Learn Right Now! 8 Secrets to Engaged Online Learning for Students with ADHD
Learning at home has its benefits — fewer corrective comments from teachers, less bullying, and easier mornings. But online learning is also rife with confusion, overwhelm, and distraction, which all lead to procrastination. Use these strategies to help your child with ADHD get started — and stay motivated — to finish school work.
Student Engagement in Remote Learning
Online learning has its perks: namely, more flexibility and less anxiety. But for struggling students, the absence of face-to-face communication, verbal queues, and emotional connections can cause school motivation and progress to plummet. Robust, project-based, experiential learning — not learning by passively listening and reading — is best for ADHD brains. That is largely impossible in quarantine, so what can parents and educators do?
Right now, one problem is that everything is happening on screens: entertainment, social connection, and learning. It’s incredibly challenging for children with ADHD to shift their focus from fun online activities (connecting with friends, playing games, etc.) to online academic work. Weak executive functioning can make it all the more difficult to shift mentally.
Executive functioning is also needed to initiate mental activity. At school, teachers can sense a struggle and step in to help motivate and support the student. Now, the onus is on parents to anticipate problem areas and brainstorm creative solutions to get students beyond blockers like reading, writing, and math challenges that typically stop them in their tracks.
Learning in quarantine won’t last forever, but right now students will benefit from these 7 strategies designed to help them initiate work and engage with material online:
#1. Tweak the Writing Process to Build Confidence
Staring at a blank 8 x 11 page can be intimidating. Ask writing challenged students to make a slideshow instead. Whether it’s PowerPoint, Google Slides, or another app, slideshow programs allow students to use writing and images to convey an idea, provide supporting details, and offer examples in a more visual way.
Ask your child’s teacher if an upcoming essay assignment can be submitted as a slideshow presentation instead. Your child can create individual slides for each of the essay elements, allowing them to focus on one at a time without the pressure of a blank vertical page and urging them to tackle the entire essay at once.
I once counseled a struggling high school student with ADHD whose history teacher assigned only slideshow assignments in place of research papers. This process engaged my student and helped him gain confidence in his writing.
Crisis schooling may present compelling new writing opportunities that reflect a student’s interests. A friend’s son with ADHD started reading the Harry Potter series at the beginning of quarantine and has become completely immersed in the books. Learning this, I set up a writing project for him that incorporates characters from the series. I asked him to defend his argument that Ron Weasley is the most interesting character in the series. Then I led him through the writing process. We brainstormed ideas and then broke them into paragraphs that made sense logically. Suddenly this reluctant writer was blazing!
Most teachers are open to creative learning ideas right now. If your child is struggling, think about a passion of his and discuss your ideas with his teacher.
I’m not saying we should ditch essays altogether, but if we’re looking to engage students with attention challenges in the writing process, assigning slideshow projects during the quarantine may jumpstart their confidence and interest in crafting interesting essays.
#2. Add Motivators to Math: Moving & Small Treats Matter
If your child hates math, try introducing a bit of movement — an engaging modality and energy release. Getting kids out of their seats to engage with math in a physical way can decrease their anxiety and resistance. Taking a hands-on approach to learning is known as kinesthetic learning and can be a great way to help reluctant learners learn history, spelling, and language, too (Scrabble, anyone?).
Use mini M&Ms to teach division. Have your child pass out an equal number of candies to each family member. Then have them write out the related equation. Teach fractions and percentages this way, too. If dad has 5 of the 20 M&Ms, what percent is that? Use playing cards and the game “War” to practice multiplication facts. Have each person draw two cards and multiply them. Whoever has the largest number wins.
A co-teacher and I once turned our classroom into a cookie factory to help students struggling to learn multiplication. We cut out several beige paper “cookies” and used real chocolate chips to make calculations.
To teach second-graders to skip-count, I drew hopscotch courts outside, numbered the squares, and had students jump to the appropriate squares as I called out the numbers. All sorts of math can be taught in the kitchen through recipes, too.
#3. Use Audiobooks to Improve Comprehension & Spark More Interest
For students with ADHD and language processing challenges, reading can be a slog. Audiobooks are effective in engaging struggling readers and getting them over their reluctance to start. The actors reading the text do a fantastic job (usually) to bring the copy, characters, and narration alive.
Most important, audiobooks remove the burden of visual processing which reduces stress and conserves mental energy. Studies show that audiobooks build the same language comprehension skills as does visual reading.1 Nevertheless, I recommend that students follow along with the text as they listen, to bridge the gap between visual and auditory processing.
