Distance Learning Meets ADHD (Again): Smooth the Transition Back to Remote Schooling

Distance learning is not ideal for all students with ADHD. Surviving the coming school year will mean reducing anxiety and tension at home while also maintaining realistic expectations, providing appropriate supports, and advocating for our children with eyes wide open.

Student with ADHD learning alone

This spring was pure crisis-management learning. Parents, teachers, and districts struggled to make virtual schooling work – at least until the end of the semester. Now at the dawn of a new academic year, schools are working to incorporate lessons learned from distance learning – like the dangers of Zoom fatigue and waning engagement – into their opening (or not-yet-opening) plans.

Still, so much is unclear. The new school year remains decidedly uncertain for most – a worrisome and even maddening reality for millions of parents and children, especially alternative learners with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), learning disabilities, and other conditions that benefit from support or services.

During this tumultuous and unfamiliar back-to-school season, families must employ a combination of strategies that work to tame anxiety, set realistic expectations, establish do-able routines, combat remote learning loss, and ensure school supports for their children.

Distance Learning Preparations: Daily Routine Rules

Embrace the unknown. This is the first, incredibly difficult step for familiar making the school transition this year. Flexibility is key. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build a predictable structure at home.

  1. Plan activity periods or blocks. Divide the remote school day into periods that work for your child. This can look like morning, afternoon, and evening blocks, divided by breaks in between. Use reminders – alerts on phones or computers (children tend to pay more attention to these) – for class time, rest periods, and other tasks. Ask your child what a productive, engaging learning day looks like.
  2. Include timed breaks with specific options. Work in times for snacks, physical activity, chores, screen time, and screen-free activities. Offer kids short and long breaks, and provide a list of activities they can do during those times. If you’re working from home and have younger children, use screen time to your advantage and to meet your own needs. Try to schedule their screen time, for example, during your work meetings.
  3. Plan for safe socializing with peers. Before the colder months approach, help your kids safely see their friends as much as possible. Review the latest guidelines on social distancing, and make sure your kids have masks and hand sanitizer with them at all times. Talk to your children about how to handle scenarios where others may not be engaging in safe behaviors. Remind them of the real ramifications for themselves, their friends, and others in the household of not being safe.
  4. Help kids connect with their teachers. Talk with your child’s teachers about setting up weekly check-in sessions by phone, text, Google Classroom, Hangout, or Zoom. One-to-one contact is especially important for teens.
  5. Steadiness over perfection. Be open to revisions if plans aren’t working. Ask your kids, friends, family or the web for suggestions. Be transparent and offer brief explanations when making changes to expected tasks. Not doing so may lead children to believe that they can be flexible with arrangements and avoid sticking to the plan.

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Distance Learning Preparations: Addressing School Anxiety Directly

To tackle concerns about the new school year head-on, follow these steps:

  1. Validate worry. Name, acknowledge, and empathize with your kids’ feelings about the return to school. This is key to processing anxiety and trauma.

Keep these conversations centered on your kids’ feelings and experiences — not yours. It’s OK to say things like, “That was really hard for me too,” or “I don’t know/I’m not sure, but I know we’re going to figure it out together.”

  1. Probe, listen, solve. Cover health, safety, academic, and social concerns in these conversations. Observe your kids’ behaviors and listen to what they’re saying to friends – this is where many insights about their concerns come to light.

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Take note of what your children say in moments of anger or upset. Deep and important information is often embedded here. Use reflective listening – “I heard you say this, did I get that right? Is there anything else?”

Note that heated moments are not ripe for problem solving. They are opportunities to listen and reflect. Ask your children if they have ideas about how to approach the problem prior to offering your own solutions.

Finding the right time and place to talk is equally important. Children, especially teens, tend to be open to conversations in specific environments, like right before bedtime, while driving, or while walking.

  1. Brainstorm two plans. By now, most families know how the 2020-2021 school year will begin. Knowing the plans can and will change, work with your children to map out two possible schedules and routines for the months ahead to regain a sense of control. The plans should follow an “if this, then that” scheme.

We can safely assume that most schools will utilize a hybrid or fully remote model for some time this year. Either way, being proactive in creating contingency plans can help the family feel reassured that they are prepared to pivot. In crafting plans, think about potential problems that existed in the spring, and how they might be handled now.

