Inattentive ADHD in Children: How to Recognize the Signs

These symptoms of this ADHD subtype are not as well-known and can be easy to miss.

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By now, most adults (especially parents and teachers) are pretty familiar at the telltale symptoms of ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The rambunctious, restless, impulsive behavior inevitably draws attention to itself, especially in structured settings like school. (Learn more about the difference between ADHD and just “being fidgety.”)

While this type of brain disorder gets a lot of attention, another subtype of ADHD can more commonly fly under the radar. Inattentive ADHD, formerly known as ADD, is easy to miss in children, even byadults who spend tons of time with them.

You can categorize ADHD into three main types, according to Yamalis Diaz, PhD, psychologist at NYU Langone Health:

  • ADHD, predominantly inattentive subtype

  • ADHD, predominantly hyperactive/impulsive subtype

  • Combined subtype

Find out more about the three types of ADHD here.

Symptoms of Inattentive ADHD

Unlike the hyperactive behaviors typically associated with ADHD, the inattentive subtype includes less noticeable symptoms. Here are signs you may notice in a child with inattentive ADHD, according to Khadijah Watkins, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine.

  • Distractibility

  • Daydreaming

  • Disorganization

  • Appearing “off-task”

Many of these behaviors occur silently and do not necessarily catch the attention of parents or teachers. “With inattention, a lot of times these kids are not noticed right away, because they don’t cause any real trouble,” says Susan Samuels, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine. “They’re just not focused so much in school.”

Since it’s hard to “see” inattention, you can also look for these clues:

  • Not finishing homework or chores

  • Rushing through schoolwork and making careless mistakes

  • Full and messy backpacks

  • Messy desks

  • Difficulty finding things and frequently losing things

  • Zoning out during conversations

  • Avoiding or disliking tasks that require extended mental effort

  • Doodling instead of taking notes

How Inattentive ADHD Affects Children

Some kids with inattentive ADHD may be able to get by in school despite their challenges focusing—at least for a while.  “Naturally smart children can sometimes mask that difficulty until the natural intelligence is outweighed by new content that needs to be learned,” says Dr. Diaz.

Children may increasingly struggle to keep up in school. Even worse, teachers may be unsympathetic if they incorrectly perceive the student as lazy or apathetic (a common misconception of people with inattentive ADHD).

Kids with inattentive ADHD may also struggle socially. “It’s hard for them to keep up with friends, [and] it’s hard for them to keep up with rules,” says Dr. Watkins. For example, a child with inattentive ADHD may be daydreaming when a friend passes them a football, or they might be doodling or zoning out when their group partners are doing all the work. Children might not always be patient, understanding, or forgiving of these off-task behaviors.

It can be just as frustrating to the social dynamic at home. Parents can become understandably frustrated by their kid’s “careless” mistakes on schoolwork, disorganized backpacks and bedrooms, poor grades from missing or incomplete assignments, or even perceived laziness.

How Inattentive ADHD Is Treated

“ADHD is treated primarily with medications. There are also some therapies that can be helpful,” says Dr. Samuels. Find out more information about medication options for ADHD.

Some medications may not treat all aspects of a child’s inattentive ADHD. They may need therapy to help them learn skills or coping strategies to organize their folders better, manage time, focus in class, or finish tasks. These will be important skills as they age, while their classwork becomes more demanding and they are expected to work more independently.

Inattentive ADHD often goes unnoticed—and thus untreated—until adulthood. (Here are signs of inattentive ADHD in adults.) Catching ADHD early can help a child learn crucial skills that can put them on a better path as they progress through school and beyond.