#4. Personalizing the Writing Process
Writing/editing checklists are nothing new. The key here is to use a student’s specific interest to give the checklist a theme. For example, for a fourth-grade student who loves to bake, I created one that read “Writing Is Like Baking — You Need the Right Ingredients.” I put images of cakes on the edges and listed the standard writing elements: capitals, punctuation, introduction, examples, and so on. The student, who habitually hesitated to begin writing assignments, would happily take out the checklist and get started right away.
You can apply any theme to a checklist. For Harry Potter fans, give it a “Writing Is Like Magic” motif. For sports fans, make an “Elements Needed to Win the Championship” checklist. You get the idea. Customize the checklist to match one of their interests and give their motivation a boost.
#5. Tap into the Visual Power of Timers
Students with attention challenges are overwhelmed when starting lengthy, multi-part projects that require a lot of mental energy. Timers can provide a counterbalance. During any phase of an assignment, I might use my phone to set a timer for 20 minutes. I leave it where students can see it.
This prompts students to start working, as there is now a visual reminder of a time limit. It also eases their anxiety because they know there is only a small section of the assignment to tackle at this moment. This is easy to do at home. Teach them to reward themselves with breaks after completing steps.
#6. Drawing: A Better Way to Brainstorm
If your student has writer’s block and feels stuck, whip out the markers or crayons and encourage them to draw their ideas first. This takes the pressure off and for some an easier/more creative way to generate their thoughts. Email a photo of the drawing to the teacher to show your child’s progress and suggesting adding this as a first step moving forward. Receiving credit for a “drawing brainstorm” may inspire your child to take that difficult first step.
#7. Help Them Learn Better Keyboarding Skills Now
They typically include short video tutorials of specific keyboard hand positions and letters, followed by guided practice. Weekly keyboarding practice builds a valuable life-long skill, and the kids love it.
When your student needs a break from other academics, work in 10 minutes of keyboarding skills. Writing becomes a bit easier when typing skills improve and the student need not think so hard about the keyboarding part.
However, writing can be a nightmare for some students. They have to generate original ideas, then hold them in their working memory, phrase them coherently so they make sense, and finally, write it all down. A speech-to-text software simplifies this process by allowing them to speak their ideas and have them instantly typed on the computer. With their rough ideas on the screen, they can edit and reword without the stress of drawing on several executive functions at once.
#8. Organize Digital Files
Folders help students organize their files. Make a master folder for each school year’s work. Also, make a folder for random pictures, and one for videos or any other interest a child may have.
Inside of each school year’s folder, make a sub-folder for each subject: English, math, history, science, and so on. And in those subject folders, add bins for specific types of assignments. Perhaps most important, make a folder for “Assignments I need to finish.”
Put the year on the master folders. When creating folders for specific assignments, name them clearly for easy retrieval later on. For example, in the English or language arts folders, title one of them “Essays,” another one “Work for novels,” and another called “Grammar assignments.” Repeat for each subject.
Student Engagement with Technology: Testimonials from Teachers
“I use Bloomz reminders for parents, and Google apps and Happy Numbers for the children. I will continue with Bloomz (for updates, reminders, and progress) and Google Classroom apps in the fall.”
“FlipGrid works well. Students can record themselves reading their writing assignments.”
“I’ve been using Microsoft Teams. I’ll continue to use Teams when school reopens. It’s a great way for kids to interact with each other and with me.”
“During Distance Learning I started integrating edpuzzle, a video enhancement platform that tracks students’ progress. In the building this fall, I will likely use Edpuzzle for additional support resources. I’ve discovered that many of my students engage more when using online platforms.”
“Use video games for learning whenever you can. Any lesson that incorporates video games or videos is a plus. Many students love prodigygame.com for math practice. I had used this site/platform in school before remote learning. I also find that any technology that helps them minimize their fear of the concepts that challenge them, whether it be reading or math, keeps them engaged.”
“Google Classroom has been wonderful. I incorporate Google Spreadsheet, where all of the assignments expected to be completed daily and weekly live on one spreadsheet, along with links that bring you to the assignment.”
Student Engagement Strategies: Next Steps
- Read: Closing the Gaps in Distance Learning: Strategies to Meet Educators’ Toughest Challenges
- Download for Free: Distance Learning Strategies for Children with ADHD
- Personal Story: “Zoom Can’t Show You How Hard It Is to Learn This Way”
1Wolfson G (2008). Using audiobooks to meet the needs of adolescent readers. American Secondary Education. 36. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234621625_Using_Audiobooks_to_Meet_the_Needs_of_Adolescent_Readers
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