Experts share advice for helping kids with ADHD through the virtual learning process

Back To School

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — As families prepare for learning online during the upcoming school year, some experts say that children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have a harder time. 

“I know parents of kids with ADHD, and they’re very worried about the long-term effects of virtual learning on their students,” said assistant principal Laci Culbreth of Royce Learning Center, which teaches children with learning disabilities. 

In addition to other learning impairments, Culbreth tells WSAV.com NOW that about half of the school’s pupils have ADHD or show symptoms of the disorder. 

“Working with kids with ADHD is very normal, very typical for us,” she said. 

Royce Learning Center is no stranger to incorporating technology in the classroom, having purchased Chromebooks for the students to use with Google Classroom last year. 

The school has started utilizing certain extensions and apps, like Hippo Video, to work with kids virtually over the summer and plan lessons that are more conducive to the learning style of a child with ADHD.

“We also started integrating speech-to-text and text-to-speech for some of our kids that, along with maybe ADHD, have dysgraphia, dyslexia or some other form of learning disability, to where that kind of accommodation and technical support would help them be more successful in the classroom,” Culbreth said.

However, she admits that the virtual learning experience doesn’t always quite “sync up” with the ADHD learner. 

She says it was and continues to be a challenge for her staff as they prepare to return students to the classroom on Aug. 18.

“Typically, ADHD learners really thrive with hands-on small groups, frequent breaks and being able to move,” Culbreth said. “When you take a kid and plunk them in front of a computer and hope that all that stuff is going to happen, oftentimes it doesn’t.”

Dr. Kristi Hofstadter-Duke, a licensed clinical psychologist who runs Savannah Behavioral Pediatrics, says young people with the neurodevelopmental disorder struggle with paying attention to what they need to focus on for the particular amount of time they need to focus on it.

Duke, whose background is in adolescent behavior, development and learning, says a shift from the structure and predictability of a traditional in-school educational experience to learning virtually from home can be challenging for all kids — particularly for those with ADHD.

“There are a lot of pieces that we can put in place to make this more feasible and more effective for children who have ADHD,” Duke told WSAV.com NOW.

“The biggest challenge is that home is not regulated, it is not structured, and so we’re going to have to artificially impose some sort of structure on a virtual learning day,” Duke said. 

The expert shares the following advice for parents of ADHD learners.

Create a designated learning space

One of Duke’s top suggestions is to find a distraction-reduced space at home, away from their bedroom, television or other siblings, that is solely devoted to the child’s education.

Since children are so used to multitasking, parents and guardians can help them by reducing some of those distractions with a learning-designated space at home.

“[This could be] a desk in a dining room or a little nook that you’ve carved out specifically for learning,” Duke said. 

“In a child’s experience, school is where they do their learning, and that’s only what it’s designed for, and at home, we do so many other things that can pull us in several different directions,” she added. “So, if we make a space that is only for learning and we don’t do anything else here, ‘this is just for my school day,’ it really helps set the stage for learning for children.”

Ensure that learning devices are distraction-free

Duke advises making sure that their learning computers don’t have any distracting apps or websites that can pull the child’s attention away from assignments.

“It may be that if there’s a school-provided device, we don’t have any other apps or anything else on that device, it is exclusively for schoolwork, and that’s all we’re going to use it for,” Duke said.

“If that’s not possible, if there’s not a school-provided device, then consider using a website blocker so that during a certain portion of the day, there are certain apps and websites that can’t be accessed, because those are little distractions that are just under the surface,” she said.

Provide structure to their virtual learning day

“I would think about this as sort of two levels of structure,” Duke said. “One is just an overarching schedule for the day; these are the things that we’re going to do in the order that we’re going to do them.”

She suggests anchoring that schedule to activities like meals that happen each day.

Adults can also try creating a visual schedule for younger children so they can see what to expect for the day ahead.

“It makes the day more predictable, and it breaks it into manageable chunks,” Duke said.

Think about length of work periods, breaks

An hour-long chunk of work time for a child with ADHD might be tough to get through without getting distracted, Duke shared.

“They’re going to spend a lot of that time trying to pull themselves back to the task, and they’re going to feel very frustrated and defeated,” she said. “So, we really want to think about capitalizing on the attention span that they have.”

It helps to observe your child and make note of how long they can work before starting to get off task.

Duke says that will help determine how long each work period should be before giving the child a break from learning.

“We want to have breaks in our larger overarching routine, but we also want to have smaller breaks in between those work segments,” Duke said.

“If you notice your child focuses for 10 minutes at a time, we don’t want to push for 20 because we’re going to lose them, and then they’re going to have a harder time getting themselves back to the task,” she added.

Take breaks often

“I like to think of it more as we want to have an attention sprint rather than an attention marathon,” Duke said, adding that the learning breaks don’t have to be longer than two minutes.

Duke recommends active, physical activities like walking or doing jumping jacks during breaks from the computer.

“If we give them breaks regularly, we’re going to get more done because they’re actually going to be working during those time periods rather than trying to pull themselves back and getting frustrated because they’re having difficulty staying on task,” she said. 

Culbreth recognizes that it’s an uncharted time for many educators, parents and students as virtual learning becomes part of the new normal. 

“I think that if we all work collectively and support each other, there’s a way to make it happen,” Culbreth said. “Teachers don’t give up.”

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