This fall won't be ideal, but there are ways to help your child focus during an unusual school year, regardless of the learning method. These expert-recommended strategies will help them thrive.

By Gia Miller
August 11, 2020
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The distance learning memories are still fresh in your mind: your child or teen with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may have taken significantly longer to do their work compared to their classmates, quickly become bored on Zoom calls, or found it challenging to plan their days and complete assignments on time. Plus, the arguments were endless.

Unfortunately, regardless of whether your child will be in a socially-distanced classroom, participating in distance learning, or doing a hybrid schedule, this year's school situation won't be ideal either. But that doesn't mean you should throw in the towel before you even begin. Instead, taking the time to really understand ADHD and following expert advice will not only help your child succeed—but it may also save your relationship.

People with ADHD lack executive functioning skills, meaning they're unable to manage tasks like paying attention, organizing, planning, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring. But understanding why they struggle with these skills will allow you to understand what strategies will and won't work.

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Know the Challenges of Each Option

During a typical school year, most classrooms are less-than-optimal for students with ADHD, and this year will be no different. If you get to choose a learning method for your child, consider their personality and the challenges they may encounter.

  • Socially-distanced classroom: "ADHD kids are non-compliant when it comes to rules—they're risk-takers and are going to do whatever feels good at the moment," says Russell Barkley, Ph.D., whose latest book 2 Principals for Raising Children with ADHD will be out in October. "They don't think much about the future and are the least likely to act in theirs and others' best interests, which means masks may be a problem. I think they're going to find it constricting and they'll violate the rule every time a teacher turns around."
  • Hybrid learning: "Having to adjust to two different routines will be challenging for a child who struggles with executive functioning," Cindy Graham, Ph.D. and licensed clinical psychologist, explains. "They'll have to be organized enough to remember where they'll be each day and that day's schedule." Plus, will they actually feel motivated to work in both locations?
  • Distance learning: "Knowing where to find the schoolwork, planning and following a schedule, maintaining attention, focusing and remembering things are all really difficult tasks to accomplish on their own when that is literally their deficit," says Graham.

Get Them Organized

Students with ADHD tend to lose things, forget instructions, turn in homework late, and often start projects at the eleventh hour. With an unusual school year ahead, getting (and staying) organized is even more important.

  • All learning options: For tweens and teens, consider purchasing an executive function planner, which are specifically designed for ADHD. It'll help them keep track of assignments, due dates, and materials needed.
  • In-person/hybrid learning: When shopping for a backpack, the more pockets/compartments the better. Discuss which items will go where and look through it daily to help them stay organized.
  • Distance learning: Let a basket serve as their locker, holding all books and papers. Place pens, tools, and fidgets in separate containers. They should go to their "locker" between each class, putting one set of books away before taking out the next.

How to Help Kids With Remote or Hybrid Learning

Children and teens, especially those with ADHD, thrive with structure. If they'll participate in a distance learning or hybrid model, it likely will present more challenges than in-person learning. Use these expert-recommended tips for school success.

1. Make a Schedule

Parents and kids can work together to create a consistent daily schedule at the beginning of every day or week. Make sure to include schoolwork, lunch, and fun activities. And don't forget to ease them into the school day.

"Kids are typically awake for at least two hours before they actually begin their academic work," explains Graham. "They get up, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, and get dressed, ride to school, wait for the doors to open, and then have morning announcements before they actually take out their books. That period of time is really important—it allows kids to warm up to the process of learning."

2. Take Breaks

Traditionally, there are many breaks throughout the school day. Younger children typically have art, music, lunch, and recess in between core subjects, while older children visit their lockers and switch classes hourly. For hybrid schedules, stick closely to their school schedule to create consistency. For distance learning, shorter periods of work (between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on age) and more frequent breaks will help them stay focused.

3. Use Timers

People with ADHD cannot recognize how much time has passed. So assigning a child an activity with a time limit cannot work if they have no reference to time. Likewise, if they asked for five more minutes 15 minutes ago, they're still playing because they didn't sense that time was up.

Because they have no sense of time, external time references like timers are the only way they'll know how much time has passed and is remaining.

There's an abundance of ADHD timers on the market: some visually show time disappearing, others offer the opportunity to set multiple alarms at once, there are ones that light up to indicate warnings and when time is up and you can even use vibrating watches. Review the options together, considering their needs and preferences so you can purchase a timer they'll actually use.

"When setting a timer, also set reminders, depending on the age," Graham advises. "If they're very young, set reminders at the halfway mark, two minutes so they know to wrap it up, and then 30 seconds so they can stop what they're doing."

4. Plan Rewards

Place the schedule somewhere visible and set a timer before they begin each task. If they generally maintain focus and work well, reward them—even if they didn't complete the assignment.

Unless an activity is intrinsically appealing or provides an immediate reward (like video games), it can be difficult to motivate kids to begin or finish the task. Rewards systems require novelty and immediacy, otherwise, they'll lose interest quickly when the rewards don't change every week or two or when the reward seems too far away.

5. Encourage Movement

It may sound counterintuitive to someone without ADHD, but movement can help maintain focus. Many items can be used discretely in the classroom.

  • Fidgets: The market is flooded with small moveable toys and puzzles, putty, tiny magnetic balls, bracelets, soft balls, etc. As always with ADHD, they'll need a variety, or they'll lose interest.
  • Balance ball, stool, or cushion: Balancing on these requires subtle but constant micro-movements—just enough to stay focused.
  • Chair bands: Have a leg swinger? These thick rubber bands provide much-needed sensory input.
  • Portable lap desks: For kids who prefer unusual work positions, this provides a solid surface for carpets and sofas. It also adds extra height to a desk or dining table if they like to work standing up for portions of the day.

6. Be Supportive

We're in for another unpredictable school year, so don't expect major growth. This is the time to continue routines, be predictable, show compassion, and give your kids a sense of security.

"Follow your instincts about what's best for your child, not what others are doing or what experts are telling you," Barkley advises. "If they fall a little behind, don't sweat it. They'll pick it up later. And don't try anything new, meaning don't pick a behavior you've never worked on and try to change it. This isn't the time to re-engineer your child. Right now, your job is that of a shepherd, not an engineer."

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