Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Building an Online Learning Toolkit for Students with ADHD

Written by:
Tessa Wihak
Registered Provisional Psychologist
May 12, 2021

The global pandemic has dramatically shifted the way that children and adolescents are being educated. Students now face a number of changes in the way they attend school, including virtual classes, in-person schooling with distancing measures, or a combination of both. Notably, online learning poses unique challenges for students with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). That’s because they especially benefit from school-based services and supports. What can parents do to support their child? Here are eleven ideas and alternative approaches to strengthen the at-home learning experience for students with ADHD.

Learning, entertainment, and socializing are all happening via screen time right now. It can be particularly challenging for students with ADHD to shift gears from online entertainment (e.g., gaming) to academics. In a recent study, parents of adolescents with ADHD reported less confidence and more challenges with their child’s remote learning associated with fewer routines and more difficulties with concentration. Online learning has tasked parents with creating a structured and effective learning environment outside of the classroom. Learning from home requires independent planning, organization, and time management. These are common areas of difficulty reported by individuals with ADHD regardless of being online or in the physical classroom. Therefore, it is crucial that parents feel well-equipped to support their child’s at-home learning experience. It is also essential to set realistic expectations and do-able routines to set your child up for success.

The following information is intended to provide parents with some ideas and alternative approaches to strengthen the at-home learning experience for students with ADHD.

Ways That Parents Can Help Their Child Create Structure and Routine:

It will be important to sit down with your child to discuss potential barriers to online learning and develop strategies to overcome them. They may anticipate lower expectations (e.g., sleeping in, completing work when they feel like it) leading to less structure. Your child may struggle with flexible thinking, making it difficult to adapt to change in their learning environment. Help your child:

  1. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule and sleep hygiene. Consistent sleep will allow your child to feel more rested and will optimize attention during the day. Encourage your child to wake up and get ready for bed at the same time each day during the school week. With all the additional screen time during online learning, it will be essential to put away electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime to increase the melatonin levels in the brain.
  2. Start schoolwork at the same time each day. Flexibility during online learning is key. However, your child should still have a set routine to help them with organization and time management. They may benefit from having a posted timetable in their room and/or designated workspace as a visual reminder. If your child is taking medication, note that they should be working when their medication has kicked in so they will do their best work!
  3. Create a distraction-free workspace. A potential benefit of online learning is the ability to minimize disruptions from peers. However, working from home still allows access to the television, video games, computer games, e-mail, Youtube, social media, and working from the living room couch or bed. Collaborate with your child to create an appropriate learning environment that will set them up for success. This learning environment may look different from a typical desk and chair in the bedroom, though. They may benefit from an exercise ball for a chair, standing desk, wiggle chair, or a desk with a large rubber band for your child to push against with their legs. When possible, provide flexible work locations in the home.
  4. Anticipate distractions and be proactive. Distractions at home can include siblings, pets, parents working from home, and technology. Remote learning prevents teachers from counteracting typical distractions and providing students with cues to pay attention (i.e., standing near a child in a classroom, visual schedules). Therefore, it will be important to routinely check-in with your child to boost their focus and attention. If multiple family members are working from home, consider creating a daily schedule to limit distractions for each family member. Additionally, your child will benefit from having a workspace that is separate from where they will take breaks and unwind at the end of the day.

Ways That Parents Can Help Their Child Sustain Their Motivation and Attention:

  1. Engage in aerobic exercise before starting the day. Research consistently shows that exercise increases the level of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. These are two key neurotransmitters involved in controlling the attention system. Starting the day with exercise can boost your child’s focus and can also reduce irritability. Even 30 minutes of exercise can help children function better whether they struggle with hyperactivity, inattention, or both. Think of exercise as refuelling the tank!
  2. Brainstorm and schedule at-home options for frequent movement breaks or activities. Breaks can still be structured by providing your child with options. Introducing elements of choice can also help students sustain their attention for longer. All kids benefit from breaks throughout the day, but individuals with ADHD require regular breaks. For example, set a timer for 30 minutes of work, take a 5-minute break, and repeat. If your child can listen to a lesson on their phone, allow them to do this as they walk around the house or backyard to keep their body busy.
  3. Maintain blood sugar levels. Allow your child to sip a drink with sugar in it while they’re working, taking an exam, or in an online meeting. Possible drinks can include juice boxes, lemonade, or a sports drink. ADHD expert Dr. Russell Barkley says that these drinks deliver glucose to the brain, which helps children with ADHD to “refuel their tank.” Your child needs this fuel to work efficiently and to prevent burnout. Remember to pair this strategy with regular snack breaks throughout the day.
  4. Consider a reward system. Students with ADHD often struggle with motivation when there is no immediate reward. Consider establishing a reward system for completing online schoolwork and assignments. The most effective types of reward systems are immediate, frequent, and consistent. A point system can be created to cash in for preferred activities (e.g., tech time, reading, a special activity with mom or dad). Be sure to communicate expectations ahead of time and provide your child with reminders. Additionally, praising your child when they are meeting your expectations can help create clear boundaries and prevent arguments.
  5. Recess. An essential part of your child’s day is recess. Recess is a time for children and adolescents to socialize and play with friends. Online learning means that they miss critical opportunities to practice social skills and build relationships with others, which is often a struggle for children with ADHD. Remember to schedule unstructured breaks throughout the day so your child can connect with a friend or family member.

Ways That Parents Can Help Their Child With Time Management and Organization:

  1. Use a visual schedule. Students with ADHD can struggle to keep track of time. Working from home will require your child to set up visual reminders about class times and due dates. The changing nature of online schedules may make this particularly challenging. Have your child post a daily schedule in their workspace. Make sure they include checklists, including meeting IDs and passwords for online platforms (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Portals for assignments).
  2. Use a visual timer. External cues can improve focus and help with time management when your child is completing schoolwork. Dr. Russell Barkley refers to students with ADHD as being “time blind.” Making time measurable can help your child see how much time has passed and how quickly it’s passing. A simple kitchen timer or Time Timer is a distraction-free alternative to using a cell phone or computer timer.
  3. Obtain lesson plans ahead of time. It will be important to continue getting lesson plans ahead of time. Have your child print the instructions or write them in bullet point format on a whiteboard. Having the lesson plan ahead of time will allow them to review essential instructions and refer to them often.

Remember Accountability and Self-advocacy.

There will likely be less oversight for your child at home, which can lead to procrastination. Therefore, helping your child monitor their own progress will be key. Keep in mind that they will be using more mental energy than usual, which may cause fatigue. If your child has exhausted their fuel tank, it is normal for them to show more problematic behaviours. Consider sitting down with your child to anticipate challenges to online learning and helping to communicate this with teachers. This is a great opportunity to teach self-advocacy skills (i.e., asking for help and the supports your child needs).

A combination of online and in-person learning has become our current reality. It is crucial that we take current classroom strategies for students with ADHD and make them accessible for at-home use. With the proper environment, your child has the potential to thrive at home. They can adapt their learning pace, minimize distractions from peers, and engage in frequent movement breaks. The transition from in-person to online learning will be a combination of trial and error. Remember to be kind to yourself. And don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s teacher and/or learning team if you need further support.

For Further Information:

Attitude Magazine:
Learn Right Now! 8 Secrets to Engaged Online Learning for Students with ADHD

Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada (CADDAC):
Online Learning for Children and Adolescents with ADHD

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD):
ADHD and Executive Functioning

Distance learning: 8 tips to help your child learn at home
8 ways distance learning makes it harder to focus