Why my son’s ADHD makes remote school a daily struggle — and how to ease the pain

Kamilah Newton
·8 min read
"Often I find myself staring at my laptop for hours, unable to formulate a sentence," writes a mom about how her son's ADHD affects the whole family during the pandemic. (Getty Images)
"Often I find myself staring at my laptop for hours, unable to formulate a sentence," writes a mom about how her son's ADHD affects the whole family during the pandemic. (Getty Images)

Between remote learning and working from home, every parent I know is struggling now more than ever to maintain a semblance of normalcy — or, if you’re like me, sanity. While on some days I do feel equipped to help my 6-year-old son with his second grade assignments, most days lately, between his work and mine, feel insurmountable.

That’s especially true because my son has ADHD — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — which makes the realities that are already hard for absolutely everyone seem even harder.

A quick peek into my reality: breakfasts reheated six times over, and sometimes no full meal before 2 p.m., despite breastfeeding my 6-month-old daughter throughout the day. Once-normal household happenings — a package delivery, for example, which wakes the dog and then the infant — are now major nuisances and distractions. And sleep has been elusive, to say the least. Most days I have my partner to lean on, but even he is working two jobs amid the growing pandemic.

Often I find myself staring at my laptop for hours, unable to formulate a sentence because my train of thought is constantly interrupted by sometimes overwhelming requests for assistance from my son, whom I feel for deeply right now.

A quick Twitter search, of course, showed me that I’m not alone.

And a newly published study about remote learning in the earliest days of the pandemic (albeit small and focused on teens) found that 31 percent of parents of adolescents with ADHD and in-school supportive education plans (IEP/504) reported remote learning to be “very challenging.”

“Adolescents with ADHD had fewer routines and more remote learning difficulties than adolescents without ADHD,” the study’s abstract notes. “Parents of adolescents with ADHD had less confidence in managing remote learning and more difficulties in supporting home learning and home-school communication.”

How ADHD affects remote learning

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ADHD is “one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood.” It is characterized by “deficits in attention, trouble focusing and, in some cases, difficulties with hyperactivity and impulsivity,” Carey A. Heller, a psychologist who specializes in the treatment and evaluation of ADHD, tells Yahoo Life. And while it “impacts academics in general,” he adds, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented additional educational barriers.

“There are executive function deficits which are essential life skills involved in planning, organizing tasks and kind of ‘getting going,’” Heller explains, naming the main skill set needed for successful remote learning. Because students are not face-to-face with teachers, he adds, it may be harder for the instructors to notice when some children lose focus. Furthermore, the structure of remote learning tools can put children with ADHD at a disadvantage because just the multi-step process of logging in and submitting assignments can be difficult and discouraging in itself.

“With remote learning, it may not be as easy to ask for help if you need it,” Heller says. “It’s easier to get even more distracted because there’s a million temptations, and, in general, studies have shown that people’s attention spans, regardless of ADHD, are often shorter online than they are in person. It can also be harder for kids that are in a hybrid model, because the schedule can be very confusing to keep track of.”

Based on the families he services, Heller says there are “definitely some kids that have done better with online learning, but other kids have done far worse because there’s an increased need to be independent.”

Add in all the other realities of home life, Haftan Eckholdt, a developmental psychologist and chief science officer at Understood, told NPR recently, and the situation gets more complicated — for everyone involved. “Most parents have jobs or they’re looking for jobs,” Eckholdt said. "Most households don’t have a space that they can say, ‘This is now your classroom — this is your space, and you’ll have this and nothing else will happen here.’”

And, he added, “there are siblings and pets and all kinds of things going on, including parents. So there are a lot of things that are novel and very challenging to kids with ADHD."

Tips for surviving — and thriving

For parents, Heller explains, “the first thing to identify is what is your role as a parent,” noting that sometimes it can be helpful to consult with your child’s teacher in order to get a better understanding of what is expected from you. “One of the other things that’s really helpful is a great structure. Thinking about what the school day is going to look like and having a clutter-free space just for schoolwork is really important, because this makes a world of difference for parents — especially when they're working from home.”

Then, when helping to explain assignments, it’s important to start with the big picture first, Sydney Zentall, ADHD expert and professor emerita of educational studies at Purdue University, told Edutopia recently. “[Kids with ADHD] need to see the forest, then the trees,” said Zentall. “Start with the biggest idea first, then specifics,” she said, because starting with too much detail is overwhelming for kids with ADHD.

Fostering independence is also crucial, Heller says, explaining that a key part of his philosophy is what he calls “the idea of parenting for independence.” He says that “as you’re helping your child with something, you’re not just reminding them to do this or do that — instead, you’re giving them a set of tools they can openly use on their own.” He recommends teaching children to use supportive technology such as Alexa, Google Home, Google Calendar or a task-managing app, so that “over time they can learn to use it themselves.”

Another method Heller recommends is to “harness fidgeting” to improve a child’s focus. “When kids have extra movement, what you can actually do is take that movement and harness it in a productive way,” he says, suggesting desk bikes as one way for kids to release physical energy at their laptops. As an alternative, be sure to make space for physical breaks from learning, suggests the Edutopia guide — whether it’s with breathing exercises, snack breaks or just time for goofing around to release some energy.

For children who need constant help, Heller says, “You can have set check-in times, so they know that you’ll come check on them then, and if a child is comfortable with it, you could set up a video call, so that you can see them while you’re in different rooms. For some kids, knowing that they’re going to be watched can help keep them [remain] on task better.”

Lastly, Heller says that “like with most strategies, it’s important to talk to kids and have them be on board, not just force it on them, because they tend to respond better.” But he stresses that “if a parent can take care of themselves first, and manage their own stuff, it’ll make it a lot easier to be an effective parent — and especially an effective teacher or co-teacher.”

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