Remote Learning and ADHD: 6 Strategies for Success


School looks a lot different this year, as many American students learn from home. While distance learning can be difficult for any child, it can be extra challenging for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), also called attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Tips to make remote learning easier for children with ADHD

"Kids who are unaffected by ADHD that have to spend extensive time in front of a computer screen will have a difficult time,” says UCLA Health child and adolescent psychiatrist James McGough, MD. “For students with ADHD, the struggle is heightened.”

ADHD is a behavior disorder. A child with ADHD likely will have one or more of these attributes:

  • Inattention: Has difficulty paying attention, is forgetful or easily distracted
  • Impulsivity: Struggles to take turns, interrupts or doesn’t think before acting
  • Hyperactivity: Is frequently moving or can’t sit still and is often talkative

“ADHD can impact learning because kids tend to have difficulty starting and finishing tasks and managing their time,” says Dr. McGough. “Kids with ADHD thrive when there is order and routine in their day. Online learning that is less structured can be problematic because teachers expect children to be more self-motivated. Lack of structure can even increase ADHD symptoms in children.”

If your child has ADHD and participates in a virtual learning environment, these six tips may make schooling easier this year and beyond, Dr. McGough says:

Set up an ideal virtual learning environment

Children with ADHD may have difficulty paying attention to a computer screen without personal interaction to keep them on track. To make it easier for them, set aside a dedicated learning space free from distractions such as toys, siblings or pets.

“Parents have their own demands. But if possible, set aside dedicated time to offer hands-on support to your child,” says Dr. McGough. “Parents can help by answering questions or reinforcing concepts their child learned online.”

Stick to a schedule

“You can help your child succeed by establishing a consistent routine. Create a visual schedule that includes learning time, meals and other breaks,” says Dr. McGough. “Your child may be more motivated knowing what comes next, especially if it includes a break.”

Breaks such as jumping rope or scootering around the block can meet a basic need of children with ADHD — the need to move. Visual checklists are another great way to stay on track.

Reinforce good behavior

Help your child repeat behaviors you wish to see through positive reinforcement. Depending on your child’s age and interests, rewards could be as simple as a star chart or it could be the chance to play a video game.

“Movement rewards are especially powerful because they help children burn off their excess energy,” says Dr. McGough. “Incorporating visual cues for rewards they can earn may help them stay focused.”

Fidgeting is fine

Because many children with ADHD are hyperactive, they have an innate desire to fidget and move. “Make available things to keep their hands busy, like fidget spinners or squeeze balls. You might also consider a ball chair so they can bounce a little while working,” says Dr. McGough.

Adjust to their online learning style

Don’t be afraid to lobby for adjustments that will help your child succeed with virtual learning. “Work with his or her teacher to modify lessons so they are more experiential in nature or use a format better suited to their style of learning, such as software that reads the material to the student,” says Dr. McGough. “If necessary, work with the school to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) so they get the support they need.”

Get medical support

Kids with ADHD may not be effective at expressing themselves verbally. Behavioral cues such as acting out or withdrawing could indicate they are struggling. When this happens, reach out to his or her provider, who may want to reevaluate if additional support — including medication or changes to an existing medication regimen — are needed. “But keep in mind, this is tough. There is likely no way to medicate our way out of this,” says Dr. McGough. “Doing our best is enough this year.”

What if you suspect your child has undiagnosed ADHD?

“If you are spending time with your child while they are learning virtually and notice he or she has one or more ADHD attributes, don’t fret,” says Dr. McGough. “Not all children who are hyperactive or impulsive have ADHD. Remote learning may challenge your child because they are used to more movement throughout their day or more interaction with friends and teachers.”

If you’re concerned, it’s best to talk with a pediatrician who can rule out other causes for impulsive or hyperactive behavior such as:

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Online bullying
  • Sleep struggles
  • Vision difficulty

If you’re concerned about how your child is navigating remote learning, contact his or her pediatrician or primary care provider.