ADHD News & Research

Surprising Lessons Learned in a Quarantine: When ADHD Brains Pause and Reflect

Over the last six weeks of quarantine, 84% of ADDitude readers said they’ve learned something important — about themselves, their families, and/or their work — that might have otherwise remained obscured. The latest ADDitude survey reveals the many ways this experience of working, learning, and remaining at home will change our lives forever.

April 27, 2020

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” ― C. S. Lewis

Not one of us chose this. No one signed up for a quarantine seemingly without end. No one volunteered to flip their routines upside down and shake them violently. No one pursued face masks and Zoom and Lysol as a way of life. Yet here we are.

And the choice we face now is an important one: Do we rage against the quarantine? Or do we choose to open ourselves to the lessons hiding in this new reality? Do we see this as an opportunity to learn truths — about ourselves, our minds, and our work — that might have otherwise remained obscured?

After a month of sheltering in place, the answer is clear: ADDitude readers are pausing to reflect and learn and adapt.

In a recent survey of 1,525 caregivers and adults with ADHD, 53% of respondents said they’ve moved into a phase of calm acceptance — up from 41% a week prior. Optimism about the future is, likewise, up 10 points. It’s true that 48% of readers expressed anxiety, worry, and overwhelm — but this is down fairly dramatically from 65% one week earlier. Are we feeling bored and frustrated and helpless? Yes. But we are also beginning to exhale.

[ADDitude Survey #2: Benefits of ADHD in a Crisis]

Lessons Learned About Learning

As ADDitude readers begin to breathe normally again, we are taking stock of what is working and what is not working with working and learning and teaching from home. Among caregivers who answered the survey, 84% said they have learned something important about the way their child learns during this time of crisis schooling.

More than half of respondents expressed frustration over the constant redirection needed to keep their child on task during the school day. This is hardly a revelation for parents who have soldiered through long homework sessions for years, but it has served as an important reminder regarding the focusing power of movement, breaks, fidgets, and music.

“My son likes being able to work listening to music or watching a video,” wrote one mother of a 6th grade student. “He likes being able to take movement breaks and play with a fidget toy while he works.”

Theoretically, we all knew that children with ADHD performed better at school with frequent breaks and a more relaxed, self-determined pace. Now, for the first time, 52% of caregivers said they are seeing proof. Without bells and strict class schedules, students are able to bend learning to their ADHD brains — not the other way around.

“This has been a blessing for my 4th grader, who struggles with writing,” wrote one mother who also teaches kindergarten. “Homeschooling has given him more time to actually work on a piece and go through the writing process without having a specific block of time just for writing. We can break an assignment up into more manageable tasks.”

[7 Secrets to Engaged Online Learning Right Now]

Control is a big part of the equation. We heard from 38% of parents that their children do best when they get to choose the order, structure, and priorities of their daily learning. They are making learning personal — shifting subjects to suit the ebbs and flows of their focus and productivity — and seeing encouraging results.

“My son has amazed us all with the way he… plans his day, accomplishes tasks, and seems much less stressed about school,” wrote one mother with ADHD about her high school student, who also has ADHD. “He gets his work done, stays on task, communicates well with teachers, and we have not had to supervise or ask him to do his schoolwork. He has become very independent and he is proud of the good work that he is doing.”

For other parents, crisis schooling has afforded them a rare opportunity to see the full educational picture — teachers’ styles, assignments, due dates, and problem areas. They are more aware of their students’ day-to-day responsibilities, and able to build appropriate scaffolds in real time that may continue to offer support when regular school resumes.

“We have actually found a silver lining in all this: We are much more clear in spelling out what the kids have to do for school,” wrote one parent of an 8th grader with a 504 Plan and 9th grader with an IEP. “Before the shutdown, much of the responsibility for getting work done had shifted to them, and that had not been going well at school. But now we know how to log in and check their progress at school. When they felt overwhelmed with online learning, we made daily homework agendas to chunk their work for the week into digestible daily bites. They are actually doing better at school now than before!”

“One of my ADHD kids has thrived with distance learning; it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him, academically,” wrote one mother of triplets in 5th grade. “For his sister, who also has ADHD, it’s like she’s drowning in schoolwork. She can’t keep track of assignments, can’t figure out how to prioritize, can’t focus and stay on track without bells and time limits and constant supervision.”

For many struggling students, the biggest hurdle is motivation. Lack of motivation was cited by the vast majority of parents, though its root cause was split — 36% said the social aspect of school was their child’s main driving force and, without that, motivation has plummeted; an equal percentage said the blurred lines between home and school have sent their children into permanent weekend mode.

“My son needs social interaction and the distinction between classes to shift gears, as well as redirection when he drifts,” wrote one mother of four students now learning at home. “He hums and taps and twirls the whole time he’s working. He’ll get it done, but he may stretch it out. He doesn’t like the Google class meetings because he said you can’t tell what anyone is looking at and it’s creepy. He wants live interaction.”

Online instruction is disconcerting and ineffective, according to the 34% of survey respondents who said their children are struggling to learn new concepts this way and getting frustrated with technology and assignments that don’t work the way they should. Then there is the constant temptation to click away from Zoom or Google Classroom to a more interesting game or video.

“It’s very difficult to supervise a 9th grader who is learning online,” wrote one parent. “At times he seems to be completely engaged, but then he might change screens to play a game with his friends. It’s frustrating.”

