Executive Functions

Bridging Executive Function Gaps in Middle School: ADHD Strategies for Distance Learning

Executive functions strain and suffer in middle school as workloads increase and developing ADHD brains struggle to catch up — especially in distance learning. Here, learn how to bolster your adolescent’s executive functions from home.

Illustration of a teacher hand holding a book bridging the gap in education for children passing by

The middle school years are notoriously tough on students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) and lagging executive functions – the brain skills that help them study, organize and plan, remember to turn in assignments, and more. Add new, atypical learning environments to the mix, and the already-strained mental flexibility of adolescents with ADHD is only further tested and torn asunder.

To help your middle school student with ADHD meet these mounting challenges, it is best to maintain an active role in their schooling. Start utilizing tools and strategies that sharpen and support their executive function skills at home.

Why Executive Functions Falter in Middle School

Middle school marks a time of increased cognitive and academic demands on the still-developing brains of preteens and teens. These increased classroom demands, some of them listed below, depend heavily on executive function skills (associated with the brain’s prefrontal cortex) for their correct and efficient completion:

  • Understanding directions, independently starting on work, and asking for help all rely on metacognition, or thinking through personal choices
  • Working despite distractions or fatigue relies on focus, often a struggle for students with ADHD
  • Turning in homework on time relies on working memory, the skill of storing and recalling many pieces of information at one time
  • Finishing work on time relies on time management and prioritization

For students with ADHD, these executive function challenges are complicated and exacerbated by a neurological fact: ADHD brains develop more slowly than do neurotypical brains, especially in the prefrontal cortex. As a result, the ADHD brain lags 2 to 3 years behind the non-ADHD brain. This creates a scenario where middle school students with ADHD are navigating an academically charged environment with the executive function skills of most elementary school students.

[Essential Reading: What Does Executive Dysfunction Look Like?]

How to Support Your Adolescent with Executive Function Deficits

1. Act like a teacher

This is admittedly difficult, regardless of whether you’re a working parent. Still, try to act as a surrogate teacher and be as present as possible while your child is distance learning. Your presence and support will help your middle school student with self-motivation, self-regulation, task persistence, and other executive functions. If possible, try the following:

  • Don’t leave the room. Teachers are physically present to monitor behavior and check in with students to see if they understand assignments. Can your adolescent work near you at home?
  • Ask to see completed work. You may get some pushback, but it’s important to establish expectations so that your child knows their completed work has to be reviewed by you before going to the actual teacher. The point, however, is not to correct the work, but to check that the assignment has been fully completed and to help your adolescent become accountable for finishing things.
  • Understand the school’s distance learning platform. Just because your child is great at video games and TikTok doesn’t mean they understand distance learning platforms. Many of them require too many clicks in too many folders or subsections, which overloads working memory. That can mean missed assignments, incorrect deadlines, mixed-up uploads, and so on. Work with your kids to understand the platform – have them show you how it works or troubleshoot with them.

2. Set up proper workstations

No matter how limited your space at home, your child should have a working area that is as optimal for learning as possible.

  • Work in one space: Ideally, you and your child can work in the same area or near enough so that you can provide consistent support and guidance.
  • Avoid bedrooms. Bedrooms, especially messy ones, typically do not make for great workstations.
  • Allow movement. Many adolescents with ADHD can’t sit all day. Let your child stand while doing homework and other activities that require sustained attention. Use simple props to adjust screen levels to make standing and movement easier while working.
  • Use analog clocks and timers. Children with ADHD need help visualizing the passing of time (more on this below).
  • Use planners or any system that lets your child see their assignments, tasks, tests, and more all in one place.

3. Make time visible

People with ADHD struggle with time blindness. They need to “see” time passing to be organized, punctual, and focused – all skills that depend on sharp executive functions.

[Click to Read: Are You Time Blind? 12 Ways to Use Every Hour Effectively]

Aside from using Time Timers, I recommend that adolescents draw “time circles” to get a better sense for how much time a task takes. These time circles are simply the faces of analog clocks shaded according to time (one hour is a fully shaded circle, half an hour is half-shaded, and so on).

For one week, have your child try the following activity:

  • On a sheet of paper, have them list out activities like math homework, chores, studying, etc., along with two columns – one for how much time they think each task will take, and the other with how much time each actually took.
  • Have your child guess for how long each task will take with time circles. Note: if they think math homework will take them an hour, have them to draw four 15-minute time circles (to encourage working in chunks) as opposed to one continuous hour.
  • Use a timer or a stopwatch to see how long each activity takes and use time circles to represent these times in the appropriate column.

This activity will ultimately help your child with time estimation and management, organization, prioritization, and other executive function skills.

4. Make tasks visible

Have your child write out their daily plans, assignments, chores, and other to-dos (along with time circles to indicate duration for each) on a dry erase board. It is important that the parent not write the list. The child needs to own the list as their plan. Have your child cross out completed activities – a proven way to supply the brain with dopamine hits and to motivate your child to move on to the next activity.

These boards are great tools to support working memory, accountability, independence, and future thinking. Many children with ADHD also respond best to visuals, which a white board can facilitate.

One dry erase board can also be used for the whole family. Not only will it work as a reminder system for everyone; it will also minimize nagging because you can just look at the board to see what’s on your child’s plate for the day.

5. Help them “see” the future

Use a planner or a similar layout to indicate and track your adolescent’s important commitments – in and out of school – noting the duration of each. Zoom classes can be listed here, as well as mealtimes, bedtimes, family time, social plans, and more.

While weekly schedules help, monthly schedules do much more to develop future thinking. As with dry boards, your teens should cross off completed activities as they go.

Distancing learning in middle school is no easy feat. These strategies can help smooth out bumps along the way, but remember: improvement doesn’t happen overnight, and your child is doing the best they can. Apart from these strategies, ensure that your child’s basic needs (nutritious meals, sleep, exercise) are being met, and strive to create an environment with predictability and consistency. And parents, don’t forget to calm and center yourself when facing daily challenges. Little by little, this will make the distance learning experience better.

Executive Functions & Distance Learning: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “The Middle School Survival Guide for Students with ADHD and Executive Function Deficits” by Marydee Sklar which was broadcast live on October 20, 2020.

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