Behavioral Consult

Virtual school is especially difficult for children with ADHD


The school year has begun, but for most families it is a school year without precedent. Parents have to monitor and support their children through school days that are partially or completely virtual, juggling sudden class transitions, troubleshooting technology, and trying to manage lessons and assignments. Most related activities such as sports and orchestra are cancelled. Parents themselves are anxious about completing their work, if they have jobs at all. On top of this, all of us have faced months of challenge and disruption with virtually no relief, with regard to seeing friends, traveling, or going out to dinner or a movie. For your patients with ADHD, the challenges of this school year will be even more difficult. Offering parents some guidance about how to approach and manage these challenges can support their adaptation and lessen the chances of compounded problems by the time in-person school resumes.

A girl participates in an online school session from home. FatCamera/E+

Children with ADHD, particularly those in elementary school, are managing symptoms of difficulty shifting their attention, sustaining focus on less-engaging material, and motor hyperactivity. They often have difficulty with organization and planning, working memory, and impulse control. Even with effective medication management, they typically are dependent on external cues and support to manage the demands of school. They benefit from attentive teachers who can redirect their attention, offer serial prompts before transitions, and provide patient support, reassurance, and confidence when they grow frustrated. And it often is easier for teachers to do this than for parents, as they have years of experience and training, and the support of their professionals in the school setting. And of course they are less likely to personalize these challenges than are parents, who are likely to feel worried, guilty, or discouraged by the child’s persistent difficulties with attention. Parents who are stressed or who may be managing difficulties with attention themselves – as ADHD is one of the more heritable psychiatric disorders – will be vulnerable to feeling frustration and losing their temper.

Suggest to the parents of your patients with ADHD that there will be frustrations and challenges as they manage the learning curve of virtual school with their children. Increasing the dose of an effective stimulant may be tempting, but there are a few strategies that may better help the children adapt to a virtual classroom without too much distress.

Promote good sleep patterns

Adequate, restful sleep is critical to our physical and psychological health and to healthy development. Children with ADHD are prone to sleep difficulties, and stimulants may exacerbate these.

sleeping child in bed deyangeorgiev/

So, it is critical that parents prioritize setting and maintaining healthy routines around sleep. All screens should power down at least 1 hour before lights out, and parents can help their children know when to accept “good enough” homework, so they also may get good enough sleep.

Daily physical activity helps enormously with restful sleep. A warm bath or shower and quiet reading (not homework!) can help wired kids unwind and be truly ready for lights out. Bedtime may start to slide later as life’s routines are disrupted with work and school happening at home, but it is important to maintain a consistent bedtime that will allow for 8-10 hours of sleep.


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