  1. Set realistic goals. What are appropriate goals, given what happened in the spring, and what school will look like this school year? Many children struggled to maintain momentum and motivation while learning from home. Recognize that your child’s capabilities before the pandemic may bear little resemblance to their capabilities now, and more so if they already needed supports in the classroom. Talk to your children about what they want to achieve this scholastic year, too.

Expect that there will be an adjustment period as they return to school. That will be colored by mixed emotions about seeing friends, concerns about contracting the illness, and doubts about their ability to handle distance or in-person learning. Empathize, and assure them that adapting takes time and practice.

  1. Create two sets of expectations for the new school year. The goal in this step is to shore up your child’s strengths and challenges simultaneously. Base the first set of expectations on what your child enjoyed and was engaged in during the spring. In the second set, address the subjects and tasks with which they struggled. For both sets, collaborate on learning plans with your child and their teachers, and consider the accessibility of the material this time around as well as instruction mode.
  2. Set specific times to meet as a family. Established times for brainstorming and talking through problems reduces unpredictability and motivates the rest of the family to join. Meet at least once a week (for as long as your children can handle) to keep tabs with everyone on their concerns in the new school year.

Distance Learning: ADHD Guiding Principles

  1. Shift from Anxiety to Curiosity

Over the last six months, we have experienced compounding trauma – unemployment, social isolation, illness, loss in the family, and more. All of this is on top of existing traumas — like racism and sexism — that have been exacerbated in these times.

Persistent trauma like this leads to equally persistent anxiety and triggers our fight or flight reflex, which is heightened by uncertainty. We are living on edge, and it shows.

To lower the volume on anxiety, try consciously shifting toward curiosity. Anxious, worried thoughts shut down ADHD brains and predict negative outcomes. Curiosity, on the other hand, opens us to new possibilities and bolsters resilience – a trait, along with flexibility, that is increasingly useful. Tap into curiosity through simple but far-reaching changes in behavior. Try shifting your thinking to “I wonder what’s going to happen” from “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen.” This is more powerful than it seems.

  1. Give Yourself Grace

Acknowledge the impossibility of today, and show some empathy for yourself, especially in moments of burnout and despair. Now is not the time to judge. Focus on the “cans” over the “should,” and prioritize self-care by:

  • setting clear boundaries for yourself
  • sharing the supervision of kids, if possible (through a homeschool group, tutors, neighbors, extended family)
  • figuring out what helps you regain your calm
  1. Your Child’s Lies May Be Covering Up Executive Dysfunction

Stress and fatigue hit the weakest executive functioning skills first and hardest. Be aware of your kids’ executive functioning challenges, how they have been torpedoed by the pandemic, and what that means in terms of expectations for the school year. Skills like impulse control, working memory, emotional control, and organization can all present differently — and require unique adjustments.

As a result of heightened executive dysfunction, you are likely seeing more lying, avoidance, or pushback from your child. Recognize that many children avoid and lie when tasks in front of them are too hard. Use this as a signal to help them break down projects or talk to the school about adjustments. To counter this, also set up reasonable, fair consequences when your child lies and ask them what they think should happen, too.

  1. Advocate for Your Child

From lack of high-speed Wi-Fi to unreliable equipment, there are serious, troubling inequities in access to remote learning. But not all inequities are easy to recognize.

If computer fatigue is really impacting your child, ask the teacher about online sessions with smaller groups and alternative projects that physically engage your child. Press the school on what arrangements they are making available for students who experience major difficulties with online environments.

If your child had academic supports in the classroom, ask the school how they can continue to get the necessary help. Make sure to loop in everyone on the IEP team. Search for an educational advocate to help if the school is unresponsive. Ask your therapist or social worker, if you have one, to attend a meeting with the school for added support.

Many children aren’t feeling confident heading into this school year. The most important thing we can do is connect with our kids and make them feel valued as intelligent people who happen to learn differently. Celebrate and validate their victories and efforts. Help them feel as good as possible about themselves in this new, strange learning environment.

Distance Learning and ADHD: Next Steps for Parents