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Disability Empowerment

The Challenge of Learning Online With ADHD

Dr. Silvia E. Moore

Director of Learning, Congressional School, Board member of the National Organization for Children and Adults with Attention-Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder (CHADD)

Imagine you are back in school, attentively listening to a lecture, or directions for an assignment, and suddenly realizing that you have not been paying attention. Everyone is beginning to work but you have no idea what to do or where to start. 

Something the teacher said triggered a memory, and down memory lane you went until some noise or movement in the class brought your attention back to the present. But now you are “Late, Lost, and Unprepared,” as authors Cooper-Kahn and Dietzel so perfectly summarized it in the title of their 2019 book. 

For those affected by attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), maintaining concentration in school is not easy. For these people, the world is busy, loud, and distracting. These students benefit from the structure the classroom provides, the redirection support of teachers, and the ability to use peers as models. 

Supportive scaffolds are not easily accessible during online learning. 

New skills

As in-person classes move online, students with ADD/ADHD, from kindergarten to college, are being required to quickly master a set of learning skills that many students take for granted and perform as a matter of course. 

They must maintain their attention to follow multi-step directions, create and consistently use a file organization system on their computers so they don’t lose work, locate resources scattered over multiple online platforms, study effectively, and keep track of assignments and due dates. 

So how does a student with ADD/ADHD find success in online learning? According to the CDC, they must learn to consistently self-regulate the executive functioning skills important for learning: (1) flexible attention, (2) working memory, and (3) inhibitory control. These executive functions facilitate goal-directed behaviors and depend on the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead), which is responsible for directing attention, planning, and problem-solving. 

Flexible attention 

People with ADHD often struggle to direct energy toward completing tasks or remaining attentive to speakers. One way to increase flexible attention is to create long- and short-term goals for staying on task, such as “I will jot down new vocabulary or create a graphic organizer during lectures to help me remember what the teacher is saying.”  

Goals for regulating attention can include actionable steps, such as note-taking (jotting down keywords during lectures), attaching the word “and” to responses that include repeating what others have said (people with ADHD are so busy thinking about their response/contribution to a topic that they forget to listen to others’ thoughts on the subject), or using a spinner ring (fidget toy) to increase attention and alertness

Other helpful strategies include having a dedicated place and time for where and when work will be done, and to specify how much time will be spent each day. Rather than waiting until the night before to study for a test or complete a written assignment, successful students with ADD/ADHD learn to anticipate deadlines and divide work into manageable “chunks” carried out over several days. 

Using a planner and timers, dividing assignments and study periods into chunks, and setting reminders to begin and take breaks have been shown to be effective ways to remain focused and successfully complete tasks and goals.

Working Memory

There are two types of working memory responsible for learning: auditory memory and visual memory. Think of working memory as your brain’s post-it notes — the brain grabs and holds information in mind just long enough to use it. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of ADD/ADHD is an inability to hold details in memory while concentrating on the steps necessary to perform a task. 

Strengthening working memory begins with identifying which of the two kinds of working memory (auditory or visual) is the more reliable or strongest. For example, if we tend to remember more of what we see than what we hear, then pairing oral directions with visuals, such as written notes, PowerPoint slides, or pictures, will not only help in remembering the information, but also in remaining engaged and focused. 

Pairing oral and visual memory is also helpful for those that complain they do not remember what they read. Reading out loud with expression allows the brain’s pathways to better capture the information (and you can also try editing a paper out loud). 

Another strategy for reinforcing working memory is repetition. Repeating information transfers it from working memory to long-term memory for more reliable retrieval. 

And because the brain likes novelty, successful students use the strategies of “spacing” and “interleaving,” in which one subject will be studied for half an hour, followed by a short break, and then a different subject to keep the brain interested and engaged.

Inhibitory control 

Arguably the most difficult executive function skill to regulate is inhibitory control, and the most common parental lament is “I don’t understand how they can spend hours on social media and games yet struggle with staying focused at school.”  

Inhibiting one response in favor of another requires exercising control over cognition, motivation, and behaviors, a difficult task for the brain. It has nothing to do with one’s motivation or effort level, and everything to do with how successfully one can direct cognitive (thinking) energy toward achieving tasks. 

Most children develop the skills for self-regulation as they grow and develop, but for children with ADD/ADHD, this has to be taught explicitly through step-by-step attention to awareness, alertness, goal-setting, planning, progress monitoring and incentivizing. 

Awareness begins with understanding the strengths and weaknesses that help or hinder achievement. If you failed at something, ask yourself, “what got in my way?” Then think about each step in the process as a stand-alone task to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your approach. 

Maintain a list of strengths and weaknesses from experiences (e.g., “I remember what I see, I do well with firm deadlines, I finish quickly what I start, I tend to turn things in late, I forget things”). The better you know yourself, the easier it is to set goals and use planning to reach them (e.g., “I will set a calendar reminder to start tasks, I will break tasks into smaller units and do them over a few days”). 

And don’t forget to reinforce good habits. Incentives play a central role in addressing the symptoms of ADD/ADHD (e.g., “I will reward myself with ‘x’ after spending ‘x’ amount of time on my assignments”). Research has found dopamine cell firing is normally associated with reinforcing events, meaning behaviors that are repeatedly reinforced become more habitual. 

Path to success

The key to success in online learning for people with ADD/ADHD is to understand they are just as smart as their peers. What they need are systems or strategies for regulating concentration and attention, increasing working memory, and creating structures and incentives to help remain on a task until it is successfully completed. 

While some learners with ADHD may be able to self-regulate once aware of their individual learning difficulties, others will need help from parents, teachers, and/or academic coaches. One thing is true for all learners, but especially for those with ADHD: Asking for help is key.

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