Some children step into a classroom and shine. Their performance is consistently stellar in all subjects and activities in school: academically, behaviorally and socially. Others are just as bright and capable, but sometimes drop the ball when it comes to listening to the teacher and focusing on their work.

It can be a challenge for teachers and parents to pinpoint the cause of a child’s inability — or refusal — to focus in the classroom.

When my 7-year-old started having trouble focusing at school, I did not think much of it. I sternly told her to pay more attention. But my words did not resonate, apparently. I began getting emails from the teacher about my daughter’s behavior. She was frequently off task, chatting with friends or moving around the classroom when she was not supposed to, and she was not putting enough effort into her work.

When she was given a class assignment to write a few sentences about something on her mind, she produced an eloquent but harsh letter about how much she despised everything at school. That’s when I knew it was time to meet with the teacher.

Completely embarrassed, I reassured the teacher that my daughter loves being in her class and that the letter assignment was no reflection on her. She did not take offense. I learned that the teacher shared my growing concern over my daughter’s seeming indifference about her education. I did not expect her to enjoy everything about school, but her inattention to learning and directions, and her overall disdain for school, gave me pause.

Was I not paying enough attention to her needs? Was I punishing her too harshly? Too leniently? This was an issue on and off for nearly the whole school year. Was it an early indication of a behavioral disorder?

I tried everything to get my child to pay attention in class. Light punishments and more harsh punishments, including spankings, taking away screen time, restriction and timeouts. Nothing registered. I got angry because I believed she was deliberately disobeying me. Once, when I asked her to explain her poor performance in class and she responded nonchalantly, I had to step outside my house before I lost my cool.

At a loss, I did some research. And I realized the reason for my child’s lack of focus at school was right in front of me each time I talked to her. According to an article on, parents should get into the habit of listening, and listening well, to children. Some kids need several conversations to be able to fully express their thoughts and feelings and to explain the motivation for their actions.

When I realized this, I corrected my own behavior. I recalled all of the excuses my daughter had given me over the months of discussions. The only difference was, instead of looking for holes and inflated stories in her explanations, I looked for recurring themes in what she said.

Over time, I saw a pattern in the reasons: disruptive classmates, boring topics, wanting attention and, my favorite, being dramatic. But what I focused on the most was the disruptive behavior of others. I knew my daughter was a social butterfly, but if her friends were coming between her and her work, I had to put a stop to that.

Her teacher and I decided to move her desk to a more secluded area of the classroom. According to an article on, children with attention challenges tend to perform better with secluded seating in class, so I was optimistic that this would help. To address what she called “boring” subjects (i.e. reading), I recalled how much she loved Link and Mega Man from video games, and I got some age-appropriate books based on her favorite video-game characters.

These changes, which stemmed from simply listening to my child, resulted in an immediate improvement in her behavior. The emails from the teacher stopped. She now happily reads books. She completes her work better in the more quiet seating arrangement, and, best of all, she loves the changes. She likes being able to focus on work without the distraction of others, and she no longer feels the need to act out for attention. She does not enjoy all of the topics they cover in school, but she certainly likes the immediate feeling of accomplishment she gets when she does her work right.

This experience showed me that I must listen more holistically to my children. Being on the lookout for obvious lies and holes in their stories is not enough. We have to identify the recurring topics that, when pieced together, could indirectly explain things to us. Young children do not have the maturity to give specifics on the reasons for their behavior, and parents should not expect that. We have to be able to figure out the common themes by listening to our children.

This shift in approach has resulted in positive changes for me, too. I no longer stress so much about the complexities of my children’s behavior. I do not find myself yelling, screaming or pulling at my hair over why my child would not do her work. Something as simple as listening more carefully has made a world of difference in her education, and my life.

Monica Leftwich is a freelance writer who covers single parenting, finance and women’s health. Find her at or on Twitter: @Moleftwich.

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