There are so many challenges with remote learning, period. Throw in an ADHD diagnosis, and it can feel totally overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As a pediatric psychologist and parent coach, here are seven practical ways I’ve found to help kids with ADHD thrive (and to help parents stay sane).
1. Give them one- or two-step instructions at a time
As you probably know by now, the brain of a child with ADHD becomes easily overwhelmed when they have to process too much information at once, and long lists and multiple to-do’s are not their friend. Although their resistance to such things might look like defiance to you, it’s actually just an indication that the processing part of their brain is shutting down and trying to re-boot. As an alternative, try giving them one or two simple tasks at a time. So, instead of sitting them down with instructions to watch their math lesson, do their problem sets and submit their answers on Google Classroom, begin with: “At 10:30 you have math class. Let’s log in together so we can watch the lesson.”
2. Help them organize and maintain their workspace
Organization is an executive functioning task that is often under-developed in an ADHD brain. As a result, their workspaces, desktops, backpacks and rooms are often disaster zones. And sometimes, when they are unable to execute the task perfectly, they simply give up. But if they are working from home, the need for an organized, visually decluttered workspace becomes particularly important. You can support them by saying something like, “It’s hard keeping our workspaces tidy, huh? There is so much stuff to keep track of. I’m here to help you. Let’s start by keeping all your supplies in this box, and putting your computer away in the desk drawer every night.” Need more inspiration? Here are some of PureWow’s favorite organizational items.
3. Keep open tabs to a minimum
Remember, clutter can be virtual too, and the messy workspace problem extends to their computer as well. Encourage them to keep a neat virtual desktop (folders are their friend) and to minimize the tabs that are open in their browser. This will help fight distraction…and the chances that somebody ends up playing Fortnite in the middle of PE.
4. Help them find the best meeting displays and visual settings
Have you ever gotten overwhelmed looking at 30 little boxes in a Zoom meeting? Now imagine that for a child with ADHD. Instead, agree on a set-up that allows them to focus best on the teacher or person presenting. (We’re fans of speaker view.) Likewise, you’ll probably want to turn off screen notifications, pop ups and distracting apps on their computer and devices. After all, the ADHD brain loves stimulation, novel information and flashing lights and displays, but these are all nightmares if you want to enhance focus.
5. Help them sit with unpleasant feelings
Kids with ADHD have a challenge with dysregulation, which means emotions can often become unbalanced and unpredictable, and if they feel something is too difficult, requires too much effort, is uninteresting or has a poor outcome, they can easily be triggered. How can you help? By talking about these feelings with them and normalizing them as much as possible. (“I know what it feels like when I try really hard to do something and it doesn’t work out. Remember how frustrated I was when I burnt those brownies last week?”) You can also try downloading an app that guides them through a simple breathing or relaxation exercise to calm their system and increase their focus.
6. Teach them “stop, pause, breathe”
The fast pace of online learning can make kids feel like they have to respond to things right away. (“Oh goodie, my teacher can reach out to me on chat at any time of day or night!”) Kids with ADHD might be inclined to react impulsively, because that impulsive response provides a short-term burst of relief. In other words, in yelling at you (or—worse—their teacher), they have released their frustration. The solution? Teach them how to stop, pause, take a breath, and quickly assess the current problem before responding. Maybe it’s getting up and going outside before redoing those backwards g’s. Maybe it’s watching a calming YouTube video in between difficult lessons. Remember: Most problems don’t need to be solved right away. In fact, taking a few moments or more can better equip kids to make healthier, more adaptive solutions.
7. Help them start each task
Did you know that one of the most challenging executive functioning tasks for an individual with ADHD is task initiation? This is especially painful when the task is boring, insignificant and far removed from their lives. In other words, because remote learning requires so much self-starting, it’s basically the perfect storm for kids with ADHD. A helpful strategy? Teach your child how to map out the tasks they have been avoiding or upcoming assignments that might sneak up on them. Here’s what it might look like:
- Start by writing the list
- Next to each item, ask your child how much time they think that task/assignment will take
- Set a plan on what to attack when
- Commit to spending no more than 30 minutes (elementary age kids) or 45 minutes (for teens)
- Once they start the task, they should time themselves
- Once it is completed, jot down the actual time and compare it to the estimated time
- Process what they noticed and learned
It’s an eye-opening way to illustrate how many tasks actually don’t take as long as we expect. (Some do, and that’s good data for the future too.)