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2 Simple Ways to Build Novelty Into Online Learning – While Boosting Executive Functions

For students with ADHD, building variety and structure into the daily learning routine is vital to improving distance learning and building key executive function skills.

Child with headphones using laptop computer for online learning.

I don’t know where my day went. How did the week go by so fast?

As an academic coach who specializes in working with students with ADHD, I heard these refrains often last March and April. Sheltering in place day after day, with little variety in their routine, my clients craved productivity and structure — they just didn’t know how to achieve that while stuck at home in the midst of a pandemic.

It turns out that our brains are very sensitive to novelty and may even delight in change. I remember nearly every detail about the amazing vacation my family took to Hawaii years ago, but what about my daily routine last week? Or even yesterday? It’s mostly a blur. So blame our ADHD brains; they just want to have fun.

So how can we harness the novelty-seeking component of our kids’ brains to keep them engaged in classwork and to maximize their retention in Round 2 of distance learning? By creating varied schedules and “new” experiences that also work to build much-needed executive function skills.

The Power of Varying Weekly Schedules

A reliable weekly schedule not only brings a sense of order to life — it has the added benefit of allowing variety and novelty in healthy doses, and strengthening the key executive function skills of time management, planning, and organization. Moving from one activity to another in a planned and mindful fashion — while adding in breaks, play or outdoor time — re-energizes the ADHD brain and improves alertness and attention for the next task at hand. This is especially important during distance learning, when students are at home so much of the day. Here are the components of an engaging schedule:

[Are You Crisis Schooling? Daily Schedule Advice for ADHD Families]

  • Together with your child, outline a weekly schedule on notebook or printer paper (writing connects best with the brain) with separate columns for each day. In each column, create color blocks for the day’s major activities – blue for sleep hours, green for school time, red for homework, etc. Add in mealtimes and screen time. Include play or down-time, even family time. Alternate sedentary activities with more active ones whenever possible. Make the creation of this schedule collaborative and fun!
  • Write in start and stop times for different activities. Some of these times will be specific, such as school or sleep. Others will be more general. Have your child estimate how much screen or play time they should have each day (and then tweak together) to build this important executive function skill. Some students will benefit from more planned time in their schedule; others slightly less. Tailor the schedule to the individual child and your family’s routines. Older kids can create a schedule on their own, after you discuss the parameters together, and then share with you the routines they have created for themselves.
  • Put the schedule in a place where it can be easily seen. Make copies if needed!
  • Actually refer to the schedule often. It will take time and repeated practice for kids to use their schedule and to internalize it as their own. In the beginning, use prompts such as “What’s coming up next on your schedule today?” to help your child stay on track. Asking them to check their schedule, not you, allows children to build and internalize the critical executive function skills of self-monitoring and refocusing.
  • Be flexible. Check in with your child. If times or activities need to be adjusted, that is okay. Collaboration and communication are the keys to success. Routines change when life gets in the way — a doctor’s appointment, an unplanned outing, social engagements. This is just an outline of your child’s week — sometimes life fills in the blanks.

Make Familiar Spaces Feel Like New

While working at home on a lengthy project or task, have you ever spontaneously picked up your work and moved to a new spot and suddenly felt renewed focus or energy? That is the novelty-seeking brain getting a jolt of energy. Our kids can benefit from this as well if they move locations for different remote classes or homework sessions. This simple move can improve memory of learned information as well as attention and focus, both critical executive function skills for kids with ADHD. To tap into these new spaces:

  • Assess your spaces first. Decide with your child what spaces in or outside the home are conducive to learning. Is it quiet and free from distraction? Is there enough available light? Is there a workable laptop and writing area?
  • Mix it up, moving each class period or homework subject to a new study space; maybe math and science at the kitchen table, English and history at a bedroom desk, Spanish in the office. The same goes for homework — variety is the key!
  • Check in with your child periodically: Is the space working? Frequent self-monitoring is key to positive change.

While the present remote learning model can feel overwhelming, it will eventually end, and students will return to the classroom. Meanwhile, finding opportunities to engage the novelty-seeking brain and foster academic growth while building executive function skills will ensure that students’ time at home is well spent.

Online Learning: Next Steps

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