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Supporting Children with ADHD During Remote Learning

by

Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

Illustration of a mother working from home behind a computer trying to focus. In teh background a ADHD child been very active and unfocused.

When families around the world moved to remote learning overnight at the beginning of the pandemic, parents of children with ADHD were faced with a unique set of challenges. 

“Homeschooling was terrible at first, I made so many mistakes,” says Sydney mother-of-two Amber King-Wakefield, whose eight-year-old daughter is diagnosed with ADHD Predominantly Inattentive Presentation. “Now that we’re in our second extended lockdown, we’ve come such a long way. I have to change my routines all the time to keep it fun and interesting for her. I’m always learning and adjusting.”

Amber isn’t the only parent of a child with ADHD who has struggled with remote learning. A study of 284 Italian primary school students with and without ADHD found that attention span, spontaneous commitment and autonomy in distance learning were more limited in the ADHD group.  The research also found that “compared to controls, 21.7% of ADHD students were not assessed and 40.9% did not receive grades” (Tessarollo & Scarpellini, 2021). 

A second study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health (2020) examined remote learning difficulties in 238 American adolescents with and without ADHD during the initial COVID lockdown. Thirty-one percent of parents of adolescents with ADHD who had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) described remote learning as “very challenging” compared with 18 percent of parents of children with ADHD but no IEP and 4 percent of parents whose children had neither.

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ADHD and Education

Educational and Developmental Psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien has been helping children with ADHD for many years and supports parents to employ the same strategies that are used in a clinical setting to make remote learning easier, for children with ADHD.

Here are six of her top tips:

Prepare more tasks 

Children with ADHD tend to work quickly, so parents should try to prepare more tasks for them to get through in the same amount of time as typically developing children. 

“During a typical session in our clinic, I might go through three activities for mainstream clients,” says Kimberley. “But for a child with ADHD, I’ll prepare six activities so I can move at their pace. Otherwise, they might start to unpack things from my desk drawers to find more things to do. Keeping their engagement for the whole session is key.”

Alternate preferred and less preferred tasks

Kimberley suggests using a child’s preferred task as motivation to complete their less preferred tasks. 

“If a child is really into LEGO, I’ll do three minutes of LEGO and then try 30 seconds of a less preferred task to see if I can keep them engaged for that period of time,” she explains. “I then offer a lot of praise if they stay on task and go back to the preferred task. I might then try to push the less preferred task out to a minute. I gradually extend the amount of time spent on the less preferred task and use praise and their preferred task as motivation.”

Amber has been using this technique with her daughter with great results.

“When it’s time for reading, she gets so frantic about how long it's going to take,” says Amber. “If I give her a book and tell her to read one chapter, she loves it because there's a beginning and an end. And there’s always a reward at the end — usually jumping on the trampoline or swimming in the pool.”

Use a reward system

Speaking of rewards, a study published in Psychophysiology (2013) found that receiving an immediate reward resulted in greater improvement in performance accuracy on a task in 25 children with ADHD aged 10 to 12 compared with 25 typically developing children of the same age.

“Set up reward jars,” suggests Kimberley. “If your child stays on task, give them 10 small rewards, such as 10 pieces of a LEGO puzzle. When they complete that, quickly move onto the next task to keep them engaged.”

Avoid forcing tasks that create resistance

Children with ADHD often struggle to focus on online lessons for an extended period of time and Kimberley encourages parents not to force it.

“Your child might also be very resistant to specific tasks because they’ve been traumatised by them,” says Kimberley. “If that’s the case, play games or do other activities that have a learning aspect to them rather than trying to do a task they dislike. Maintaining a positive parent-child relationship is more important.”

Amber cuts down on the length of the tasks her daughter resists.

“For literacy, she’ll have to write a story on three blank slides in Google Classroom. She freezes up right away when she sees the three blank slides, so I tell her it’s fine if she can only do half a slide and then she’ll get a break. That helps take the pressure off.”

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Flower in a Pot

Don’t be afraid to deviate from the curriculum

If the lessons provided by your child’s teacher aren’t working for you, Kimberley suggests going rogue for a while to see if you can find learning materials that engage your child.

“Try to find tasks online that are engaging and educational,” she says. “You can also follow support groups on Facebook that have links to educational activities kids with ADHD enjoy. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control in the US have plenty of great resources on their website too.”

Want to speak to a professional? We’re here for you.

The Quirky Kid Clinic is a unique place for children and adolescents aged 2 to 18 years. We work from the child’s perspective to help them find their own solutions.

If you suspect your child may have ADHD or they are already diagnosed and struggling with remote learning, book a session with one of our experienced child psychologists.

View article references

  • Becker, S.P., Breaux, R., Cusick, M.S., Dvorsky, M.R., Marsh, N.P., Sciberras, E., & Langberg, J.M. (2020). Remote Learning During COVID-19: Examining School Practices, Service Continuation, and Difficulties for Adolescents With and Without Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Adolescent Health, 67(6), 769-777. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2020.09.002
  • Tessarollo, V., Scarpellini, F., Costantino, I., Cartabia, M., Canevini, M.P., & Bonati, M. (2021). Journal of Attention Disorders. Advanced online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/10870547211027640
  • Rosch, K.S., & Hawk, L.W., Jr. (2013). The effects of performance-based rewards on neurophysiological correlates of stimulus, error, and feedback processing in children with ADHD. Psychophysiology, 50(11), 1157–1173. https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.12127 

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