Virtual learning can be challenging for kids with ADHD. But working closely with teachers and developing a plan can help them pay attention and participate in education, as independently as possible.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
November 06, 2020
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Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Dear Concerned Parent,

When I pass by my son's room during class in this remote learning school year, I catch glimpses of him doing flips on his beanbag and rolling around his floor, appearing to do anything but learning. Two months into the school year, his floor is covered with papers, crayons, and workbooks every night, and he spends much of his school day looking for what he can't find. It's a mess and by all appearances, he is a mess, but his teacher has assured me he's actually doing fine, so I have let the beanbag flips go unchecked for now. All of this to remind ourselves, we are living pandemic lives with no template, and it's OK to not know how to define "normal" expectations for learning.

I sympathize with your situation as I work with many children and parents going through the same challenge of managing a learner with ADHD at home. Distractions abound, not the least of which include all the fun ways to manipulate Zoom. (Camera on! Off! Virtual Background! Mute! Unmute! Spin the iPad in circles!) Paying attention and staying focused is simply harder via a screen.

The very nature of virtual learning requires a level of mental organization, attention, and self-initiated structure that poses challenges for all types of students, but especially for those with ADHD.

Encourage Independent Learning, But With Supports

Children with ADHD benefit from a highly structured learning environment combined with opportunities to keep moving their bodies. It's a traditionally tough recipe to find even in typical classrooms, which is why for children whose ADHD interferes with learning, they have education plans with a long list of specific recommendations. Unfortunately, many of these recommendations can feel practically impossible to execute in the now home-based classroom.

You face a tricky balance of fostering your son's independence (not to mention your own during his school day) with ensuring he has what he needs to learn in this less than ideal situation. You know him best, and possibly even better now that you have witnessed his learning in action! I agree that ideally your child needs to independently participate in his school, even if you are literally one room away to be able to help. However, if you observe that his ADHD symptoms are getting in the way of meaningfully participating in his education, then it's not working to simply not be present. You need a plan, and a team.

Have Teacher Communication

After my own experiences of attempting one-on-one video therapy with distracted children for a few months, I have the utmost respect and admiration for what these teachers are going through on a daily basis with a large group of children. More than usual, my own children's teachers have requested we communicate with them about how our kids are doing because it's so much harder for them to gauge from behind the screen. I believe most teachers are heavily invested in their students gaining as much as possible from this altered learning environment.

From the way you phrased your question, I'm guessing you would like to be in the room with your son. I would be interested to hear from his teacher what they observe when you are or are not present. (I know undoubtedly that my own fidgety, distractible son is more distracted and less independent when I am next to him.) A good starting point for you is to understand the reason for the teacher's request, and then share your own concerns about your son's attention and behaviors.

It's important to focus on the crux of the issue: is he learning the material he needs to, even with challenges from the ADHD, or are the attention and other executive function problems getting in the way? You can help the teacher understand how you see his ADHD may be interfering with learning, and the teacher will hopefully share if they do or do not see it as a problem. Regardless, communicating with the teacher can inform a plan that helps you feel more confident not being with him.

Try Scientifically-Proven Tools

Fortunately, ADHD is a well-studied brain difference that responds well most of the time to specific behavioral interventions to help learning. The execution of these strategies varies depending on age, but years of research back them as effective:

  • Visual cues: Mental organization is more challenging for children with ADHD (think math word problems with multiple mental steps) so they benefit greatly from visual organization. Whether it's a visual schedule to keep them on track throughout the school day, or having an index card posted prominently with specific steps to always follow for math, these strategies cue their brains to stay on track.
  • Movement breaks: Not all children with ADHD have the hyperactivity feature, but especially for those who do, they need to move their bodies to help their brains pay better attention. Maybe they pace around the room while listening to the lesson, or do as many jumping jacks as they can in one minute during a break; whatever type of movement works for each child's interests, moving more can help them focus better.
  • An organized work area: I know from personal experience that this is easier said than done, but for children with ADHD it is especially critical for their physical space to be organized, at least to start each day. The more mess, the harder it is for them to transition from lesson to lesson and stay on track because when the chaos becomes overwhelming, they are likely to give up and mentally check out.
  • Frustration tolerance: Problems managing frustration is another feature of ADHD that may be even more pronounced in a virtual learning environment. From tech glitches to missing their friends, remote learning is full of sources of frustration for all kids. It's time to ramp up any self-calming strategies that work for your child, such as a "cool down corner" or taking deep breaths and visualizing going from the "red zone" to the "green zone."

The Bottom Line

With the right support and a plan, virtual learning can become easier for children with ADHD. Ideally, you and the teacher can develop a plan with other support staff from your son's school, such as a social worker or resource specialist. Hopefully they can work with you on prioritizing larger goals, such as keeping your son at grade level academically and maintaining a love of learning and positive association with school, rather than being overly focused on completing every assignment. If there were ever a time to "manage expectations," this is it, but everyone needs to make sure they have the same expectations of whatever "normal" is, for now.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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