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Fast Brains and Big Feelings

Remote learning strategies for kids with ADHD

Heidi Borst
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Published on: September 28, 2020

kid holding up a drawing of a black figure with red lips and a yellow sun in the background
Photo:
Credit: Markus Spiske

Riding out the coronavirus pandemic on lockdown, we as parents are navigating uncharted waters, and our children are paying the heftiest price. Not only are kids missing out on the essential social outlet that school provides, but the quality of their education is taking a major hit. Leading their children’s learning is a daunting undertaking for parents in general, but when a child has special needs, it can feel downright impossible. Under the confines of remote learning, the delivery of much-needed services to students with disabilities is convoluted at best.

While educators agree on the importance of providing continuity of learning at home, the logistics can be tricky. In the classroom setting, children who have an individualized education program (IEP) or a 504 plan receive customized accommodations to support their unique differences, be they academic, social, emotional and/or behavioral. My rising second-grader, who has ADHD, receives plenty of hands-on, one-on-one interaction with his teacher, along with many other supports outlined in his IEP. With the current amalgam of daily video-conferencing meetings, recorded lessons and instructional worksheets, most of my son’s IEP supports are missing from the picture. I’m left to fill in the blanks — a job for which I don’t feel the least bit qualified. 

Even so, there are solid measures we can take as parents to foster a supportive learning experience for our kiddos. Read on for expert strategies to make remote learning a success.

Create a routine to add structure at home.

For busy parents already juggling their own workloads, it’s simply not possible to supervise every minute of their child’s learning. What we can do is provide our children with structure. “Chaotic and unpredictable isn’t a good setup for learning. Use pictures to create a visual schedule that is really concrete and predictable. We want the schedule to prompt our kids, so we don’t have to be the one reminding them,” says Shanna Alvarez, Ph.D., a psychologist and codirector of the Incredible Years program at The Seattle Clinic.

For kids with ADHD who need help staying focused in the classroom, it’s important to eliminate household distractions that make remote learning harder. “Kids with ADHD have more difficulty with self-control, impulsivity and motivation, so it’s important to be proactive from day one. Have a structure and physical plan for each day,” says Mark Stein, Ph.D., ABPP, director of the Program to Enhance Attention, Regulation and Learning (PEARL) for ADHD and related disorders at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Moving from one task to another is difficult, so be sure to plan for transition time between activities, using scheduled breaks and external prompts such as timers, Stein says.

Predictability might be boring, but it provides kids with stability. “Kids need the comfort and regularity of a structured routine. Routine is the most important part of the school day. At the beginning of the year, we spend every minute we can on learning the routine until everyone in the class has it memorized. It’s easier to run through the day when everyone knows what to expect,” says Michael Wojcio, a special education teacher at Marshall Elementary School in South Orange, New Jersey. “At home, find a room and make it school, so your child knows this is where they go to learn.”

Once you’ve designated a learning space for your child and established a routine, adhere to it as much as possible, making changes whenever something isn’t working.

Take a ‘brain break’ and get moving.

Studies show engaging in physical activity improves behavior, increases focus and attention, and reduces stress. Instead of expecting your child to sit glued to their lessons all day, allow plenty of opportunities for movement. 

“I don’t think movement breaks should be as routine as most things, because kids don’t necessarily need a break at say, 10:15 a.m. every day — they need it when they need it,” says Wojcio. Find fun ways to sprinkle movement into your child’s day, such as putting on a “Just Dance” video, doing a series of pushups or jumping jacks, or heading out for a family walk or bike ride. “My favorite go-to is running, because it gets the whole body involved. Get your kid to run a lap around the block, so they get their energy out, their blood flowing, their heart pumping and their brain moving. It’s probably the best thing you can do for them, physically,” says Wojcio. 

Get in on the action and get moving with your child — modeling an active lifestyle makes kids more likely to follow our lead. 

Work with your child’s team to implement accommodations at home.

Reach out to your child’s teacher for help putting IEP accommodations into practice at home. “Kids with ADHD often have associated problems with learning, speech, fine motor skills or social difficulties. They should be getting the same accommodations at home that they were getting in school. How does the learning environment need to be adapted and what is the most appropriate educational plan for them? Communicate a lot with teachers and schools and the IEP team,” says Stein.

Take the initiative when collaborating with your child’s team, advises Alvarez. “Show the school what you’re doing on your end to increase predictability and add structure to your child’s routine. Ask them what else you can do to embed your child’s academic work into the structures already in place at home, so that when difficulties arise, you have the tools in place to support them.” 

Be sure to factor in the effect of any medication your child has been prescribed, notes Stein. “Meet with your child’s pediatrician or provider to make sure their medication is appropriate for home learning. Long-acting stimulants may not be appropriate for a three- to four-hour learning period. Side effects occur at different times. Some medications take longer to take effect, some are associated with being sleepy; that’s not something you want in a child during an active part of learning.” 

Equip kids with a toolbox for emotional regulation.

Children with ADHD experience intense emotions that hit hard and fast, causing mood swings and reactive behavior. With the right tools, kids are better able to reset and calm down before those big emotions take over. “First, make an honest assessment of how your child’s behavior and emotional regulation were before school started. Can your child self-regulate and calm down when they have big emotions? How often is physical or verbal aggression happening? We need to increase the peace and wellness of our kids before we worry about academic success,” says Alvarez. 

Our instinct may be to protect our kids from adversity, but it’s an inevitable part of life. By framing stress in a positive way, we help our kids develop the life skills they need, says Alvarez. “Parents need to teach frustration tolerance and balance, giving our kids tools that increase connection and a positive inner script by making more deposits than withdrawals. For a kid with ADHD, every command and question [represents] a withdrawal. Even if we make deposits through child-led play and connection, our children require more. Allocate time at the end of each day to play [one-on-one] with your child, allowing them to lead without doing any teaching. Just be an appreciative audience.”

By helping our kids experience gratitude, pride and compassion, we teach them to harness their abilities into positive ends. “Kids with fast brains and big feelings have superpowers. Intensity is a gift that can help them pursue their goals,” says Alvarez. 

Prioritizing self-care is not selfish.

We can’t look after our kids if we aren’t looking after ourselves, says Sinéad Quinn, a Seattle-based wellness and empowerment coach and self-proclaimed “emotionally stable hot mess mom.” “As difficult as this situation has been for everyone, it’s been worse for families with kids who need support. It’s very easy to get caught up in the anger and frustration of our situation. We’re already carrying extra weight, so it’s very challenging to keep calm and keep steady.” Quinn recommends that parents double-down on self-care through sleep, breath work, meditation, hydration and gratitude — all of which serve to support their own mental health.

Certainly, none of us signed up for this, and the additional pressure on parents to pilot their children’s education is overwhelming. “Most parents don’t have degrees in elementary or special education, and it’s really challenging. They have a lot on their plate already and they need to make sure they’re in a good state and prepared for taking this on, having realistic expectations. Parents have to balance their job with their overall well-being, not just their child’s learning,” says Stein.

Quinn says she’s had to shift her perspective of what is attainable. “We don’t realize it: We put so many expectations on ourselves and on our child and it’s not possible. Expectations are premeditated resentments. We have to do what is achievable in our own home.”

While the road ahead holds many unknowns, one thing is certain: We deserve to give ourselves a break. Our kids need us now more than ever, and we owe it to them to show up being at our best.

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