Help students with ADHD successfully return to in-person learning

While educators knew to expect a regression in ADHD students' academic skills, self-regulation and behaviors, there are actions that can help.
By: | September 16, 2020
Photo by Annie Spratt on UnsplashPhoto by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The effects of the pandemic have been hard on all students, but especially those with ADHD. Expect to see a regression in these students’ academic skills and in their self-regulation skills and behavior when they return to the classroom, says George J. DuPaul, a professor of school psychology at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

Here’s how teachers can help when students are learning in person and through a hybrid model of remote and in-person instruction.

In-person learning

Two main things to address for a student’s return to in-person learning are assessment and teaching COVID safety, DuPaul says. These are important considerations for all students, but especially for students with ADHD who may not quickly adapt to new COVID-related rules. “They’ll be acting in the moment because that’s what they do, and acting impulsively without thinking about the safety piece,” he says.

  1. Assessment. Revisit expectations with the idea that the student likely experienced some regression no matter how well he did online, DuPaul suggests. You may need to dial back your expectations for where a student is in terms of skills acquisition. “That’s where assessment comes in,” he says. “Do a good assessment when they come back. Where are they in math, reading, and self-regulation skills? Are they able to follow classroom rules in independent ways as they did before?” Then, if needed, provide the student with more initial structure or positive discipline to get them back to where they were pre-pandemic.
  2. Teaching COVID safety protocols. Schools returning to in-person learning will have regulations around physical distancing, washing hands, wearing masks and plastic barriers. Recognize that for students with ADHD, it may be hard to learn a new set of rules, in addition to following the regular classroom ones. “It’s very hard for many students with ADHD to internalize rules quickly,” he says. “They need a lot of contingencies.”

Students will be excited to be around their peers, and this will make them more active. “They’ll be more impulsive, and act quickly without thinking, ‘I can’t get into this person’s space because of COVID.’ They may try to hug someone, high five, or hit when they get angry,” says DuPaul.

To help them, establish clear expectations around the new COVID safety rules and praise the student when he follows the new rules. Apply the same principles to these rules as you do the classroom rules: Make expectations of what students are to do clear, give feedback, and provide reinforcement when the student is following the rules, DuPaul advises.

Hybrid learning

Hybrid school models have positives and negatives for students with ADHD. “On the positive side, variety is good,” DuPaul says. “It keeps students engaged, interested, and motivated. On the negative side, students with ADHD really do need consistency. It’s going to be confusing: Am I going to school today? Online today? Who will be there when I get there? Consistency is key to helping students with ADHD manage behavior and expectations.”

To help students stay attuned in a hybrid schooling model:

  1. Maintain consistency. Determine if there are some expectations or aspects of the schedule that you can keep consistent for the student regardless of whether class is online or face-to-face, DuPaul says. “The more things we can keep consistent across days, the better off [the student will be] because of the need for consistency.”
  2. Predict student preference. Some students will look forward to the days when they go to school and dread the days when they have to go to class online, DuPaul said. For others, it will be the reverse. “What I see happening is battles between parents and students about either getting them to school or getting them engaged with online instruction because they are feeling the absence of the situation they really want to be in,” he says. “It’s another challenge for parents and teachers of keeping the kids on track emotionally.” Encourage parents to think proactively about what their child will prefer so they can address the issue upfront. The parents can talk to the child about it and then teach self-regulation of emotions and model coping for the child.
  3. Pay attention to medication. Any time there is disruption to a student’s schedule, it can throw off when and if he is taking his medication, and if he’s taking the right dosage, DuPaul said. This is particularly challenging with a hybrid schedule where things are changing every day.

Communicate with the student’s family and the nurse about how you will handle medication on days the student is in school and on days he is not, DuPaul said. Determine who is in charge of making sure the student has his medication and administering it if needed.

“When and how do we know a student has his medication?” DuPaul says. “Always there are these questions, but they become even more challenging in a hybrid context.”

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.