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Sensitivity in the Classroom

It’s that time of year again.

The kids are getting settled into the new school year. They’re getting to know their teachers and classmates, and the transitions to and from school are starting to smooth out.

It’s also the time of year that teachers start noticing that there’s something different about our sensitive kids. If you have settled into the rhythm of the school year only to receive a concerned email from your child’s teacher, noting that they struggle to focus on transitions or tend to play alone more than the other kids, you are not alone.

It’s true. There is something different about sensitive kids, especially if they also happen to be an accelerated learner. They often present challenges in the classroom that look a lot like ADHD. Challenges like difficulty focusing, forgetfulness when it comes to “routine” tasks, or inattentiveness/difficulty hearing and responding to simple, straight-forward questions.

Before I go any further, let me say that if you have received a call or email like this from your child’s school, try to keep an open mind. There is no harm in having an assessment done. I am of the mind that the more comprehensive the assessment, the better, though. The likelihood of your child being misdiagnosed and overmedicated is much higher if the diagnosis is based purely on reports from parents and teachers.

That said, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help put things in perspective and advocate for your child.

Does my child struggle to follow procedures across the board, or is it primarily with “trivial” tasks?

If your child has ADHD, they will struggle to stay focused on procedures and transitions, no matter where they show up. There are a number of reasons why a highly sensitive child might struggle with following instructions or moving quickly through transitions in certain situations, but the key is that it is situational. They may struggle in some contexts and follow intricate procedures in others.

Does my child show signs of inattentiveness consistently, or is it primarily when they are absorbed in a task or game that interests them deeply?

For a child with inattentive ADHD, their inattentiveness surfaces throughout their life. They “zone out” easily and often. With a highly sensitive child, it’s a little different. They may appear to be inattentive in busy environments or when their attention has been captured by a project, and they may not hear questions asked of them, but it’s not that they are zoning out. It’s more like they have zoned in. Their focus is homed in on their task (or the chaos going on around them) and it’s making it difficult for outside input to get through. It’s an intensity of focus, not a lack of focus. At first glance, they look surprisingly similar.

Is my child able to attend to a task when it captures their interest, or when there are few distractions?

Again, for a child with ADHD, the challenge of attending to focused tasks will surface in all areas of their life. If your child is able to focus for hours on building with legos but has trouble following through with putting on their socks before school, it’s unlikely that their lack of focus is caused by ADHD.

Is my child able to attend to conversations of interests or oral storytelling?

If your child does this, you know what I mean here. You might think you’re having an adult conversation and they aren’t paying attention but then they jump in with questions. They might also get super absorbed in read alouds. If your child does either of these things, ADHD is probably not the root cause of their concerning behaviors.

These questions aren’t comprehensive. Really, they just scratch the surface, and they certainly do not take the place of an official assessment. But if you find yourself in this situation, I hope they give you a starting point and something to reflect on. If you want to go deeper, check out Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Asperger’s, Depression, and Other Disorders by F. Richard Olenchak, Jean Goerss, Paul Beljan, James T. Webb, Nadia E. Webb, Edward R. Amend. It is an excellent resource for determining whether your child needs clinical support, parental advocacy, or both.


Knowing when to seek an assessment for your child is just one piece of the puzzle. The patterns of behavior that capture a teacher’s attention are real challenges, whether they are due to a child’s sensitivity or capacity for extended attention. If you find yourself struggling through day to day routines and you are realizing you could use some outside perspective, I’m here for you. You can schedule a consultation by replying to this email or going directly to my schedule at https://go.oncehub.com/partneredpathparenting

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