Learning Challenges

When Hybrid Learning Causes More Harm Than Good: School Options for ADHD Families

“Going back to school, even if only in a hybrid capacity, disrupts the ‘new normal.’ Students, teachers, and parents are, once again, expected to get used to new and changing schedules and systems. Students with ADHD are disproportionately impacted by these changes. Would your child benefit from staying in an alternative learning situation for the rest of the school year?”

Bored schoolboy from online classes. Back to school. Tired of homework. Education and back to school concepts
Bored schoolboy from online classes. Back to school. Tired of homework. Education and back to school concepts

The Transition to In-Person Learning Does Not Benefit All Students

As more schools open up for in-person and hybrid learning, many parents, educators, and child health experts are thrilled. They believe that going back to school in person, even part-time, is the best solution to the various mental health, social, and academic issues facing kids in grades K-12 right now.

While this may be true for most children, many students with ADHD are suffering right now. Returning to school, even in a hybrid capacity, is a poor fit for their needs — namely for consistency, routine, and predictable supports. Despite good intentions, hybrid learning is disrupting every area of their lives. For these students with ADHD, completing the school year in a non-traditional learning program may bring short-term academic gains and set them up for success in the future.

Students with ADHD Have a Complicated Relationship with Traditional Schooling

Many people believe that the best learning always takes place in a school setting. However, research shows us this is not the case. Kids start learning at home from their parents, siblings, and caregivers from birth. By the time children start nursery school or kindergarten, they have already gained knowledge and skills from a wide range of people, places, and experiences. Our ability to learn in different settings and situations does not go away once we officially start school.

Students with ADHD and executive functioning deficits often have a complicated relationship with traditional school systems. On one hand, the structure, schedules, deadlines, and accountability from authority figures help to keep them focused and moving forward. However, students with ADHD often struggle at school when work and deadlines pile up, when they can’t ‘reset’ between classes, when they encounter a lack of flexibility regarding time on tests and deadlines, and when educators place an emphasis on learning in one way. As a result, students with ADHD tend to struggle with mood disorders, anxiety, anger, social issues, and poor self-esteem once the workload and expectations exceed what they can handle. We also see a large spike in the negative impact of ADHD on school performance during middle school and high school, when hormones, pressure to participate in extracurricular activities, and relationships make focusing on academics even more difficult.

[Additional Reading: When Distance Learning Meets ADHD]

The Pandemic Proved That Kids Can Thrive in Diverse Educational Settings

When schools switched to online learning in the spring of 2020, many parents feared the worst. Yes, many families struggled to manage this new set up and/or school districts fell short in providing useful ways to learn under extreme stress. However, many students who typically struggle in a regular school setting, including kids with ADHD, thrived. They did well because they were more comfortable at home and could create situations and settings where they were able to learn better than they had in school.

While at home, many students with ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders were able to learn better and decrease their overall anxiety due to a combination of factors including:

  • Sleeping longer hours
  • Taking movement breaks during and in between classes
  • Sitting on beds, floors, cushions, couches, and other surfaces that helped them feel more comfortable than a traditional school desk
  • Eating and drinking whenever they needed to
  • Dealing with fewer distractions such as large crowds, noises, smells, and multiple transitions
  • Taking breaks to deal with the stress of having to concentrate for long periods

Going back to school, even if only in a hybrid capacity, disrupts this ‘new normal.’ Students, teachers, and parents are, once again, expected to get used to new and changing schedules and systems. Students with ADHD are disproportionately impacted by these changes. We know that kids, teens, and adults with ADHD struggle with change and usually need more time and support to adjust. Additionally, having to keep track of the logistics involved in hybrid schooling (e.g., alternating schedules, going back and forth between online and in-person learning, keeping track of papers and books) impacts their ability to take advantage of any benefits that situation might provide.

How Can We Help Students with ADHD End the Year Successfully?

In many cases, students with ADHD will benefit from staying in an alternative learning situation for the rest of the school year. Students normally start to feel stress and burnout by the spring. Finishing the school year is tough enough for students with ADHD even under the best of circumstances. What if they could complete the program they are currently in so they can focus on learning and meeting requirements? How much would they and their families benefit from reducing change and transition right now?

[ADHD in a Pandemic: ADDitude Surveys Its Readers About WFH, Distance Learning, Stress & More]

Many parents believe that being in a school building, even part-time, is essential for learning. However, their kids have been learning online for a year at this point. Though the situation is hardly perfect, it is what their children are now used to managing. If their student is doing well enough, staying with the current program allows them to maintain their academic gains. It also makes it possible to manage the anxiety that is already present instead of having to deal with extra physical and emotional stress.

By keeping the learning situation the same until the end of the school year, parents are also setting up their students for possible academic success. If their kids go back to school now, they will likely spend the rest of the year struggling to adjust. In some districts, the school year will end in less than six weeks. Is it worth changing what is already working for six weeks? By finishing the year successfully, their children will experience less anxiety, burnout, and negative feelings about their academic ability. If these students return to a regular school setting in the fall, they can do so from a position of strength.

Hybrid Learning Considerations for Students with ADHD: Next Steps

Learning during the pandemic has been difficult for almost all students and families. Many parents and kids are excited to get back to a regular school day for different reasons spanning academics, childcare, social opportunities, and family dynamics. However, parents of students with ADHD need to consider the impact of a sudden change and whether the stress and setbacks it could cause the entire family is worth it.

If your student is doing well, or even thriving, in their current learning situation, consider letting them complete the school year on a high note. Let them channel their mental, physical, and emotional energy toward learning instead of dealing with change. Focus on supporting their love of learning. There are plenty of changes and transitions on the horizon. Let’s give them the chance to build up their academic, emotional, and physical reserves so that they can successfully tackle whatever comes their way next year.

Hybrid Learning Challenges for Students with ADHD: Next Steps

Dr. Ronit Levy is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with high achieving teens and adults struggling with anxiety due to anxiety, OCD, ADHD, chronic illness, and life events.

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1 Comments & Reviews

  1. All excellent points. I would add to the list 2 addutional benefits of virtual instruction: the absence of bullying and the reduction of stress for my ADHD son. Actual bullying does exist in schools, as I often volunteer I see it firsthand. My son and other disabled students were harassed and bullied often. The stress and anxiety my son experienced in school and at aftercare, which carried over into our home life, is blessedly absent. I don’t think most parents consider how stressful it is for some ADHD kids to fight their tendency to succumb to their rejection sensitivity, to worry constantly about saying the wrong thing, to have anxiety about meeting new people, or even being called on in class. My son has greatly benefitted from being at home, bolstered by a “pod” of children with whom he was able to socialize, with thanks to my single mother’s group. I believe he has also benefitted greatly from my observation/ overhearing what is going on in his classes – I am able to see how the teachers teach, am able to adapt to his learning style when I “reteach”, and have been able to point out to our Special Ed liasion when teachers are being particularly insensitive or deliberately ignoring the needs of ADHD students. His grades have SOARED this year, and he has made great friends in our “pod.” I would be interested to know if other families have had similar experiences or results!

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