How to help children with ADHD thrive in a virtual schoolhouse
(CNN) -- When schools shut down because of the coronavirus, some parents of children with ADHD found themselves in a stressful predicament.
Homeschooling is hard for any parent who's never done so before, but parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder face special challenges.
It means parents who are likely ill-equipped are dealing with learning and behavioral differences that their children's school professionals may have been trained to manage.
As the school year comes to an end for many students around the world, there are lessons to be learned as parents consider virtual summer school or camps and anticipate virtual school in the fall.
A neurodevelopmental disorder commonly diagnosed in childhood that often lasts into adulthood, ADHD stems from underdeveloped or impaired executive function and self-regulation skills, according to Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child. Those skills help us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and multitask.
Children may have trouble paying attention, controlling their impulses or may be overly active.
These symptoms allow children to do well in some environments — fast-paced or creative — but they can also be severe and cause difficulties at home or school and with friends. That's why children with ADHD need a school environment that helps them stay on track, maintain a structure and be supported by peers and teachers.
The sudden switch to virtual learning has greatly upset this routine.
Leslie Hall of Charlotte, North Carolina, said her sixth grader's shift to virtual learning was tough at first. The constant influx of assignment notifications across several platforms distracted her son, Sam.
"The first week I could barely keep up," she said. "He'd be working on a science assignment and the social studies teacher would send a text with her assignment so naturally he'd jump to that. Then another teacher would send an assignment and he'd jump to that. For a kid who likes order, it led to a lot of frustration."
Tiffany Johnson of Fort Worth, Texas, said her eighth grader is finally settling into virtual learning after weeks of volatile challenges.
Johnson witnessed her son having small meltdowns over technological difficulties, misunderstanding assignments and group projects with classmates who didn't understand him.
She's used to working from home, but sometimes she has had to sit with her son all day to help him manage online school. She's also dealing with her own depression and anxiety on top of her son's issues.
"The stress of a global pandemic, a new day to day that changes week to week, technology challenges and frustrations," she said, "some days it's really hard because if I'm not level, he won't be level," Johnson said.
Jeanine Kalulu of Vista, California, helps her grandson with his schoolwork while she works from home and her daughter, who is an essential worker, works elsewhere.
They've faced numerous obstacles, including equipment and technological issues, restlessness and distraction. The in-class aide and one-on-one time he had didn't transfer to a virtual medium, and the classes weren't engaging to him.
"He did get upset one time because he didn't want to do the lesson, and he said it's boring," Kalulu said. "We were doing [the lesson] on the phone at that time because he couldn't get it on the laptop. So he threw the phone down."
Now, he does only the paper assignments, mainly because his school hasn't yet provided him with a laptop and so he can't access the online lessons.
There are ways parents can help their kids thrive in remote learning, balance homeschooling with a neurodivergent child while working from home and work through frustrations together.
Benefits of a school structure
Children with ADHD benefit from the structure of traditional school settings, said Robin Nordmeyer, co-founder and managing director of the Center for Living Well with ADHD-Minnesota, an ADHD coaching group serving all ages.
A traditional school allows a student to show up and go through the motions of a class structure. The school bell's ring helps signal a clear-cut transition between classes, and between school and home life. The consistent, predictable routine helps some students stay on track.
Children with ADHD also draw from the community and connection schools can provide, complete with peers and educators who model behavior, offer emotional support and champion the educational or social goals of the student.
"What's happened with Covid-19 is we've shifted from having that infrastructure and support from school," Nordmeyer said. "And parents have had to pick up a lot of the things that can't be provided with virtual learning. And maybe they don't know how best to help them because they haven't been trained in that particular area of need."
"Parents are having to take on that responsibility as well, while they still have their own routines and jobs to get through during the day," said Anabelle Morgan, head of school at Commonwealth Academy in Alexandria, Virginia, a day school for students with learning differences or ADHD challenges. "So that makes it twice as hard."
Mimic the school environment
Children with ADHD don't struggle with paying attention in general as much as they struggle with concentrating and sustaining attention on the right things, Nordmeyer said.
"When a child is struggling from inattention," she added, "anything around them in their environment can grab their attention in the moment, take them offtrack and get them caught up in something else that's not related to the goal of the moment.
"[They] might start off great paying attention, but then our brains wear out a bit. [They] use up that dopamine or that neurotransmitter availability and it's just hard to focus, concentrate and pay attention to what [they're] trying to do."
Given that they're prone to jetting off in a different direction, creating a mock space that borrows from their school environment is the first step in remote learning.
Instead of having them do schoolwork in their bedroom, parents can set up a small desk with few distractions in an area that's easy for parents to monitor. It can be across from where the parent is working, or parents and children can sit side by side while working on their own assignments.
Structure each day
One parent tweeted that homeschooling her child with ADHD was an all-day affair. When trying to structure their child's day, parents should practice structure, not micromanagement, Nordmeyer said.
