What Are the Common Causes of a Short Attention Span?

Attention span is the amount of time a person is able to actively attend to a single task before becoming distracted or losing productivity. There are a number of potential reasons why a child or adult may not be able to pay attention to tasks for a long period of time. These include a cognitive learning disability, attention deficit disorder (ADD), information overload and temperament.

Children with delays in neurological, or brain development, are far more likely to have a short attention span. If particular areas of the brain are underdeveloped or lacking in nervous system connections, it may be more difficult to process incoming information and decide what to do with it. Furthermore, a learning disability may make tasks more difficult to understand, leading to frustration and a lack of motivation to complete the activity. If a processing disorder exists, such as the inability to process verbal directions, the child may have problems retaining and recalling what it is he or she is supposed to do.

A growing problem that may lead to a short attention span is information overload. This involves the overexposure of children and adults to television and other media. Modern media exposes the brain to vast amounts of information in rapid succession. This type of stimulation can lead to difficulties with concentration in other daily tasks. Television in particular requires only passive attention, while most other activities at work and school require active participation and thought.


One of the most common causes of attention problems is ADD. This diagnosis may also be accompanied by hyperactivity, making staying focused on one task even more difficult. ADD is more common in young boys, but can occur in many different types of children and age groups. Children should be able to concentrate on the same task for about three to five minutes for each year of life, and anything significantly less than this may be an indication of a short attention span. ADD is related to cognitive development and results in issues with self-control and regulation.

A person's temperament has a lot to do with how long he or she can concentrate on a task. Some people are genetically predisposed to be less impulsive and more focused, while others are more predisposed to move from activity to activity and seek out new stimuli regularly. Temperament cannot be changed, but coping mechanisms can be introduced to encourage longer attention spans. Any concerns about short attention span should be relayed to a child's doctor, who may recommend further testing or an educational evaluation.


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Post 4

Sometimes, a child with a very imaginative mind may seem to have a short span of attention. If a child is very intelligent and creative, she may be ignoring what is going on in class because she already understands it perfectly and is bored with the topic.

She may have moved onto thinking deeper thoughts in her head, either about the subject at hand or about something totally different. There are advanced classes available for gifted students, but sadly, not all of them pass the standardized entrance exam, and many advanced students go unplaced.

So, a short span of attention isn't always an indicator of a problem. It may just be that the person has mentally outgrown her current situation.

Post 3

I think watching a lot of TV makes it harder for kids to pay attention in class. They get so used to having information fed to them through a screen that their active learning muscles become weak from lack of use!

If I ever have a kid, I'm going to limit his time watching TV and make him do plenty of mental activities, even before he goes to school. My parents did this for me, and it helped me become a straight A student.

Post 2

@Kristee – That is true, but sometimes even simple cognitive disorders can be crippling to everyday life. My husband has ADD, and it has made his life difficult.

Of course, he can hold a job and function on a daily basis, but everything is harder for him. He forgets things all the time, and he can't finish tasks at home, because he is continually being distracted by other things and new thoughts.

He basically lives a run-on sentence. His focus has no punctuation!

He is currently taking a stimulant, which calms his mind down and helps him focus. If someone without ADD were to take this stimulant, they would become hyperactive, so it's strange how someone who is already hyper needs a stimulant to calm down.

Post 1

I know several adults who are like children when it comes to their attention spans. I've never really dug deep into the reasons behind their inability to stay focused, but it is very possible that they might have some sort of mental disorder.

Usually, when someone mentions a disorder, we tend to think of something extreme like schizophrenia. A disorder simply means that something is out of whack, and it doesn't mean that the person is incapable of living life.

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