Is it ADHD? is crucial to keep in mind that inattentiveness may not always be the result of ADHD. Inattentiveness often masks another cognitive weakness and manifests as a symptom of said weakness. 

If you are reading this you might think that one of your students, your children, or even yourself, have ADHD. You have probably spotted the most famous symptom (inattentiveness) and are looking for a way to confirm this diagnosis. You wouldn’t be alone in this; according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, just one generation ago ADHD affected approximately one in 25 students in the United States. Today, one in five high school boys are diagnosed with ADHD1. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that inattentiveness may not always be the result of ADHD. Inattentiveness often masks another cognitive weakness and manifests as a symptom of said weakness. This is why only mental health professionals should be making this diagnosis as it is not uncommon for inattentiveness to be misunderstood or misattributed.

Let us be clear, we are not saying ADHD doesn’t exist or that nobody has ADHD. What we mean to do is shed light on the fact that inattentiveness can be caused by a myriad of different situations, most of which don’t include having ADHD. Understanding the root of inattentiveness is critical to identifying a valid approach to improving it.

Attention doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it doesn’t work in isolation. In fact, attention is deeply entangled with various different cognitive skills, like processing speed, working memory, executive function and many more. Because we rely on a host of interdependent cognitive skills to process information and learn, performance is sometimes the result of the least developed skill or ability. This can be the case with attention. For example, if a teacher is speaking so fast that the student’s processing speed can’t keep up, this student might stop paying attention altogether. Not because their attention isn’t working properly but because some other situation is causing a domino effect that is expressed through inattentiveness. In other words, inattentiveness is a symptom of a learning struggle rather than the root cause of the struggle, though it is often misdiagnosed.

Dr. Diane McGuinness, a renowned cognitive psychologist, puts it clear when she says: “Attentional control has become an important issue in American schools due to the belief that ‘deficits in attention’ are causing learning failure. This overly simplistic notion seems immune to twenty years of scientific research […] Instead, research has shown the opposite: learning failure causes the inability to attend. The worse you are at something, the harder it is to keep your attention focused on what you are doing. When we are bad at something, our brain burns more glucose in more brain regions. Burning glucose uses ‘energy’ and high, continuous expenditure of mental energy is exhausting. Frustration also reduces mental energy, because it interferes with concentration.”2 Based on this, it is easy to see that for many students, instead of attentional difficulty causing learning failure, failure to learn causes frustration, disinterest, and inattention.

Furthermore, there are other possible causes of inattention that we should always keep in mind. Some of these are nutrition and sleep, technology use and information overload, among many others. 

To summarize, it is important to remember that while inattentiveness might be an indicator of ADHD, it is not the only possible explanation. Inattentiveness is a complex topic because there are many potential root causes. This is problematic, as students who become inattentive as a result of learning failures may be misdiagnosed and treated for ADHD or other learning disorders, when the inattentiveness may be rooted elsewhere. It is crucial that we always analyze inattention with a comprehensive approach. 


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): data & statistics. New data: medication and behavior treatment.
  2. McGuinness, D. (1999). Why our children can’t read and what we can do about it: A scientific revolution in reading. Simon & Schuster.
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