ADHD at a Distance

How can we best meet the needs of families with ADHD while learning at home?

Posted Aug 31, 2020

Stephen Paris/Pexels
Source: Stephen Paris/Pexels

There is no single solution that fits the intricate, individual needs of all families with ADHD. That complexity is particularly true for school plans, even in the best of situations. The educational challenge has intensified during COVID, as distance learning is especially fraught when living with ADHD.

ADHD is best seen as a delay in executive function skills that support not only attention but also organization, planning, and persistence. Strong executive function allows someone to follow routines, avoid procrastination, and stay on task. It’s responsible for prioritizing, following instructions, and supporting strong writing. And of course, it’s how we resist clicking on everything that lures our attention onscreen. All of learning relies extensively on these abilities.     

Understanding what is needed and possible in any situation means framing ADHD as a disorder of self-management. Kids with ADHD typically require adult support in school because they are behind in these skills. But parents are not teachers and may have jobs, other responsibilities, and other children. Developing a distance-learning plan requires balancing both the needs of our children and our reality as parents. 

Seeing ADHD With Clarity

Even if you’re not practicing mindfulness, its intention is valuable. With mindfulness, we aim to relate to our situation with objectivity and precision. Otherwise, we stay caught up in reactivity and habit. That’s a strong bottom line whatever we’re facing, supporting both resilience and flexible problem-solving. 

How can we figure out a plan when someone has ADHD? Much like the serenity prayer, we benefit from sorting out what we can change and what we cannot. That doesn’t mean pretending we’re delighted with everything. Seeing the impact of our stress and uncertainty is seeing life with clarity too. 

Mindful awareness of ADHD starts with assessing our children’s ADHD accurately. Can my child focus, keep track of time, or remember to hand things in? Stay organized and on-task? Do they know how to plan or study? Despite a child’s strengths, it is likely with ADHD that specific self-management abilities are not yet consistent.     

And then, we can look with that same clarity at family resources. What are we capable of as parents, and what’s needed from us? What’s true about our time? What’s true about what we can afford? Our limits as parents are a stark reality that is even more intense for some families than for others right now. 

Consider teachers as well. Much of what goes into supportive classroom management is out of their control online. Moment-to-moment adjustments made by observing student engagement get lost. Even in person, everyone is wearing a mask, and teachers cannot move about the room as they typically would. There is more to teaching than delivering content, amplifying the unique challenge facing educators right now.

Maximizing ADHD-Related Supports

There’s no perfect parenting—ever. That’s particularly true today. All we can do is sort out what’s possible, seek support, and do our best to keep children on track until the world gets back to its new normal. 

ADHD care always benefits from understanding the executive function. Academic skills are akin to playing the piano; it’s as if a child can play scales but not a song yet. With ADHD, those abilities might relate to attention and behavior, planning and time management, emotion, or more. Until their abilities improve, kids will struggle to reach academic goals without extra help.

On the other hand, some families report silver linings to online learning. That starts with more family time, like having lunch together. It could mean incorporating more exercise and movement into the day. Working at their own pace and schedule has clearly eased stress for some students. Where it seems possible, take advantage of any unique opportunities afforded by this situation too. 

ADHD-related supports break down into several areas to monitor. In no way should you feel compelled to do everything. Pick and choose from this reference list based on your own experience. Implement a plan, then reflect and readjust. Meeting a child’s needs is a dynamic process, not a set, one-time solution.

What can you ask of your school?

  • Reexamine (or request) 504 accommodations or an IEP. For ADHD, a 504 plan is meant to address anything related to ADHD, not only grades. Schools should support someone lacking strong self-management skills (meaning, attention, time management, impulsivity, and all the rest) however it impacts their education.
  • Request that daily work be presented in one place, not across multiple locations. Ideally, one list includes all links for the day. This streamlined process benefits all students, but it is vital for someone struggling with planning and time management. 
  • Break longer assignments into day-to-day parts. Work backward from the due date and write each step on the calendar as a single day’s work.
  • Increase opportunities for 1:1 learning. Seek out, and request, 1:1 sessions. Many students with ADHD don’t see the need for themselves or forget to plan. Adults often need to schedule sessions instead of waiting for a student request.
  • Ask that some assignments be sent home for printing, to minimize online distraction. Complete them with a pencil, then scan and submit.
  • Request frequent communication with parents about schoolwork. Kids with ADHD struggle with self-monitoring; ask to be contacted before problems escalate. 
  • Limit school computers to schoolwork. It is normal that a child with ADHD will get distracted on a computer. Ask for parental controls, limited access to games and YouTube, and monitored online access.

What can you do at home? 

  • Parent-based interventions are effortful in the short term but create longer-term ease. Rallying our emotional resources to set up a new behavioral plan or initially monitoring a daily school plan, for example, makes both their lives and ours easier once the new system functions well.
  • Create a reasonable environment for work. Whenever possible, use a space away from distractions that allows for monitoring (maybe while you work nearby), and with the computer facing where you can see it.
  • Structure schoolwork like a school day. Create a schedule and use visual timers to follow it. Many students with ADHD focus better for set blocks of time, instead of when work feels open-ended. Do your math until the timer goes off, and then we’ll check in again. Mixing work sessions with timed breaks (including physical activity) may be more productive for them—and for you.
  • Create a single to-do list for the day, for you and your child to monitor. Keep track of everything in one place, and add exercise and outdoor time too.
  • Schedule an end-of-day check-in with an adult. Confirm the work is done and handed in. 
  • Set up 1:1 learning time, if you have the resources. Schedule individual time with a tutor or teacher. This is a horrific part of our situation, as many families lack both the time and money. Considering contacting your school, library, or online parent groups for affordable resources.
  • Use tech to monitor tech. Install programs that monitor and set limits for your child online during the school day.  
  • Behavioral management is always core to ADHD. Be kind and flexible, stay fun, and bend the rules when that seems appropriate… and also define your bottom-line boundaries with a firm balance of rewards, limits, and consequences. Letting go of all structure makes sense for a five-day event, not for one year. Emphasize your family’s top priorities: Schoolwork first, exercise every day, and a reasonable bedtime—after that, you’ve earned fun time online too.

Health and medication

  • General health routines support learning and emotional well-being. Regarding sleeping, eating, and exercise, kids (even teens) with ADHD often require adults to establish those routines.  
  • Medication is proven, safe, and effective for ADHD. Up to 90 percent of people can benefit without side effects. Medication use correlates with academic and behavioral improvement. It’s not a simple decision but can profoundly impact your child and family.
  • Insist on a variety of mental activities during free time. After accounting for school and social time online (like Facetime), across the rest of the day, encourage a variety of entertainment. Use their screen time to get your work and responsibilities completed as much as possible.  
  • Mindfulness helps with resilience, focus, and learning. Consider how you could integrate a daily practice for yourself and your family.


Be kind to yourself and the people around you. Aim to see things clearly and compassionately. Do what you’re able and reach out to community resources, like your pediatrician. This is an infinitely complex and uncertain situation for everyone—and not in the same ways for every family.  

If your child remains healthy and emotionally resilient, over the long haul, there will almost certainly be academic catch-up. It’s awful and imperfect, but reality. While there will clearly be a long-term impact on all of us, growth and recovery will follow once we reach the other side of this international crisis.