Understanding Temperament: Distractibility

Temperament Matters

Do you have children who seem to notice and respond to every sight and sound around them, including those that you had not noticed? Do your children have a hard time getting homework or chores done because they seem to lose track of what they are doing?

On the other hand, do your children seem to take no notice of things going on around them, including your voice?

The extent to which your children are distractible or perceptive is determined in part by their temperamental makeup. Distractibility is one of ten innate traits that every child possesses. Being aware of your children’s unique temperament, and how they respond to the world around them, can help you to modify your parenting and your children’s environment so they can feel and be more successful.


What is Distractibility?

Distractibility refers to how easily, or not so easily, things going on around your children disrupt their thought processes and attention.

  • Some children are highly distractible, noticing every sight and sound around them. When working on a task, they are often side-tracked and have a difficult time focusing. On the positive side, this trait also refers to children’s perceptiveness. Highly distractible children are keen observers of the world around them.

  • Alternatively, some children are unaware of their surroundings and do not get distracted easily by sounds and sights. These children tend to be able to maintain their focus much longer when working on tasks.


How can you determine your children’s degree of distractibility?

Use the following questions to help you identify your children’s level of distractibility. Track your answers on the following scale from one to five:

  • Do your children usually notice sights and sounds that others do not?

  • Do things easily divert them when they set out to do chores?

  • When doing homework or reading, do your children have a hard time focusing on the task?

  • Do they need many reminders to get things done?

  • Do your children have a hard time paying attention when you are speaking to them?

  • If your children get upset, can you easily shift their mood?


No                                                                                               Yes

                     2                     3                        4                         5

 Low distractibility                                                  High distractibility

Not easily diverted                                                      Easily diverted

Unaware of surroundings                                          Very perceptive


Highly Distractible Children

If the majority of your responses fall to the right side of the scale, then you have children who are highly distractible.

Highly distractible children have a hard time focusing on tasks because their attention is often taken off-track by any sounds, sights, and smells in their environment.

    child looking away from board

  • One of the plusses of being distractible is that when children are upset, it is easy to change their mood. They can let anger and upset feelings go more quickly.

    For example, if a store does not have an item they wanted, these children can be quickly redirected to consider a different item.

  • Because of their keen perceptiveness, they often notice the little things that others do not, so they add a new and fresh perspective on simple things like the sunlight streaming through a window and lighting up a picture.

  • With younger children, you can use their distractibility to your benefit to divert their attention when they are upset or when they are about to get into something dangerous.

  • This trait becomes less desirable in older children who need to focus more to stay on task and get schoolwork done. However, the good news is that as these highly distractible children mature, they can develop wide-ranging interests and they can be very versatile and flexible.


Less Distractible Children

child drawing If, on the other hand, most of your responses to the questions above fall toward the left side of the scale, then you have children who are less distractible.

These children do not generally notice all the little things going on around them. They are able to remain focused and can concentrate on tasks for long periods of time.

  • This can be a great trait to possess if your children are doing chores, schoolwork or other tasks. These children are also able to function in busy environments because they are not bothered by what is going on around them.

    For example, in school, they will most likely not be side-tracked by all the stimuli around them (outside noises, other children talking, people walking around the classroom, etc).

  • Being highly focused and not easily diverted can present problems if the child is so tuned in to what he is doing that he is completely unaware of his environment.

    For example, they may not hear a parent or a teacher calling their name. In this case, these children are not intentionally disobeying when they do not come when called; they simply did not notice the call.

It also may be difficult to persuade highly focused children to stop doing something or to get them to change their mind about something.


Things Parents Can Do

  • Know that distractibility is a part of your children’s temperament.

  • Notice how much your children react to noises, sights and smells.

  • Help highly distractible children by:

    • limiting any visual and auditory stimulation when children are working by providing a quiet atmosphere.

    • allowing children ample time to complete tasks, knowing they may be side-tracked along the way.

    • providing many reminders to redirect them to get a job done.

    • coming up with ways to help them stay on track.

    • breaking tasks into smaller pieces and celebrating the completion of these smaller tasks.

    • making lists or charts of routines to keep them on track.

    • praising children when they are able to focus enough to finish tasks.


    Help children who are less distractible (highly focused) by:

    • teaching them to listen for and see what is happening around them.

    • having them acknowledge when someone is trying to get their attention.

    • using a timer when they need to move on from what they are doing may help them to let go of something they are involved with.

    • understanding that they are not deliberately ignoring or disobeying. Being unaware is a part of their temperament.


  • Establish eye contact before you speak or place a hand gently on their arm or shoulder.
    When talking to children who are at either end of this continuum, make sure you have their attention when you talk to them. Keep your words short and simple.

  • Learn to work together.
    Understand how your own temperament, including your own degree of distractibility, fits or does not fit with your children’s temperament and create strategies to help each other.

  • Identify and value your children’s unique temperament.
    Help them to understand the value of their uniqueness.

  • Send messages to your children that help them to feel good about who they are, messages such as:

  • “You are so aware of the world around you.”

    “You notice so many things around you that other people miss.”

    “You need to have the room be very quiet when you are doing your schoolwork”

    “You know how to really focus and get the job done.”



For more information about temperament, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help families do the best job they can to raise their children.

Raising Your Spirited Child by Kurcinka The Difficult Child Understanding Temperament by Schick The Challenging Child by Greenspan

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