended readily. In his case, the physical clues were the signal. Generally, parents come to me with specific reading-related concerns. If I observe the child blinking a lot, squinting, looking away frequently, or holding the book close, I suggest a vision exam that includes testing for possible vision therapy.

In one case, a nine-year-old student was having trouble learning to read and his mother wondered if he had a learning disability. I first suggested a multi-sensory approach to phonics and more frequent, but short, lessons totaling two hours per day. His reading improved. A few years later, I tutored him and became concerned at his lack of reading fluency and his difficulty with math word problems. He wore glasses, but had not been tested for vision therapy since his doctor hadn’t offered that option. At my recommendation, they went for a vision therapy exam. Besides therapy, he was given a new prescription which included a bifocal that would reduce eye strain. Problem solved—when he remembers to wear his glasses.

I’ve worked for several years with a mom homeschooling two boys with learning disabilities. They have always had regular medical exams, including hearing and vision checks. In fact, both, now teens, have worn glasses for years. Consequently, problems with reading, reading comprehension, and handwriting were easily explained as part of a learning disability. Naturally, we adjusted resources and teaching techniques to address their strengths and weaknesses. But recently, the family went to an optometrist trained in vision therapy. As expected, both boys were given new prescriptions. However, they also started several months of vision therapy. Week by week their handwriting has improved and one of the boys no longer needs the large print books.

I realize that my examples make it seem as if a doctor trained in vision therapy will automatically find a reason to recommend it. Be assured that’s not the case. I also know of situations where the doctor did not think an additional exam was needed, and others where, after extensive examination, vision problems were ruled out as the culprit. Rather, I’ve chosen these examples to illustrate that it’s quite possible to have more than one contributing factor that must be addressed before a child can manage his school work.

On the other hand, sometimes the problem is straight-forward. Years ago I was called into a classroom to observe a student because the teacher had noticed a major behavioral change—from outgoing and eager to sullen and inattentive. I was asked to speak with the student and parent in order to find out if there had been any abuse. As it turned out, the student simply had allergies to springtime pollens. Her medication had removed the obvious signs—red eyes, sneezing, runny nose—but hadn’t cured her foggy mind or fatigue.

Allergies don’t seem like a big deal to anyone unaffected. But imagine yourself with a severe head cold or sinus infection—do you feel like studying or solving difficult problems? When sleep alludes you, would you enjoy watching a video? Entering a discussion? Playing a game? In other words, would your behavior suggest that you can handle things, but you just don’t want to? For some, a dusty room, carpeted house, or a pet is all it takes to cause severe congestion. Florescent lights, cigarette smoke, or scents from soaps, cleaning supplies, or perfume can all cause distracting headaches. A moldy basement, even if it’s finished as a classroom or den, can cause both headaches and stuffiness.

Food allergies are more difficult to spot, and require avoidance of the offending food as a treatment. One mother discovered, through trial and error, that her young son seemed to be especially disruptive and unable to focus when he had wheat—cereal, toast, pizza—typical breakfast and lunch foods. Eventually, she found out the allergy was actually to gluten, which is especially high in wheat, but found in most grains. It’s time-consuming to cook a gluten-free diet, but the result for this family has been a calm child able to concentrate. There has been a great deal of research in autism suggesting that for some, symptoms improve when fed a gluten-free diet. (Biological Treatments for Autism and PDD by William Shaw, Ph.D. provides current, comprehensive information on a variety of tests and treatments, including allergies.)

Our children want to succeed just as much as we want them to. Since it is likely that they have no idea why concentrating is difficult, it’s up to us to look for ways to help them. Too often kids are scolded for being deliberately defiant, stubborn, or lazy when they don’t mean to disobey, they are just reacting to physical symptoms. Hopefully, this column will alert some parents to possibilities that haven’t been considered.