School & Learning

My Child Has Lost All Motivation! Distance Learning, Round 3

Boredom, excessive worry, and executive dysfunction are all diminishing motivation for remote learners with ADHD during this pandemic. Use these strategies to boost focus and engagement for your student during this third (long) semester of distance learning.

Child laying head on desk with forearm over eyes, tired from remote learning.

Yes, some students are flourishing right now.

But those who love and thrive in remote learning are the exception to the rule. Most students with ADHD and learning challenges are experiencing remote learning loss; the online school setting is not only tedious but thoroughly un-motivating as well. Homework and classwork remain indefinitely incomplete, and disorganization runs rampant. Ongoing stress, anxiety, and frustration with asynchronous learning are also barriers; they block our kids from feeling like they have a stake in their education.

Though hope is on the horizon, distance learning will form the core of most students’ learning experience for some time. To help your child persevere, it’s important to understand their most pressing challenges and to provide appropriate tools to improve self-motivation.

Why Your Child is Unmotivated for Distance Learning

1. Poor Executive Function Skills

Students with ADHD are unmotivated for online learning, in part, because of inherent executive dysfunction. With remote learning, the following brain skills, which are implicated in motivation, are further weakened by stress and overwhelm:

  • Goal-oriented persistence and focus: controlling impulses and emotions to attend to an expected task
  • Initiation: getting started without an immediate prompt or reward
  • Shifting: moving from one task to another (e.g. listening and writing notes simultaneously)
  • Time management: organizing time and energy to meet deadlines

Boredom and disinterest exacerbate natural problems with executive skills for students with attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD or ADD). There is less dopamine triggered by a task or a setting that is fundamentally unrewarding or uninteresting (like doing homework or chores, or staring at a screen for hours). For ADHD brains, a paucity of dopamine means it may take even longer to get started.

[Click to Read: What Is Executive Function? 7 Deficits Tied to ADHD]

2. Anxiety and Worry

Anxious thoughts and excessive worry, which are both rampant in this pandemic, affect motivation as well. They often lead to the following:

  • catastrophizing
  • intrusive “what if” thoughts
  • reduced self-confidence
  • increased overwhelm
  • giving up

How to Improve Motivational Skills for Distance Learning

Problem #1: Initiation

If getting started is a problem for your child, do the following:

  • Break down tasks to smaller, achievable parts (there’s no such thing as too small a task). Notice and reward efforts and success through validating comments and specific praise. Remember that unmotivated kids are wired to expect failure, so small wins are great opportunities to train kids in the incentive/reward dynamic.
  • Create a daily guideline that lists, step-by-step, what they have to do each morning for school (e.g. review emails and notifications, be online by a certain time, etc.)
  • Be familiar with the tech to troubleshoot the unexpected which inevitably arises. Not knowing how to interact with online technology can be a tremendous buffer to getting started. Help your child understand the school’s system, and ask teachers to be explicit about what tools and technologies your child will need to complete a learning task.

[Related Reading: The ADHD Brain Processes Rewards & Consequences Differently]

Problem #2: Time Management

Time blindness and poor estimation skills are common for children with ADHD. To remedy this, try the following:

  • Make time external. It’s best to rely on physical alarms, reminders, and timers so that the passage of time can be “seen.” Use apps on devices for extra support (calendars, timers, alarms).
  • Teach estimation skills. Thinking backward from a deadline is a good way to teach kids what can be accomplished in a certain amount of time, which can reduce overwhelm.
  • Create routines to take the guesswork out of time.

Problem #3: Procrastination

Procrastination isn’t a time-management or initiation issue. It’s actually rooted in the following:

  • Perfectionism – in this pursuit, your child may give up on starting, or psych themselves out about the task.
  • Avoidance – if the task is too unpleasant, your child will steer clear. Avoidance is not always obvious, though. “Productive procrastination” is a form of staying busy with another activity so as to eventually avoid the bigger task.

If your child procrastinates, talk to them – without judgement – to get to the root of why they engage in it. Sometimes, shame about competence and weaker abilities can affect motivation and contribute to procrastination.

Problem #4: Organization and Prioritizing

These two skills influence one another and are key contributors to motivation. To boost them simultaneously, try the following:

  • Use an organizing system that works for your child and accomplishes your basic goals. They may not want to use a calendar, but perhaps a simple sheet or computer document containing their to-do items will do the trick. Sticky notes and whiteboards are also great tools for visualizing tasks and deadlines.
  • Create lists to teach kids to learn to sequence and help them plan independently. Help them make to-do lists and edit them according to urgency.
  • Figure out a workflow to determine the order of tasks. Does your child like to do something easy first, then something difficult? Or is it the other way?
  • Work in chunks and use a timer to pinpoint when attention wanders. Once you’ve figured out the point at which your child’s attention starts to drift, set up work periods in those units.

Problem #5: Sustained Attention

Maintaining focus, particularly on boring Zoom boxes or online worksheets, is aided by the following strategies:

  • Avoid multitasking. Multitasking forces us to shift our attention quickly from one task to another, which depletes brain fuel. Instead…
  • Set realistic work periods to focus on one task before moving on to another. Short breaks should follow a work period (as a reward to keep motivation high).
  • Eliminate distractions. Working online has made it easy for attention to shift elsewhere. Consider blocking access to certain sites on the computer and on the phone during school hours. Turn off notifications for non-school apps. Use different browsers for fun and work. Talk to teachers about how they’re engaging neurodiverse learners.

Problem #6: Goal-Directed Persistence

Persistence is in short supply these days, especially when external motivators like athletics, after-school activities, and more have been canceled. Try these strategies to offset this effect:

  • Co-create reachable goals. Sit with your child and discuss – neutrally – the goals that matter to you and to them as they relate to school. Brainstorm solutions to obstacles and setbacks (remember, nothing is off the table when brainstorming).
  • Provide neutral cues to get back to work. Use timers or even apps like Stay on Task that cue the user to refocus attention on a task.

Additional Pointers to Foster Better Motivation for Distance Learning

  • Be realistic about what your child can handle. Neurodiverse learners have to work a lot harder than their peers. What your child was capable of before the pandemic may bear little resemblance to what they can do now. Adjust expectations to match your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Hold family meetings about once a week to keep track of your child’s progress, address problems, and check in overall. If you’re working from home, try arranging a “family work time” to work alongside your child. This way you can monitor them and be available to answer any questions. Plus, when you are doing your work, you are signaling that this is the time for them to do theirs.
  • Provide incentives. For children with ADHD, combine external incentives with a reward that matters to them to encourage action until their internal reward and motivation system kicks in in young adulthood. Incentives teach kids that effort leads to satisfying accomplishment. They also improve your relationship with your child, as punishment doesn’t teach motivational skills.
  • IEP and 504 plans still apply in distance learning. Make sure your child is receiving services, and call a meeting with your child’s educational team if not.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety. Predictability and routines are comforting, as is staying positively connected with your child. Help your child feel valued as an intelligent person whose brain just learns differently. Notice their efforts, and do not compare their performance to pre-pandemic times. Make sure there’s opportunity for safe socializing with peers. Above all, aim for consistency – not perfection.

Distance Learning Motivation: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Mid-Year Motivation Guide: Help Your Child Persist with Hybrid or Online Learning” (ADDitude ADHD Experts Podcast episode #336) with Sharon Saline, Psy.D., which was broadcast live on December 9, 2020.


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