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“What Will a Return to In-Person Learning Mean for My Child with ADHD?”

“Come September, will he watch his peers catch up from their academic losses at a much faster rate than him? And if he does, how will that affect his confidence and motivation to learn? Along with these keep-me-up-at-night thoughts, I do harbor some hopes for the year ahead.”

Kids going back to school - concept image of a lone child with a face mask wearing a bookbag and holding books

In early 2020, my 9-year-old son was hitting his stride. With ADHD and dyslexia diagnoses the previous year, he’d received new supports and was flourishing. He was doing well academically, loved his teacher, and had started making some good friends.

Then, on March 11, 2020, Seattle became the first major public district in the country to close its schools, and everything changed. Fast.

Like many families in the months and, in our case, year that followed, we struggled with this new world of online learning.

My son disliked learning through a screen, and struggled to connect with his classmates and teachers. In person, he had fully participated in classroom discussions. With virtual learning, he was quiet and withdrawn. If I didn’t make sure he logged in at 8:30 a.m., he’d often sit and stare blankly at his computer without turning it on. Without the structure of a physical classroom, he also found it harder to focus, and he struggled to do his asynchronous assignments.

For a kid who had once been anchored firmly in his school and community, he seemed to be floating aimlessly. And the only people who seemed to notice this were me and my husband.

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Parenting During a Crisis — with ADHD

To add fuel to the fire, I have ADHD, too. With remote learning, I struggled to keep my head above the water. Other neurotypical parents would complain that the situation was hard (and it was), but with my brain, these struggles were magnified.

Scheduling never had been my strength, and with two children in online school — one in kindergarten and one in the fourth grade — plus my own work to boot, every day felt like survival mode.

In the face of multiple passwords, tech problems, and schedule changes, I didn’t feel like I was failing — I knew I was. I wore down over the months, and the fun parts of being the kind of parent I had wanted to be — the one who baked and spoke French to my kids and was OK with them covering the kitchen floor in baking soda when they did a science experiment — started to ebb away. As I lost energy, I lost my personality.

I was homeschooling my kids without all the benefits of homeschooling I had heard about, and I was in a school system without the supports I needed to make this system actually work for my family.

[Read: The Return of In-Person Learning Is Largely Good — and Stressful]

What Will the Future Hold?

In Seattle, all students are scheduled to return to school full time and in person in September 2021. While I feel happy about this, as we get closer to fall, I’m filled with what-ifs and concerns about the return.

There are the worries I try to brush off, like a new variant wreaking havoc and causing schools to pause their reopening (please, universe, do not let this happen).

Then there are my more realistic fears: What if my son finds traditional school boring? In the few times he had in-person instruction in the past year, the school had planned a 3 Rs curriculum, which did nothing to re-engage my child. Will that be the same this time? Or what if, in some Herculean effort to catch up kids because of learning losses suffered during the pandemic, his school pushes subjects like art and social studies to the margins in favor of reading, writing, and math? If this happens, I can’t imagine my son finding school an interesting place again because, frankly, it won’t be.

Then there’s my last fear: actual learning loss. With ADHD and dyslexia, my son is often at a disadvantage in reading and writing, and he was unmotivated to do his schoolwork in the past year. Though his marks are OK, I’m worried about how he will fare in the fifth grade. Sure, other students will likely have gaps in their learning, too, but time has shown that gaps in my son’s learning really affect him, and are not easily filled in.

Come September, will he watch his peers catch up from their academic losses at a much faster rate than him? And if he does, how will that affect his confidence and motivation to learn?

Along with these keep-me-up-at-night thoughts, I do harbor some hopes for the year ahead. While we often bemoaned ‘tech glitches’ this past year, technology also came through for my son in a major way. For the first time, he did his writing assignments on a laptop, and the speech-to-text program he used made an enormous difference in his ability to produce content. Suddenly, instead of hammering out a few words in a minute, he could create stories and full reports. This will be an extremely useful tool for him to use going forward, and I’m grateful that remote learning helped him start using it earlier.

We were also able to witness how our child actually learns and come up with new ways to support him. We realized, for example, our son needed more time to complete class assignments and made sure that this accommodation was in his updated IEP. When he failed a math test and said he would’ve liked more time to do it, I encouraged him to ask his teacher to let him retake the test and give him more time. Both his homeroom and special education teacher agreed, and he got an almost perfect score the next time. With a little help from us, he was able to advocate for himself and see the difference a learning accommodation could make. I hope that this experience with self-advocacy sticks with him.

How to Support a Child Going Back to In-Person Learning

There’s no doubt about it — remote schooling was tough, and even with all the looming questions, most of me is excited about school starting back full time. With a little help from us, our kids can successfully make the transition and celebrate their return to in-person learning this upcoming school year by following these tips:

  • Support kid connections: Before the school year starts, help your child connect with other children who will attend their school. Set up in-person or online play dates, register your child at a summer camp, or have them join a local sports team or extracurricular activity. If you don’t know families that attend the school, contact your school’s principal or PTA president for ideas on how to meet some.
  • Stay positive: Remind your child about their past successes. No matter what their school situation was last year, there’s a high chance it was neither normal nor ideal — and they did it! They are superheroes now, and they will take the new school year on. Yes, they might still have to wear masks, but now they can do science in class or (fingers crossed) have more freedom to play in different areas of the school yard at recess.
  • Remind your child: ‘You know you.’ If this past year taught me anything, it was what was working for my child and what wasn’t. That kind of self-knowledge is a powerful thing for a child to have. Encourage your kids to take what they have learned about themselves as learners into the school year ahead. This might mean practicing self-advocacy, leaning into a new learning strategy, or incorporating technology into their education in new ways.

Kids Going Back to School: Next Steps

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