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Managing Virtual Learning for Kids with ADHD

By Tracey Dowdy

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that teaching, particularly homeschooling, is not for the faint of heart. For many parents, work/life balance is as impossible as life on the surface of the sun, and we can finally agree that whatever teachers earn, it’s not enough. 

Parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder face unique challenges. Consider that teachers are trained in classroom management, studying for a four-year degree, passing state exams, then applying for a state license. “The special education teacher wears many hats. Unlike other teachers who focus primarily on academics, the special education teacher serves as an educator and advocates for students with special needs. His or her schedule is divided among planning, instruction, assessing students, and managing their individualized education programs (IEPs).”

ADHD stems from underdeveloped or impaired executive function and self-regulation skills, so parents of children with ADHD aren’t the only ones overwhelmed and struggling. Students with ADHD often find switching to virtual learning at home complicated and even chaotic, so staying on-task for more than a few minutes is a monumental challenge.

Minnesota, says these students benefit from traditional school settings’ structure and routine. “What’s happened with Covid-19 is we’ve shifted from having that infrastructure and support from school,” she says. “And parents have had to pick up a lot of the things that can’t be provided with virtual learning. And maybe they don’t know how best to help them because they haven’t been trained in that particular area of need.” Because parents have had to shoulder that responsibility while still trying to manage their duties, keeping a student with ADHD focused has become twice as hard. 

If your child is struggling, Nordmeyer suggests the following strategies to help keep your student engaged and minimize everyone’s frustration. 

Mimic the school environment as much as possible. 

For kids with ADHD, the struggle isn’t merely paying attention. It’s maintaining focus and concentrating on the right things. Anything can pull their attention from something as simple as a family pet walking through the room to a favorite toy or game within their eyeline. If possible, set up a space that mimics a classroom and is within your sight so you can redirect when necessary. Working in their bedroom may seem ideal because it’s a quieter place, but remember that for most children, it’s where they go to relax and play, so it may not be conducive to learning. 

Structure each day and stick to the schedule as much as is possible. 

When trying to structure your child’s day, parents should practice structure, not micromanagement, Nordmeyer said. Try starting the day with your version of “Circle Time” or a “Morning Huddle” to run through assignments, Zoom meetings, and break times. Nordmeyer recommends the Pomodoro method – available as an extension for Google Chrome – that sets a 25-minute timer for work, then gives a five-minute break for play. Looking at everything that has to be done can be overwhelming for any of us but breaking it down into segments makes the day seem less daunting. If 25 minutes seems like 25 years to your child, break it down into shorter increments. While a schedule is valuable, it’s not as important as supporting your child. The goal is success – not just survival. 

Get up and get moving. 

Sometimes the best way to get your child back on track is to go off-track. If they’re melting down, off in another world, or distressed, take a break. Let them run around the backyard like a golden retriever, walk around the block, or take a dance break. Some children with ADHD are hyperactive and have a kinetic connection to how they learn and process information, so fidgeting often helps them pay attention. Sitting at a desk for long periods is physically and mentally exhausting for them. “Exercising really counteracts that and [can be] a normalizer when it comes to those neurotransmitters, which means that students, after exercising a lot, can concentrate better,” Morgan said. “The children again feel like they’re a little bit more in control,” says Anabelle Morgan, head of school at Commonwealth Academy in Alexandria, Virginia.

Offer social and emotional support.

If your child is defeated and starts every day anxious, talk to their teacher, school counselor, or principal for ways you can better support your student. Many are willing to meet for a virtual one-on-one to discover the source of the frustration and provide both of you with the tools you need. Remember, your child’s educators and chose education because they’re invested in your child’s success too. They want your child to become life-long learners and to reach their full potential. 

Go with the flow. 

Going with the flow sounds counter-intuitive for a student that needs structure, remember that it’s not a competition and no one wins if homeschooling becomes a power struggle filled with meltdowns and tears. If your child is coming to the end of their rope, take a break. Don’t chastise, don’t rebuke, and don’t tell them to calm down – have you ever felt calmer after someone told you to calm down? Instead, practice self-calming techniques with them – chances are you need to settle your emotions too. 

Take inventory and ownership. 

At the end of the day, over dinner, or perhaps at bedtime when things are quieter, talk to your child about the day’s hits and misses. Thorn, Rose, Bud, is an excellent option for evaluating the day and setting tomorrow’s goals. Thorn is somewhere your child can acknowledge they fell short, like “I wouldn’t put down my Legos when it was time to go back to work.” You follow with, “I wasn’t patient with you when you were struggling to focus while the teacher was giving instructions.” For Rose, have your child tell you something they’re proud of, something they did well that day like “I did all ten math problems before the timer went off.” You follow up with something you’re proud of them for, like, “You did a great job transitioning from your lunch break to social studies.” Bud sets a goal for the next day. “Tomorrow, I will do my best to write out my spelling words without complaining.” You follow with, “Tomorrow, I will do my best to be patient when you’re struggling to stay on task.” 

My daughters and I used to do “Best thing? Worst thing?” every day after school. Sometimes the best thing was lunch; some days, it was acing a spelling test. Some days the worst thing was indoor-recess; some days, it was a bully that made them cry. Either way, it gave me a window into their day and insight into what they were struggling with. 

Above all, remember to give your child and yourself the grace and mercy you need. You and your child are not the only ones struggling. This season, like all seasons, will end. Your child’s teachers are just as ready for your child to be back in the classroom as you are. Don’t stress over skills your child may be falling behind on or what you perceive as a lack of progress. When kids start kindergarten, the teacher faces a room full of children at varying skill levels – this will be no different. Together, you’ll work to fill the gaps, celebrate the successes, and help your child get back on track. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.