How Do I Know if My Child Has ADHD or Is Just Distractible?

Is your child scattered, disorganized, and struggling to finish assignments? Discover the signs that indicate if your child has ADHD.
How Do I Know if My Child Has ADHD or Is Just Distractible?
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 21 May, 2023

Today, we’re increasingly aware of the importance of detecting children’s special educational needs, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, greater awareness can also lead to incorrect labeling of children. This is why we want to help you know if your child has ADHD or is just distractible.

Social media is contributing to moms and dads worrying about this, as there’s a multitude of posts that provide incomplete facts about ADHD. Upon seeing their children reflected in the signs shown, they assume that the child has this condition. But a video isn’t a reliable source for a diagnosis and it’s possible that your child is just distractible.

The best thing to do is always to take your child to a specialized professional to find out more accurately if they suffer from ADHD. To find out what may be happening, we invite you to keep reading.

The differences between children with ADHD and distractible children

It’s important to distinguish between when a child has ADHD and when they’re simply distractible, as the treatment and attention they require may be different. As such, there are some key differences between the two groups that you can consider.

Attentional capacity is a spectrum

It’s worth noting that attentional capacity isn’t a “yes or no” category. In other words, it’s not that some children pay attention and others don’t. Rather, they all do so to different degrees. For example, according to Jesús Beltrán in his book Procesos,  Estrategias y Técnicas de Aprendizaje (Processes, Strategies and Learning Techniques), a child’s ability to pay attention is closely related to the motivation they feel for the task.

This implies that any child can become distracted, scattered, or lose concentration at times. The key is how often this happens.

To be ADHD, inattention must be pronounced and a recurring problem that interferes with the child’s daily life. For example, it affects school performance, family life, or peer relationships. This is a key difference between children who have the disorder and children who don’t. Ask yourself, is your child’s life being significantly affected?

ADHD is a neurodivergence

Another point to consider is the fact that ADHD isn’t a disease, but a neurodivergence. That is, when a child has ADHD, their brain presents differences on an anatomical and functional level, as explained by the Child Mind Institute.

This causes them to process information and relate to the environment in a different way. These differences are part of them and are therefore present from the beginning, which gives us another difference to consider.

If your child is quite distractible, but wasn’t so distractible before and didn’t have the difficulties they have now, it’s possible that this is due to other causes. For example, anxiety and depression can also affect attention.

If your child is going through a difficult time or through certain changes, if there’s tension in the family, if they’re being bullied, or if they’re restless or worried about something, they may be more scattered and distracted.

A young girl who's having a hard time focusing.
Sometimes children can be distracted and distant due to situations that occur in their lives.

How does attention fail in distracted children with ADHD?

It’s important to know that ADHD has different subtypes, and inattention isn’t always the most relevant or striking symptom. For example, as stated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), in the hyperactive-impulsive subtype, there’s a predominance of symptoms related to motor agitation and lack of impulse control.

However, even when attention fails (in the inattentive or combined subtype) it does so in a particular way. And it’s different from what happens with a child who’s distractible.

Specifically, in ADHD, there’s an alteration in selective attention (responsible for filtering out irrelevant stimuli to focus on the goal) and in sustained attention (which allows concentration over a prolonged period). Therefore, a child with this condition isn’t able to keep their attention fixed on a task for the time it requires.

In addition, they’re interrupted by external stimuli such as noises, people, or images, or internal stimuli such as their own ideas and thoughts.

On the other hand, a child who’s distractable is likely not to focus on what they’re doing and therefore forget where they left their coat or where they were in school. However, they can pay attention to the activity and, once they do, they perform without difficulty.

Signs to detect inattention in ADHD

In addition to the above, there are certain signs that can help us differentiate whether a child has ADHD or is just distractible. Remember that these don’t constitute a diagnosis; however, they can serve as a guide.


The child needs external pressure to perform a task and complete it. In general, they tend to leave everything to the last minute, most often those activities that require a lot of attention and concentration.


It’s difficult for them to organize their ideas and to know which tasks are most important or have priority, and they change or jump from one task to another without having completed them. Sometimes this causes frustration and demotivation.

Focusing failures

It’s difficult for the child to maintain focus when paying attention or reading a text, so they get distracted and need to be reminded and redirected to the task. They’re inconsistent and therefore lose the desire to do their homework.

Alertness and information processing

They may become drowsy or bored easily. Few tasks motivate them, and they burn out easily when an activity requires them to think hard or concentrate. In addition, they process information more slowly and often incompletely.

Alterations in working memory

They find it difficult to incorporate information and keep it active while completing the task at hand. Therefore, it’s difficult to follow instructions and guidelines, keep several elements in mind at the same time, or complete sequences.

A child who's distracted from his homework.
Children with ADHD find it difficult to stay focused on their activities.

How to know if your child has ADHD or is just distractible?

In conclusion, to speak of ADHD, inattention must be severe and cause problems in the child’s daily functioning. It must be present since childhood and not just a recent development. It must affect their level of alertness and their selective and sustained attention.

Remember that within ADHD, there are different subtypes, and inattention is only one of them. Therefore, inattention may not be the main symptom. In addition, even if it is, there may be other manifestations of impulsivity and hyperactivity.

So, to be sure of what’s happening, it’s best to consult a specialist. Only a professional can confirm the diagnosis after a personalized evaluation and will be able to give you an accurate answer as to whether your child has ADHD or is just distractible.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • American Psychological Association [APA]. (2014). Manual de diagnóstico y estadístico de los trastornos mentales (DSM-5).
  • Álava, S., Cantero-García, M., Garrido-Hernansaiz, H., Sánchez-Iglesias, I., & Santacreu, J. (2021). Atención Sostenida y Selectiva en subtipos de TDAH y en Trastorno de Aprendizaje: una comparación clínica. Electronic Journal of Research in Education Psychology19(53), 117-144.
  • Beltrán, J. (2002) Procesos, Estrategias y Técnicas de Aprendizaje. Ed. Síntesis, Madrid, España.
  • Nickolaidis, PhD, A. (2023, March 6). How is the ADHD brain different? Child Mind Institute.
  • Travella, J. (2001). Síndrome de atención dispersa, hiperactividad e impulsividad en pacientes adultos (ADHD). Revista Argentina de Clínica Neuropsiquiátrica10(2), 5.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.