A Guide to ADHD Symptoms

Behaviors Parents Should Keep an Eye Out For

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. But how can a parent distinguish between normal curiosity and liveliness and a true inability to sit still? Or recognize when a child's mind is wandering simply because he's daydreaming, as all kids do, or simply isn't interested in a topic being discussed or a task at hand rather than because he isn't able to stay focused? 

Pediatricians and other experts turn to a variety of ADHD checklists of symptoms and other criteria to diagnose ADHD and to evaluate a child's progress, but it can be helpful for parents to have a sense of what the symptoms look like themselves. 

ADHD Symptoms

ADHD is sometimes hard to recognize, especially when kids aren't hyperactive.
Do you know how to recognize the symptoms of ADHD?. Photo by Digital Vision/Getty Images

ADHD symptoms are typically grouped into two major categories:

  • Inattention (when children have trouble paying attention and get easily distracted)
  • Hyperactivity (when kids who are always on the go, impulsive, or doing things without really thinking about them 

Some children just have one type of ADHD symptom; for example, children with ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type simply have trouble paying attention and get distracted, but they aren't hyperactive or impulsive. Other kids may have ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type. And still others have all of the major ADHD symptoms, in which case they're diagnosed as having ADHD, Combined Type.

To be diagnosed with any of these types of ADHD, a child needs to meet criteria other than inattention or hyperactivity. The symptoms must have been present for at least six months, have begun before the child turned 12, be present and cause an impairment in more than one setting—for example, both at home and at school.

A child who doesn't fit all of these descriptions may be dealing with something other than ADHD, such as learning disability like dyslexia. Note, however, that some kids have both ADHD and a learning disability.

What Does Inattention Look LIke?

A boy getting distracted at school.
Does your child get easily distracted when trying to do his school work?. Photo by Getty Images

A child with ADHD will have at least six of these symptoms of inattention:

  • Fail to give close attention to details or may make careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities
  • Have difficulty staying focused on tasks or play activities 
  • Not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Not follow through on instructions and may fail to finish schoolwork or chores
  • Find it hard to organize tasks and activities
  • Avoid, dislike, or be reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (such as homework)
  • Lose things—toys, school assignments, pencils, books, etc.
  • Be easily distracted by outside stimuli
  • Forget things during daily activities

Defining Hyperactivity and Impulsivity

A boy on the go, overwhelming his parents.
Boys will be boys, but they shouldn't be running always be on the go as they get older... Photo by John Lund/Tom Penpark/Getty Images

A child with ADHD will have at least six of these symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity:

  • Fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in his seat
  • Gets out of chair in class or other situations in which he's supposed to stay seated
  • Runs around or climbs too much when it's inappropriate
  • Has trouble playing quietly
  • Is always on the go or acts as if he's "driven by a motor"
  • Talks too much
  • Blurts out answers to questions before they've been completed
  • Has difficulty waiting his turn
  • Interrupts or intrudes on others (such as butting into conversations or games)

Does Your Child Have ADHD?

A distracted child in art class.
Is this girl just daydreaming or could she have ADHD?. Photo by Getty Images

Although there is a perception that ADHD is overdiagnosed and that kids are overmedicated, in many areas, ADHD actually goes undiagnosed.

For that reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians evaluate children between the ages of 4 and 18  for ADHD if they have "academic or behavioral problems and symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity.

ADHD Symptom Checklists

A mom filling out a form about her child at her pediatrician's office.
The parent versions of the ADHD checklists will help evaluate for ADHD symptoms at home. Photo by RichLegg/Getty Images

ADHD symptom checklists are one of main tools pediatricians  use to evaluate a child for ADHD. These checklists also are often used to follow measure a child's progress after he is diagnosed and has begun treatment.

ADHD symptom checklists include:

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