The fact of the matter is: School mates online are not the same as school mates in real life. This is a bad thing for many students — and a good thing for others. Specifically, many parents cited the lack of bullies and teasing as a significant reason why their child with ADHD prefers learning from home. Others spoke of the trade-off they’ve seen with better focus and behavior while their kids are learning at home without friends around.

“He misses the social aspect of school, but homeschooling offers far fewer distractions,” wrote the mother of a 6th grade student. “Plus, his behavior has much improved without the peer pressure of other challenging behavior found at school.”

Lessons Learned About Teaching

Educators are likewise reflecting on the first three to six weeks of distance learning and thinking about how they will change their classrooms and their instruction in the real world. Many expressed a newfound appreciation for the importance of physical movement breaks, social opportunities, and emotional connection with their students.

“My students really miss seeing each other,” wrote one 6th grade teacher. “I’m not a big social person, but I’ve realized how important it is to them. I will allow them to socialize more and not dismiss it.”

“I have learned that I need to ask the students how they are – not tell them to do schoolwork,” wrote one 10th grade teacher. “I learned that my students do work to please me.”

Connections — between students and with the teacher — are clearly critical, at least in part because they facilitate more personalized learning experiences. The freedom and self-guided learning necessitated by this pandemic have opened some educators’ eyes to the value of more independent learning opportunities.

“I’ve realized that what’s most important is always taking care of the child first and making learning meaningful for each individual student,” wrote one 7th grade teacher. “While curriculum guides and district expectations that align with specific units of study may be the focus, what’s crucial is that students are reading what they choose for the most part, and writing, analyzing, researching, arguing, and writing creatively about what’s important to them. Individualized learning plans and schedules for each student need to be encouraged, realized and supported.”

This theme of support ran deep in the survey comments from educators who are being reminded daily that effective learning does not begin or end at the school’s doorstep; coordinated and mutual support between home and school is essential. It does not hurt that the vast majority of educators are also parents who are home with their crisis schooling children now, too.

“I’m learning to give a lot more grace to students with ADHD and their caregivers,” wrote one 1st grade teacher. “After 15 years of teaching, I’m now in the position to have a young learner at home with similar needs. I’m experiencing how tough it is to fully address their academic needs at home and the extreme difficulty to get them motivated. We can only do what we can do at home, and then let their teachers help guide them back once their routine is restored (hopefully sooner than later!) I will take my recently heightened sense of empathy for the students with ADHD and their caregivers back to the classroom.”

Lessons Learned About Working

Like parents, 84% of adults survey respondents said they have learned something new and unexpected about their ADHD brains during this quarantine. Struggling with new and ambiguous working-from-home schedules, 43% of readers said they do best with a “set schedule, external prompts, and deadlines.” They miss the structures of their old professional lives, and feel like they’re flailing as they try to find a new formula that works.

“Every single day has been different for me,” wrote one woman with ADHD, anxiety, and mood disorder. “Some days, I think I’ve nailed my routine – I’m strict about the music I listen to, the places I sit, the hours I work, etc. And then, other days, my carefully crafted routines seem to fall apart and feel useless. Honestly, the most important thing I’ve learned is that I have to be patient with myself and work hard at paying attention to how I’m feeling. I often forget that this is a global crisis, and that it’s OK to feel on top of things one day, and completely emotional and unprepared the next. Expecting a perfect work routine in this environment isn’t fair to myself. The best thing I can do is be gentle and generous with myself.”

Some adults with ADHD are discovering that they actually work more effectively outside the confines of a desk or, worse, a cubicle. They are moving around, listening to music, and experimenting with the conditions that inspire focus and motivation in their ADHD brains. For many, this is the first opportunity they’ve had since high school or college to play in this way.

“I work best when I can choose the way I do the task,” wrote one woman with two children at home. “Deadlines are helpful but micromanaging just suffocates me and I do nothing out of protest. I need freedom!”

“I am loving working from home,” wrote one young professional with anxiety and mood disorder. “I find very hard to concentrate in the office as people are always on calls, laughing, chatting, and eating. It is very hard to control even the wish to complain at times, so being at home has been pleasant. I can work better.”

For all their chatting and eating, colleagues are sorely missed by some adults with ADHD, who are finding it difficult to soldier through work without vibrant, interesting conversation to keep them motivated.

“I miss the energy of working with others!” wrote one mid-aged woman with ADHD and anxiety. “This is much more relaxing, and also slower… not bad, just really not efficient. This time is such a tugging back and forth of liking the slower pace and missing the energy needed to spur me onward.”

Rejection sensitive dysphoria, the emotional anguish of even perceived criticism and rejection, is common among adults with ADHD. For some, working remotely has alleviated this emotional turmoil, even if it does leave them feeling a bit lonely at the same time.

“I miss my friends but now I realize how much I was giving them, and how that was always making my work late,” wrote another woman in her 50s. “Overall, I am much happier because I’m not hearing and sensing the negativity that was all around me.”

Overall, adult responses were split evenly between those who work best with clearly defined structure, and those who prefer to manage and allocate their own time; those who thrive on interactions with colleagues, and those who prefer video conferences to real ones; those who need a clear barrier between home and work, and those who love being able to answer emails in bed at 1 am. As we already knew, there is no single profession or setting that works best for ADHD minds. But all the survey respondents shared one critical trait: A willingness and eagerness to iterate, assess, adjust… and repeat.

“In the middle of difficulty there is opportunity.” – Albert Einstein

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