Neurodiversity in Children

My 6 yr-old has attention problems

Published: 08 Oct 2013
My 6 yr-old has attention problems

Hi Dr Justin,

I think I have an issue with my 6yo daughter. We were a Defence family and until last year moved around frequently. She ended up at some pretty bad daycare centres (I believe they were not stimulating for her, and the would complain about her not sitting still and concentrating but wouldn’t help me work out the problems).

She ended up needing glasses at the age of 4, which seemed to have helped a bit. Last year in Prep she was at a bad state school (they had 4 teachers in the year, and she learned nothing). I taught her how to read and was working on her spelling (even correcting the grammar of the teachers). It was last year we found out she had a lazy eye and are now in the process of treating this. I believe that as it was pretty much a write off last year she learnt to play dumb, and became lazy.

This year we have moved to our final place, and have enrolled her at a private school in year 1. She is disruptive in class (she keeps touching things, playing with things and will not sit still), she is a kinesthetic learner and the teacher has tried to work with her on this. Due to not learning anything last year she is behind and has been getting help with her writing etc.

Our issues mainly are the following:

  • She wets herself at school frequently (says she is too busy playing, my husband believes she is lazy and tell her so)
  • She will read well one week and the next month revert back to not being able to, sooking and making silly noises (it seems she “forgets” the rules and what the words are even though she knows them)
  • She can be a charming 6yo some days and others is constantly in trouble, acting in a toddler like fashion (we also have a 3yo) and forgetting all sorts including table manners, manners etc My husband due to being severely injured in the Defence is now a stay at home Dad while I work and study. He feels like he is a failure and has nearly given up on her. I have suggested taking her to a doctor to see if there is anything wrong. Her hearing is fine but it was suggested we wait till the end of the year for testing for auditory processing.

I really need help on this as I feel bad that I’m working and paying for a private education where she just doesn’t seem to want to learn. We have recently enrolled her in Girl Guides and I will be enrolling her into tae-kwon-do. I’m thinking that the discipline of these activities and the learning will help encourage her to mature and act better than what she has been.

Thank you for your help


Hi SP,

There’s a lot to talk about in relation to your daughter. Because of space requirements I will be brief but attempt to address all of your concerns. As with all online advice, my comments are general as your email doesn’t provide sufficient detail for me to give specific prescriptions based on your circumstances.


There is no doubt that moving frequently can have an impact on your daughter’s well-being, social skills, and academic outcomes. Children thrive with predictability and stability, and moving undermines those attributes – particularly when you’re with Defence and the moves may be quite significant. So it’s great that you now have some certainty around your residence. This will help things settle down much faster than if you were still transient.


Your daughter’s previous two years of schooling has been less than ideal. My feeling is that is has almost certainly had an effect on the way that she is managing her new school environment. I suspect that her lack of progress last year (for all the reasons you mentioned) will be related to her present inattentiveness and academic challenges. However, with the right support this will be a short term challenge and she will settle in and catch up.

I recommend that you develop a good relationship with your daughter’s teacher and share your concerns with that teacher. As much as possible, share your victories and achievements. You may find your daughter is achieving much more than you realise. It’s easy to notice all of the deficiencies and overlook the victories. Three other thoughts in relation to schooling:

First, I know private school costs can be prohibitive. However, with the limited information I have from your email, I believe it would be counter-productive to move her again. While the costs can be significant, another move is unlikely to be helpful and may actually reinforce (in your daughter’s mind) the idea that her identity is one of being a problem and a failure. It seems to me that stability and persistence will be more likely to lead to successful outcomes.

Second, I encourage you to find ways to identify your daughter’s strengths. Talk with your daughter’s teacher about what those strengths may be and discuss ways that those strengths might be utilised in the classroom. Using strengths is a sure-fire way to make our kids (and us) feel strong, competent, successful, and happy. (I recommend you do this as an exercise with you, your husband, and your daughter first. There is a survey that can help identify character strengths, but your daughter is presently too young to complete it… however, playing around with some of the questions may provide you with some insights or ideas, so visit this link for more info. Kids should be ten before it becomes more helpful.)

Third, some profound and compelling research on ‘gratitude’ in education suggests that if your daughter’s teacher finds ways to express gratitude to her class (and your daughter), the learning environment and the class’s academic outcomes can be improved. You may want to have a chat with the teacher, and take a look at a book titled “Gratitude in Education” by Kerry Howells.

I think that the school challenges you face will be worked through in the short to medium term with a positive focus and strong school-home relationships.

Daytime wetting

While this is a perplexing and often humiliating and embarrassing problem, it is not entirely uncommon. In fact, it is more likely in girls, and a small percentage of children continue to have some wetting challenges up to and including during year 1 and sometimes year 2 at school.

This diurnal enuresis (daytime wetting) can sometimes be related to a urinary tract infection, or in some cases it may be caused by emotional stressors.

I recommend a different approach to that of your husband. Suggesting that she is lazy may be (or may not be) accurate. Either way, though, telling her that she is lazy will only reinforce the idea that she is lazy, as well as incompetent, and perhaps even unworthy.

Instead, I suggest a low/no pressure approach with lots of understanding and compassion. Next time it happens (and the time after that, etc), softly and kindly say, “Not to worry. Let’s get that cleaned up.” And let it go. You might check to see if she’s ok. You can even let her know that you discovered online that there are lots of kids who have this little challenge. Then reassure her that you know she’ll grow out of it when she’s ready.

It seems that an accepting attitude is more likely to lead to the behaviour stopping than a demanding attitude.


You are having ups and downs here. What matters most is that you are doing it! Patience and consistency are the key here.

As you read (without pressure and demands that it be perfect) in a supportive and positive environment, and make reading a special time for you both, she’ll enjoy it more. Chunk it into manageable bits – not too long at any one time.

And DUMP THE READING CHART! Don’t be beholden to a reading chart or wheel demanding you read X number of pages or minutes. Just read because it’s fun. Read what feels good for your daughter. And promise her that when she finishes one book you’ll get her another one that’s just as fun.

Toddler Behaviour

Your daughter is showing some toddler-like behaviour. I think she is craving attention. She’s had a tough few years with moving and educational challenges – and having to wear glasses (which can be a big deal for many kids). Remember, too, that on average, children don’t learn to really regulate their behaviour until around 7-8 years. So she’s still learning. Treat her gently....

Extra-curricular activities

I think you’re spot on here. Be persistent and firm – but also recognise that if she doesn’t fall in love with an activity and she persists for a reasonable time, you might find something else she’s more inspired by. (But remind her that to be good at anything requires lots of practise and hard work.)

It’s easy to feel like a failure with so many challenging circumstances in your daughter’s life. But look at things from her perspective. If you (or your husband) feel like a failure, how must she be feeling? And how do your feelings (or your husband’s) reinforce certain feelings in her?

Think about what you’re expecting of her. She is only six years old. And she has been through a lot. Right now she needs certainty and stability and predictability. She needs parents who have faith in her ability to overcome obstacles. She needs support, love and encouragement. And perhaps most of all, she needs to know her mum and dad see her, not as a pain, but as a person with real feelings, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. I know you feel that way about her, and as she feels that from you, I hope you see your little girl blossom and grow to be amazing.


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