The Return of In-Person Learning Is Largely Good — and Stressful
“We already know that students with ADHD require more support during stressful times. We also know they need more help managing change and transition. If parents and teachers go into hybrid schooling with these expectations, they will do a better job planning for what is likely to happen.”
One year after the first pandemic lockdown, many parents, school administrators, and child development specialists are thrilled that students are returning to “normal” school in some capacity. They believe that learning happens best when students are in a formal school setting surrounded by peers, and when they stick to a specific academic curriculum and calendar.
However, in our rush to return to “normal” from school during the pandemic, even in a part-time hybrid model, we risk overlooking how hard this transition will be for so many students. These back-to-school changes and transitions will be especially difficult for students with ADHD, for whom parents and teachers need to adjust expectations and make accommodations ahead of time. Pro-active measures will increase the likelihood that these students and their families have a more positive transition to hybrid schooling.
School Gets Harder Earlier Now
Teens are working harder in school now than ever before. The expectations regarding grades, workloads, performance on standardized tests, and college preparations have changed the school experience. Additionally, depending on the school district, academic performance in middle school can impact access to honors classes in high school. In other words, the college race can start as early as 6th grade. Administrators, teachers, and parents often set expectations that are difficult to meet. This is especially true for students with ADHD who may have to work harder to keep up, let alone excel.
The Impact of Stress and Trauma on Learning
Our brains and bodies are built for quick, short bursts of energy so that we can fight for our lives or run away to save them (i.e., fight or flight). During these bursts, our higher-level thinking shuts down. This happens on purpose. Our brain wants us to focus on surviving. It does not want us to stand there and think through each different aspect of the situation.
Once we experience stress for a long time, our brains are negatively impacted. Our ability to concentrate, remember, learn, and problem solve suffers. We get mentally, emotionally, and physically tired quickly. We also get frustrated quickly and we are less likely to spend considerable time on an annoying or boring task. This makes it more difficult to learn complicated material and succeed on complex tasks and tests.
When students are experiencing significant stress or trauma and/or its fallout, they are less likely to succeed academically. This is true for students in general. The prolonged stress associated with the pandemic has impacted most kids. In addition, kids and teens do not have the same coping skills that adults do. As a result, this already scary situation is that much harder to process. Students with ADHD already struggle to manage stress and transitions; having to meet high standards while experiencing prolonged stress is a setup for frustration and poor performance.
Flexibility and patience are key to making hybrid schooling work
Expecting students to keep up with a normal academic load and rigor is not realistic given the level of burnout most kids, teens, and adults feel at this point. Balancing the constantly changing schedules and demands of hybrid learning can quickly exacerbate burnout. This is even more true for students with ADHD, who likely already have trouble with transitions, follow-through, strict deadlines, and a heavy workload.
If parents and schools want students with ADHD to successfully transition to hybrid schooling during these stressful times, they will need to adjust their expectations and make accommodations. It is important to remember that anxiety and stress will make any pre-existing condition or learning difficulty worse. As a result, parents and teachers should expect students with ADHD to need extra support. Examples of support and accommodations that can help students with ADHD transition to hybrid schooling successfully include:
- Allowing for additional time on tests
- Postponing deadlines for projects and papers
- Breaking assignments up into chunks and having them due over several days
- Scheduling only one test per day
- Providing students the chance to take movement and rest breaks throughout the day
- Providing students with two sets of textbooks and workbooks, one for home and one for school
- Requiring teachers to post their lesson plans online so students can access them if they need to review a lesson
- Offering different options to meet a learning goal instead of insisting that all students must complete the same assignment
- Holding extra office hours for students who need help understanding lessons
- Offering chances for extra credit in case a student does poorly on an assignment or test
Hybrid Learning with ADHD: Next Steps
Hybrid learning is challenging for teachers, parents, and students. There are more logistics and details to track. There are many benefits to attending school in person, even part-time. However, these benefits can quickly disappear if its challenges are not expected and addressed.
We already know that students with ADHD require more support during stressful times. We also know they need more help managing change and transition. If parents and teachers go into hybrid schooling with these expectations, they will do a better job planning for what is likely to happen. Planning for an ideal scenario will likely result in a lot of frustration for everyone involved. Parents, teachers, and guidance counselors should work closely before and during hybrid schooling to develop and modify learning plans that help students with ADHD succeed at home and at school. Planning, flexibility, patience, and understanding give everyone the best chance for a positive outcome during difficult times.
Hybrid Learning: Next Steps
- Understand: Hybrid Learning Is (Still) Disorienting. How to Help Ground a Student with ADHD.
- Read: Building Sandcastles In a Tsunami: How to Support Your Child Amid Whirling School Changes
- Learn: Asynchronous Learning is Tough on ADHD Brains. These Hacks Will Help.
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. She is director of the Bucks County Anxiety Center and has recently published a guide for parents titled “How to Educate Your Child During a Crisis.”
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