Parents could start by having morning huddles with their child at the same time each day to map out the day's flow. They can talk about any Zoom meetings, check-ins with educators, assignment deadlines or any other upcoming time commitments,
In the absence of a set schedule, parents can co-create one with their child.
Nordmeyer recommended using the Pomodoro method, in which parents would write on a sticky note what the child's assignment is for the next 25 minutes or so — for example, "Do problems one through 12 for your math worksheet." Children could work alongside their parents or at their workstations, while parents or both parties monitor a timer. Then they take a five-minute break.
"This is something that will really help children work through what they feel is overwhelming to them, and it will also break it down to something they can manage," Nordmeyer said. "It creates some consistency in the focus and what they're doing throughout the day."
Pull them back from distractions
If a child is having trouble becoming really distracted, parents can help pull him back by shortening the work time. Decrease the amount of time he works on assignments divided appropriately, and allow more room for moving and refreshing before coming back to start again.
"Meet the child where they're at," Nordmeyer said. "If they can do something for 10 minutes, expect that."
If there's computer schoolwork, parents could try ensuring the only browser open is one that's relevant to the task at hand. Depending on whether the computer is privately owned or the school's property, parents can customize internet router settings to block some games or sites for certain hours of the day, Morgan said.
Social and emotional support
Children with ADHD still need emotional and social support to stay engaged. They've likely already found ways to virtually connect with their friends via their phones.
Parents should monitor the mental health status and mood levels of their child, Nordmeyer said. Some school counselors and teachers may still be available for virtual one-on-one meetings for mental and educational support.
Mix in stimulating activities
Because some kids with ADHD are hyperactive, they need to move, Nordmeyer said. They have a kinetic connection to how they learn and process information, so fidgeting may help them to pay attention. Desk work all day burns them out.
Stimulating activities add excitement, boost endorphins and help manage the hyperactivity and impulsivity children try to keep under control while doing schoolwork. Indoor or outdoor recesses with physical or creative activities in the morning, around lunchtime and in the afternoon can help them to get their energy back up and be productive once they return to their desk.
"Exercising really counteracts that and [can be] a normalizer when it comes to those neurotransmitters, which means that students, after exercising a lot, can concentrate better," Morgan said. "The children again feel like they're a little bit more in control."
Themed days, such as "cooking in the kitchen day," can keep things interesting and expand a child's skill set, Nordmeyer added.
Balancing homeschooling while working from home
Structuring a child's day with the Pomodoro timed assignment method can allow parents to work while a child focuses intermittently on school. They can also develop a system for what the child can do while the parent finishes a project.
This system could include visual communication signals. If there's a red cup on the table, for example, that could mean children should not interrupt the adult except for an emergency.
If a child needs constant assistance, parents could create a visual chart that helps the child know when a parent is busy or available. With two parents, they can discuss when they're able to pick up homeschooling responsibilities.
Parents could also enlist the virtual assistance of grandparents, aunts, uncles or babysitters who understand the child's learning differences and can get on the phone with the child as he or she works on assignments.
Dealing with frustrations and roadblocks
If academic or other roadblocks arise during the week, don't push through to get the child under control and back on track, Nordmeyer suggested. And don't tell them to "calm down," since saying that can have the opposite effect, Morgan cautioned.
Instead, find ways to pause and breathe. For children, that might mean having them play or run outside. Maybe meditate with them, take a walk, listen to soothing music or practice breathing.
Then acknowledge how the child feels, ask her what she needs and proceed.
This gives the child agency and avoids the emotional hijack or fight-or-flight response of the brain that results in misunderstandings, defiance or hurt feelings, Nordmeyer said. That response is more easily triggered in people with ADHD.
Take time to reflect
At the end of the week, parents should sit with their child to both reflect and think ahead, Nordmeyer said.
This is the time to decompress and debrief when the school week is nearly over or done. In the opinions of parents and children, what went well? What could be improved upon? What are the goals for the next week?
Shine the light on what's right, Nordmeyer suggested.
"We hear too many things about what went wrong, and all that does is cause emotional outbursts and shuts everybody down, right?" she added. "So pay more attention to what is right."
Parents may want to look for an ADHD coach if their child is in middle or high school, Nordmeyer said, as parents and teens may do better with a third party involved. Parents can focus on the dynamics of their relationship while an ADHD coach supports the teen through learning challenges.
Parents can also create weekly notes of highs and lows for teachers, so everyone is on the same page. And communicating with the child's school helps educators and therapists to understand what's working and what's not, and how to support, Morgan suggested.
Additionally, with help from the school, parents could create opportunities for other parents to virtually come together to share ideas, frustrations, suggestions and support one another, she added.
At the end of the day, parents should "be compassionate" toward where they and the child are at, Nordmeyer said. This situation is unparalleled, and really, the future is unknown.
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