We all have our own unique challenges during this time; no one is completely free from the stress a pandemic brings. But parents of kids with ADHD in particular struggled with—and perhaps gave up entirely on—virtual learning when things first shut down this spring. Unfortunately, that “oh, who even gives a shit anymore” attitude that hit many parents around mid-April is not a state of mind we can languish in for the entire 2020-21 school year. Kids do need to learn, pandemic or not, anxiety or not, special needs or not.
And yet, parents are not educators. See, here’s why teachers are great: They go to school to learn how to do this job, not just for the kids who are hard-working and focused and who always listen and keep their hands to themselves, but for the other 99 percent of children, too. And then, after they learn how to do it, they practice it with a teacher who has actually done it before! And before you know it, a blessed thing happens—they become experienced themselves. Along the way, they discover and develop strategies for reaching all kinds of students with endless combinations of personality and temperament traits, as well as unique skills and challenges.
Like, for example, kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If your child has ADHD, chances are that you’ve learned some great strategies for parenting them. Being their full-time educational project manager, however, is not a thing you may have been prepared for. If you find yourself in this situation anyway, there are some strategies you can try to help ease some of the stress and frustration you and your child (and possibly the whole family) are feeling.
First, acknowledge the struggle
Kids who are struggling know they are struggling. You’re not going to do any damage by acknowledging it. In fact, you should be having open and honest conversations with your kids about their challenges.
“Not talking about it is not helpful,” says Trynia Kaufman, a former special education teacher and the senior manager of editorial research at Understood, which offers resources for empowering people who learn and think differently. “And this [conversation] is not in any kind of blaming or judgmental way. Everyone has things that they’re struggling with, so you can say, ‘What we get to do as a family or with our teachers is figure out how we can address those challenges and make this easier for you.’”
By doing that, in a matter-of-fact and supportive way, Kaufman says you’re letting your child know you’re on their side, and you know they are doing their best. And that’s a great place to start.
Hone in on their specific needs
Every child, ADHD or not, has their own specific set of challenges, whether it be getting organized, managing their time, or staying focused. They might be overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do, they may be distracted, or they might simply be disinterested in a particular subject. If you’re not sure exactly what their challenges are—you just know there are challenges—Kaufman suggests starting with an “observation tracker.” Observing and tracking their behavior and difficulties can help you start to notice signs or patterns related to their struggle.
If your child has an IEP (Individualized Education Program) at school, that is also a good place to look for specific strategies their teachers were using in the classroom to help them be successful. But even if they don’t have an IEP, you can talk to their teacher to get input on strategies they have found helpful that you might be able to implement at home.
Limiting distractions is obviously easier said than done right now. In a perfect pandemic world, you have just one (older) child who can be off in their own quiet space to focus on their schoolwork. In reality, many of us are sharing work spaces with partners and multiple children who are working and learning from home at the same time. (This is why my husband does his Monday afternoon team video meeting from our bedroom every week, rather than his preferred office—the dining room table. Too many Zooms, so little space.)
But Kaufman says there are a couple of small things parents can do to lessen, if not eliminate, distractions. First, utilize headphones when it makes the most sense, particularly if there are multiple meetings happening in one space at the same time. And second, face them away from anyone else in their immediate vicinity and/or toward a wall. Nobody wants to put Baby in a corner, but facing a plain wall can be less distracting than facing the bustling hub of family activity.
Get them on a schedule—with their input
Most kids do best when they have a regular schedule or routine to follow—and it’s especially important for kids with ADHD who are learning from home right now.
“But we can’t just create the schedule for them and demand that they do it,” Kaufman says. “We have to have some flexibility so that we can get their buy-in.”
Sit down with a list of priorities and build out the schedule together, giving them choices whenever possible, such as by deciding when to work on reading assignments versus when to work on math.
And as you’re creating the schedule, remember to leave room for lots of breaks. If at all possible, start off the day with some physical activity—that can help moderate things like impulsivity and hyperactivity. And then work in more breaks throughout the day as needed, depending on their age or how much physical activity they personally need.
Look for the small wins
We—and our kids—are living through a challenging and overwhelming time. Every day is not going to be a smashing success; quite the opposite. But if you look closely enough, there will be tiny victories sprinkled throughout the day. A good grade on an assignment—or even just a completed assignment. Five extra minutes of focus on math than was expected of them; an afternoon in which all the necessary technology works; a fun new game you made up together during a break. Be on the lookout for those moments.
“Our brains are primed to focus on the negative,” Kaufman says. “So we actually have to force ourselves to think, ‘What are the things I’ve been doing well? What are the things my child has been doing well?’ And then let them know where they’ve been doing a good job so that they can build on that.’
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