By Ezra Werb, M.Ed., author of Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges
In a recent study, “Impact of COVID-19 on Youth with ADHD: Predictors and Moderators of Response to Pandemic Restrictions on Daily Life,” the researchers concluded that “youth with ADHD were less responsive to protective environmental variables (e.g., parental monitoring, school engagement) during the pandemic and may need more specialized support with return to in-person schooling and daily activities.”
So, what happened here? As an educational therapist who has seen huge gains in kids who utilize technology effectively, I am a firm supporter of computer use for students with ADHD and learning challenges. But why couldn’t technology help these students with remote learning? Let’s unpack.
From my observations and conversations with parents, I learned—and I’m generalizing here—that it wasn’t that Google Drive was too difficult for students to navigate or that Zoom always failed due to internet issues or that kids had difficulty typing. The issue was that parents are not classroom teachers! And they certainly aren’t special educators. (Unless, of course, a parent happens to also be a teacher or a special educator . . . but you get my point.) Throughout the pandemic, parents have been asked to carry a huge burden, and they’ve done the best they can given the circumstances.
Teachers have also been doing the best they can with an entirely new mode of digital education that they’ve had to make up on the fly!
But let’s back up a bit . . .
Executive functioning is a huge component of ADHD, and executive functions have so many components. Just to name a few, we’re talking about:
- initiating brain work
- monitoring time effectively
- focusing/selecting key details from our environment
- working memory
- mental flexibility
- impulse control
Students with challenges in these areas typically benefit from the structures present at school. These include teachers who facilitate learning face-to-face—who can sit with them, help them troubleshoot, help them calm themselves, help them gain confidence, and give them a high five or verbal praise when they complete a task. And the classroom structure serves as their learning/workspace: a room dedicated solely to the tasks of learning new information and skills and socializing with peers. They need the structure of time increments delineated by class bells and the separation of recess and lunch periods from class time.
Students don’t really get any of this through remote learning. When quarantine happened, all these school-based structures that support executive functioning were suddenly gone, and parents were left to try to give some structures at home. Imagine students with impulse control challenges attempting to have “school” in their bedroom—the place where they primarily sleep, hang out with friends, and play video games!
What can teachers and schools do now to help these students—who experienced greater mental and academic impacts from remote learning—return to in-person school and get back on their feet? Here are four ideas.
1. Identify high-need students—and help them get support.
Assess where your struggling students are in terms of the skills that will be continually used and built upon, including reading, writing, and math skills. And then determine how best to provide intervention support. Do you have learning support teachers at school? Do you have teaching assistants who can give some extra time and attention to these students? Can you spend some free periods or lunch periods giving extra support?
If the answer is no to all of these, perhaps the student’s family needs to seek outside intervention: an educational therapist, a subject tutor, or a summer program. However, these things are often not affordable for some families. All the more reason to figure out how we can provide interventions at school.
2. Use technology—meticulously.
I continue to advocate for the use of computers for students with ADHD and learning challenges. There are too many benefits to ignore, such as the ability to type (vs. write by hand); the available tools like voice-to-text, video, and audio recording; and the ability to watch videos to absorb content. Quarantine most likely resulted in young people becoming more attached to social media, online videos, and video games, but we need to reteach them how to use tech effectively for schoolwork and have them practice impulse control—easier said than done, I know.
Teachers can set boundaries with tech. For example, students need not have laptops on and open at all times during class. When students are using computers during independent work times, teachers can circulate and make sure the technology is being used appropriately and help students get back on task. It is highly valuable to get students back up and running online and using tech for educational purposes.
3. Set realistic homework goals.
After a year and a half of remote learning, parents are burnt out from trying to get their kids to do homework. There may have been lots of fighting at home over this. Now that we’ve returned to in-person schooling, teachers need to be wary about putting pressure on kids to complete homework and relying on parents to help facilitate.
Make homework goals realistic; give students tasks that you’re sure they can handle. Be realistic about how long a student can work independently at home and assign work that matches this. Focus on key content and skills that will be built upon in future months and years.
Perhaps, dabble in the “flipped classroom” model: have students read short selections and watch informational videos at home, and then do the work production and problem-solving exercises in class.
4. Lower the stress—for everyone.
It’s been a tough couple of years. It’s been stressful. Our instinct may be to frantically try to catch students up as quickly as possible and be harder on them about work production and testing. But students with ADHD and learning challenges—and any student, really—don’t need any more pressure right now.
We all have to relearn what being back in school is like. So take it one step at a time and set incremental goals for students.
You may notice, for example, that it’s incredibly difficult for a particular student to output much writing. Set incremental steps to get this student feeling confident about the writing process. And if you can, assess the student’s understanding of material without having them produce writing. For example, you can test them by asking questions verbally and having a conversation.
We’re all trying to get back to a normal school life. So stay safe and be patient—with yourself and your students.
Ezra Werb, M.Ed., formerly a behavior interventionist and resource specialist teacher and currently an educational therapist, has been working with students with attention deficits, learning challenges, and spectrum disorders in typical classroom settings, resource rooms, and one-on-one academic support scenarios for more than a dozen years. Ezra earned his master’s in special education with a concentration in educational therapy from Cal-State Northridge and is a member of the Association of Educational Therapists. He lives in Los Angeles, California, where he works in private practice with students with ADHD, spectrum disorders, dyslexia, anxiety, and other learning challenges.
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