The ability to focus for long periods of time, wait patiently, stay seated when it’s expected of you, and not talk out of turn are all skills that we develop as we grow. Kids with ADHD lag well behind their peers in developing these and other skills. But how do you know if you’re child is just developing more slowly than their classmates, or if they actually have ADHD? The short answer: it often takes a skilled professional to answer this question.
The length of time that a child can spend staying focused, seated, or engaged in a single activity increases as they age. As a rule of thumb, a child should be able to stay focused on an activity for two to five minutes multiplied by their age. So, for example, a 4-year-old child should be able to stay focused on an activity for anywhere between eight and twenty minutes. But, this is only a rule of them. Other factors strongly influence attention span, like the child’s level of interest in the activity, the time of day, and fatigue.
A thorough ADHD assessment will assess your child’s behavior and focus within the context of these and other factors. The doctor conducting the assessment will gather information from parents, teachers, and your child. Some of this information will be collected on ratings scales. With these scales the professional is able to compare the ratings your child has received to a database of scores given to thousands of children of the exact same age and gender. This helps everyone have a sense of how your child is doing compared to other children of the exact same age and gender.
Other information will be gathered through interviews, which will help the professional understand the expectations that your child faces every day at school and at home, and how they respond to these expectations. Sometimes, in settings where the behavioral or academic expectations are very high, children who are even just slightly delayed in their ability to focus, or stay seated, etc. may appear to have ADHD. When an adjustment in behavioral or academic expectations, even just for the time being, may alleviate their symptoms.
Lastly, ADHD symptoms exist on a continuum. Just like blood pressure or cholesterol ranges from low to high. At any given time it’s possible your child’s ADHD symptoms appear to be higher than their classmates’. But unless they are causing significant problems at school and at home or in other settings, there’s a good chance that it might not be ADHD. If the symptoms persist for at least 6 months and are causing difficulties for child, then look into getting an ADHD assessment from a licensed clinical psychologist or neuropsychologist in your area.