For Teachers

Remote School Round 2: How to Improve Distance Learning for Students with ADHD

For students with IEPs or 504 Plans, the secret to an improved distance learning experience is parent-teacher coordination, reliable routines, and these at-home accommodations for different learners.

The student boy is climbing on the school pink timetable with stationary pencil, eraser, ruler illustration vector on yellow background. Education and study concept.
The student boy is climbing on the school pink timetable with stationary pencil, eraser, ruler illustration vector on yellow background. Education and study concept.

Distance learning and all that it entails — balancing employment while also teaching multiple children and coordinating discordant schedules — feels impossible for so many families right now. For parents of children with diagnosed learning challenges, it feels worse than impossible; it feels catastrophic. According to parents and educators, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) faced out-sized challenges with summoning motivation, completing assignments, sticking to schedules, remaining on task, transitioning, and organizing their learning goals.

For those families, here are suggested approaches for the months ahead that focus on partnerships, schedules, and accommodations to help improve some of the most frequent and formidable roadblocks of distance learning.

Form a Strong Home-School Partnership

Parents and educators must work as a coordinated, supportive team to create a home-school partnership built around the success of the child. Here are some strategies:

1. Hold Weekly Check-In Meetings

A scheduled weekly check-in meeting ensures that everyone is on the same page. If a child is falling behind, it’s critical to catch it right away. With a scheduled weekly meeting, educators know they need to be vigilant in keeping track of the child’s progress and parents mitigate the risk of any end-of-semester assignment shock. Most educators appreciate parent engagement because it means you are supporting and reinforcing their efforts at home.

“Over the past few months, so many things have changed, but something that hasn’t changed is the relationships that is built with students during the past year,” says Lauren Leary, a reading specialist in Andover, Massachusetts. “Additionally, I feel much more connected to the parents than ever before.”

[Read This Next: 8 Secrets to Engaged Online Learning for Students with ADHD]

2. Set a Daily Learning Goal

Each day, create a simple learning goal that is reinforced by both parents and educators. By verbalizing and displaying this learning goal, you will help your child recognize the why behind the lesson, understand your expectations, work toward a target accomplishment, and take ownership of achieving the goal. Keep it clear and concise; too many daily expectations and goals cause children to feel overwhelmed and diminish motivation.

3. Record Lessons

Educators may find it helpful to record synchronous lessons and share the videos with parents to reinforce the content learned that day. The child can reference the videos for support and the parents can watch them to understand the content taught.

“I have been posting a pre-recorded video lesson daily and reviews one key concept from each day’s work,” says Gayle Crowley, a special education teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts. “One day it might be phonics, math, or writing: whatever the most challenging skill is. The students have said they enjoy these videos, and parents have told me that they’re very helpful.”

Develop Consistent Schedules

Routine may help heal a child’s currently disrupted world. A consistent schedule is comforting, and it can increase focus and willingness to work. Transitions and schedule changes, on the other hand, can add stress and may lead to frustration and anger.

[Related Reading: Your Child’s Educational Rights While Crisis Schooling: IEPs and 504 Plans in a Pandemic]

Educators and parents should collaborate in creating visual schedules to create predictable routines. The child should participate in creating the agenda to promote independence and ownership. Within the home, there should be a designated workplace with reduced distractions, if possible. The schedule should be the same each day and posted in the selected workspace. Here are two schedule suggestions:

1. Make a First/Then Chart

A “first/then” chart is a visual strategy to help your child complete a specific, non-preferred task. The chart displays two pictures side by side. The “first” is a picture of your child doing schoolwork (the non-preferred activity), and the “then” is your child participating in a preferred activity (jumping on a trampoline, etc.). A child must get through the “first” to earn the “then.” When establishing distance learning routines, take a picture of your child participating in each subject, and use those pictures to build their schedule (“first”). As they complete each assignment on time, they earn a preferred activity (“then”).

2. Color-Code Schedules and Materials

For children who may need extra help with organization and executive functioning, color-coded posted schedules may help. Assign each subject area a color. For example, math is blue on the daily schedule, and the math notebook and folder are all blue. Organizing subjects into colors will promote independence, ease transitions, and help your child independently organize their workspace. Your child will know to allow only one color in their workspace at a time. As each subject is completed, the color-coded material should be removed. As your child goes through the daily schedule, they can cover up the completed task or move a paper clip down the schedule to visualize completion and accomplishment.

“It has worked really well to meet with each student and their parent(s) to create a colored-coded schedule for them to follow each day (sometimes including daily self-care routines),” says Laura Piccolo Cawley, a middle school reading specialist. “I also help them create their own ‘work spaces’ at home, so their supplies and resources are all in one spot.”

Modify Accommodations for Distance Learning

Parents and educators must engage in an open dialog to explore successful accommodations for a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan. Students with ADHD often benefits from accommodations such as minimized distractions, verbal/visual cues, a checklist of materials, extended time, frequent breaks, and assignments broken into smaller chunks. All of these can be replicated at home. Here are other frequently used accommodations that benefit students with ADHD learning at home:

1. Use Timers and Frequent Breaks

Timers keep children on task for a given amount of time. A child can independently learn to start and reset the timer while working through their daily schedule. Once they complete a certain timed amount of work, they earn a break. The break should be a preferred activity of the child’s choice. Timers can also dictate when the break is over, and it is time to get back to work. By using timers, ownership moves from the parent to the child. The parent is not arbitrarily telling the child it is time to work. The timer dictates when it is time to work, leading to fewer arguments, frustrations, and defiant behaviors.

2. Explore Sensory Tools

Sensory tools, such as fidgets, can help children with ADHD concentrate and increase focus. Examples of at-home fidget tools include Play-Doh, silly putty, slime, a little bowl of rice, Velcro strips, beads, and squishy toys. Using a fidget tool while working on a task can increase your child’s concentration and focus on the assignment.

3. Chew Gum

Gum is another household item that can increases focus and boost mental performance. Additionally, gum can improve concentration in visual tasks and has benefits when children are working on audio memory tasks.

4. Embrace Flexible Seating

Has your child tried standing while working? Laying on the floor? Using a backless chair? Sitting on a stability ball? Flexible seating will give your child options for controlling their physical environment in ways that work best for them. With choices, students gain greater flexibility and control, giving them the autonomy and comfort to stay engaged and focused, leading to improved overall behavior and willingness to complete desired tasks.

5. Take Movement Breaks

Physical movement improves the cognitive ability of students. Frequent movement breaks throughout the day are necessary. Many schools have sensory paths that parents can replicate at home. Create a sensory path outside to use during the day as a sensory outlet and break. These act as an excellent brain break with high-intensity activities that enable students to return to work, improving focus for more extended periods.

6. Buy Noise-Canceling Headphones

Environmental noise can be hugely distracting for children diagnosed with ADHD. If your home learning environment has multiple children and distractions throughout the day, noise-canceling headphones may be a worthwhile purchase.

Every child is different, and what works for one child may not work for another. Trial and error is frustrating but necessary. Each failed attempt will bring you closer to creating a plan that works. Teachers spend weeks overcoming trial, error, failures, and success when learning about a student’s individualized needs. The same is true for household arrangements, accommodations, and scheduling in the distant learning model. Pick a few strategies, stick with them, and be consistent.

The key is not to give up, to stay constant, to communicate, and to focus on the daily positives. Parents and teachers working together as partners will forge the straightest and least taxing path through distance learning.

Distance Learning: Next Steps

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