Let’s be real. Keeping kids entertained and intellectually stimulated when they’re stuck in the house isn’t easy. In addition to their usual duties as de facto referees, nurses, and personal chefs, many parents have added school principal to their list of professions in the age of quarantine. They’re trying, desperately, to keep their children on top of their studies and away from the allure of all-day cartoon and video game sessions. And if you think that’s hard, just ask any parent quarantining with a child who has ADHD how they’re managing. With all the distractions of home at their fingertips, keeping these kids on top of their studies might seem nothing short of a herculean task.
In my 11 years as a social worker specializing in the treatment of ADHD, I’ve learned that helping these kids stay focused can be especially tough when life throws them a curveball, like the pandemic. But I’ve also learned that these same kids thrive when we nurture creative learning environments. Even under lockdown, we can make that happen.
Right now, with summer camp cancelled and many schools indefinitely closed, I wanted to share six homeschooling strategies that have served me well in helping the parents of children with ADHD, and the therapists working with them.
Ride the Seesaw
Nicole, mother to eight-year-old Lisa called me last week complaining that that she just “couldn’t get a handle” on her daughter’s day. In anticipation of the upcoming school year, she’d been assigned a book report. “Lisa won’t settle down to do her reading,” Nicole told me, exasperated. “When she finally does, she burns out fast—fidgeting, chasing after the dog, asking if she can play tag with her little brother.”
I’ve found that kids with ADHD generally start the day with higher energy, and their ability to focus on schoolwork fizzles as the day winds down. “Try starting the day with Lisa’s reading assignment after breakfast,” I advised Nicole, “and leave the easier, more entertaining tasks for the afternoon.”
Having worked with Lisa in-person for about a year, I knew she responded well to quick, fun tasks. Nicole and I put our heads together and decided she’d start by having Lisa do a maze or another lightly challenging activity sheet—something that would get her into a seat, holding a pencil, and comfortable when the time came to take on the larger task of working on her book report. Sure enough, it worked.
“It’s like a seesaw,” I told Lisa. “We can start with something fun and easy, then try the harder stuff.”
Avoid Central Station
My seven-year-old client Sam is the kind of kid who’s always in motion. There’s no chance of him sitting down for a day of homeschool. At most, he can go for 20 minutes working at the dining room table before getting bored and wandering off to some other part of the house.
Kids, like adults, get bored quickly when they’re stuck in one place for too long. To tackle this, I advised Sam’s parents to set up a rotating workstation around the house—at a table in the sunroom, another on the couch, and a third on a big bean bag in the playroom—so Sam could can move from place to place throughout the day.
“Look for airy, sunny spaces that feel comfortable and are as non-distracting as possible,” I told Sam’s parents during a video chat. The next week, they reported that this strategy kept Sam engaged in his schoolwork. “Plus,” his mom told me, “all that racing from station to station meant I could finally get some work done.” Not bad.
Make Time to Fidget
It’s really tough to focus and pay attention to your teacher when there are lots of exciting things going on around you, like the ant crawling across your worksheet or ceiling tiles just begging to be counted. Fidgets—small, handheld self-regulation tools that can help with focus, attention, calming, and active listening—help kids keep their fingers moving, often allowing them to focus on things that might seem just a tad less interesting, like schoolwork. Simple fidgets like play dough, silly putty, or the classic fidget spinner are good fidgets that can all easily be bought online for just a few dollars. I tell parents who try this strategy to make sure the fidget isn’t so exciting that it becomes a distraction in itself.
There are other ways to give kids a fidgeting outlet. A swiveling or rocking chair to keep them in motion while they work, for example. Other kids do well with background music.
Keep it Short
Max is a bright and energetic eight-year-old. We’ve been working together for almost eight months. At the beginning of the school year, he’d start the first few class periods strong, his teachers told me. But by the end of the day, Max was climbing all over his desk—and the desk of the poor kid next to him. After the school social worker and I chatted, we decided that Max would do much better if he could step outside the classroom for two or three minutes, every 20 minutes, to take what we dubbed a “fresh-air break.”
Breaking the latter portion of the day into chunks helped keep Max grounded. After school was canceled in March, his parents kept the system in place at home, with great results. Keeping learning sessions short with intermittent breaks gives kids a chance to refresh and recharge. Mixing in some sort of physical activity during these few minutes, like jumping jacks or lunges, can also help. I tell parents and teachers who decide to use this strategy to set alarms for start and stop times and keep lots of clocks around to help the child stay on track.
One of the world’s best-kept secrets is that kids with ADHD often have a parent—or two—with the same gift. For the homeschooling parents among us, it’s not the greatest combination. Kids, especially those with ADHD, do better with routine, but it’s not easy getting your child on a schedule when you’re having trouble getting on one yourself. Right now, I’m suggesting more and more that my young clients’ parents—even those without ADHD—use visual cues to keep themselves and their kids on schedule. Make it a family practice, I tell them.
Visual cues can help keep us on track. Research shows that using visual aids helps our brain absorb information faster. Put up a whiteboard or a big Post-It note, I tell parents, and map out everyone’s daily schedule. Keep it simple and uncluttered. If possible, print out or draw pictures to make the schedule more visual. I also tell parents not to worry if the schedule doesn’t work exactly according to plan. Just having it around creates a sense of structure that many children, and adults, find calming.
Sandra, mother to 11-year-old Katie wasn’t happy. Even after we tried the above strategies, Katie couldn’t focus. Two weeks ago, talking with Sandra over video chat, I found out that while she’d diligently pursued many strategies to help Katie focus, she’d left out one key ingredient: Katie. Without seeking much of her daughter’s involvement, she’d unilaterally been planning Katie’s day, provoking her resentment.
I’ve found in my work with kids that involving them in structuring tasks, figuring out together what works, gives them a sense of ownership in the change process. That feeling of ownership is where motivation begins, and when kids seem reluctant to change, it’s often the best way to reduce tension and fighting.
I recommended that Sandra find a half hour later that week to sit down with her daughter and talk about how she could involve Katie more in structuring her schedule. Last week, Sandra reported that the two of them had a quality discussion over a milkshake and cobbled together a plan for Katie to set a timer, working for an hour before giving herself a one-hour break, then repeating the process until her work was finished or it was time for dinner—whichever came first.
“The whole vibe changed for the better,” Sandra told me, beaming.
If you’re reading this and thinking these tools could be helpful with neurotypical kids, too, you’re right. Distance learning isn’t easy for anyone, but this new normal presents opportunities for all kids to focus collaboratively and work through something challenging. To all parents homeschooling kids, I offer this small word of advice: don’t take your new job as a principal too seriously. Keep your expectations realistic, dial down the pressure, and celebrate success whenever you see it. You, and your children, will be happier for it.
Photo © iStock/Maria_Symchych-Navrotska
Dovid Becker, LCSW, ADHD-CCSP, adjunct professor and program director at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, is a New Jersey–based clinician in private practice, who’s passionate about helping teens and families with ADHD.