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Support for Kids With ADHD During the Pandemic

Helping attention-challenged kids stay on track

Writer: Caroline Miller

Clinical Experts: Dave Anderson, PhD , Stephanie A. Lee, PsyD

en Español

As the pandemic continues to restrict all of our lives, we’re hearing from many families that children with ADHD are struggling — including those who were thriving before their classrooms, activities and supports were disrupted.

Remote schooling has made it more difficult for them to stay on track and meet behavioral expectations. Here are suggestions for helping kids with ADHD during this pandemic winter.

Structure the day

You’ve heard it continuously since the lockdown last spring, but structure is crucial during this prolonged disruption, especially for kids with ADHD. “A child with ADHD often doesn’t deal well with uncertainty, long delay of gratification, and not knowing when the activities they will find more rewarding are going to occur,” notes David Anderson, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “So, especially with the younger kids, it’s important to have a schedule that’s posted somewhere in the home that shows what they’re going to be doing at any given time of the day.”

Clear the workspace

For children who have trouble focusing, having a workspace that’s free of distraction helps them get into the mindset they need to concentrate, adds Mara Koffmann, a learning specialist who founded Braintrust, a tutoring service for kids with learning issues. “I know kids are Zooming and trying to do their homework in bed, or they’re sitting at a desk that’s just covered in stuff that they’re not using,” notes Koffmann. “Especially for kids who tend towards distraction, having a dedicated workspace that is neat and functional is really helpful for getting engaged during any kind of remote learning lesson.”

Turn off notifications

Those pesky notifications that pop up on our computers can disrupt vital concentration, so make sure they are turned off before kids are logging into classes or sitting down to do assignments. “If you’re getting pinging from Instagram or TikTok, or any of those things that you’re far more interested in, of course you’re going to be distracted,” notes Koffmann. “So go to the notification center and put the computer on ‘Do Not Disturb.’ ”

Help your child connect with the teacher 

For kids with ADHD, the personal connection to the teacher is crucial to learning, and it’s harder to establish remotely than in the classroom. It’s also more daunting for kids to ask questions on Zoom, and more difficult for teachers to know who’s struggling and needs extra attention. That’s why it’s important for kids to ask for one-on-one help. “I encourage kids to reach out to teachers to say, ‘I have a question,’ or, ‘I want to share this thing with you,’ or, ‘I’d like to discuss this topic,’ ” explains Koffmann. “It’s not only helpful for reinforcing the information and actually answering questions that kids might be too shy or embarrassed to ask in front of their peers, but it also helps to build that connection with the educator that has a positive impact on the learning experience.

Think in terms of learning bursts

Instead of thinking of a school day devoted to learning running from 9am to 3pm, it will be good to think in terms of learning bursts, as research shows that children can only really focus and work effectively for 45 minutes at the most.

Clinicians sometimes call this “chunking” — engaging kids for a period of time that’s realistic for their attention span, and then giving them a break. Kids with ADHD in particular benefit when parents are able to set clear expectations in advance for how long each chunk will last and what they are to do in that time period, and then follow up to see if they did the work as expected.

Make it multi-sensory

A passive “sit and listen and watch kind of experience” is especially hard for kids with ADHD to focus on, so making it multi-sensory can enhance concentration. For older students, note-taking can help engagement. “Even if it’s jotting down a few main ideas or drawing a picture or writing down the things that the teacher’s writing on the white board,” Koffmann adds, “it promotes processing and retention.”

Younger children are accustomed to using manipulatives. In school – little red and blue chips or bars or teddy bears to help them visualize addition or subtraction. “At home, it could be like coffee beans or lima beans, peas, grapes, M&Ms, anything,” suggests Koffmann. Or she suggests a white board or something else they can use to draw a picture or write along with a spelling lesson, rather than just listening. “It’s just another way to make it visual and tangible for kids. It helps not only with engagement but also with processing because it’s multi-sensory.”

Alternate activities 

Think about what motivates your kids, our experts suggest, and alternate activities that are less appealing to them — which may include schoolwork — with those they enjoy more. “It will help for parents to stagger the schedule and activities based on less preferred things being followed by highly preferred things,” explains Stephanie Lee, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

So, if they’re expected to do 45 minutes or an hour of work a teacher has sent home, it can be followed by a favorite snack, a walk or playing video games.  

With any kid who has a short attention span, you just want to be thinking, how do I pepper in the stuff that’s going to be reinforcing for them as the reward for getting the other stuff done?” says Dr. Anderson.

Use positive attention — and make it big!

We know that positive attention is the most powerful motivator we have for influencing children’s behavior, and with kids who have ADHD it’s helpful to make that attention as powerful as possible. “Kids with attentional and impulse control difficulties need their feedback big, bold, immediate and intense,” explains Dr. Lee.

“When we think about attention,” she adds, “we shouldn’t just be thinking in terms of whether our feedback is negative or positive. We need to think about how long we give the positive attention, how close we are when we give it, how specific we are, and the tone of voice. When I praise them, it makes a difference whether I say, ‘Good job’ or ‘Great job getting started on your assignment so quickly!’”

Get kids set up in advance

For elementary students, Koffmann recommends focusing the night before on the child’s schedule for the next day, to make sure everything they need will be on hand when they need it, including folders for each subject and tools or materials they might need, so kids won’t be running around looking for them.

For older students, she recommends setting them up with Google Calendar, which will generate reminders about what’s coming up. Once a recurring appointment is set up for each class, they’ll get a reminder, and all they have to do is click to have the link and the password they need at hand. “It’s a lesson in organization, too. Once they enter the adult world, Google Calendar will rule their life anyway, so they might as well learn to use it earlier than they otherwise would.”

Be present when you’re present

We know many parents are juggling childcare responsibilities with remote work and, when there are two caregivers, often they’re trying to work in shifts.

Dr. Anderson notes that this strategy only works if kids are convinced that when work time is finished and you step away from the computer that they’re actually going to get your attention. So stick to that boundary and avoid checking your phone or email during the moments when you have promised them your undivided attention. “The goal,” he says, “is that when you go back to work, hopefully their gas tank is full to the point where they can sustain themselves for those periods of time where you need to have that call or you need to work.”

This article was last reviewed or updated on November 6, 2023.