Helping Kids with ADHD Cope with Distractions

Because of COVID-19, this school year has started off differently than any other we have experienced. For children who are learning remotely, we may be wondering how we can best help them stay focused and engaged while they are learning from home. For some parents of children with ADHD, just the thought of keeping them motivated to learn, while sitting in one spot, might feel like an impossible task.

We asked local experts to offer tips to help parents of children with ADHD who may be wondering how exactly this is going to work. Dr. Nathan Fite, clinical director and owner of Child Anxiety Center, has worked in the field of behavioral psychology the past nine years as a practitioner, consultant and supervisor. Carmen Mendoza, director of learning programs at Springer School and Center, has been working with students with learning disabilities, and their families, since the mid 1990s. Dr. Melissa DelBello, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, is the co-medical director of the Mood Disorders Center at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

My child has ADHD and is learning from home. How do I help them stay engaged throughout the day?

Fite: Due to the motivational deficits of children with ADHD, it is important for reinforcement to be delivered with greater frequency, and be of greater magnitude, than for typically developing children. Some examples are providing frequent praise, acknowledging the steps they are doing right and positive guidance on areas of improvement. Remember to focus on telling them what to do rather than what they are doing wrong. When a child becomes convinced they are doing something well, that task becomes self-reinforcing. When delivering rewards, it’s important to focus on items the child finds highly reinforcing, such as video games or screen time.

Mendoza: For a child with ADHD, having structure is important. If the school provides a daily schedule, post it near your child’s workspace. If they don’t have a schedule, create one for yourself and your child. Write down times such as waking, breakfast, when they should be online and working, etc. When they log on, they should be ready for the day just like they would if they were attending school.

DelBello: Identify a defined quiet work space that is their “home office” and a structured schedule of activities, if not already defined by their school. Also, frequent and brief breaks throughout the day are necessary. Make sure they are getting an adequate amount of sleep and that they take planned breaks for meals and healthy snacks.

My child needs to stay focused on one task. How do I help them to manage their time?

Fite: Setting clear expectations with defined endpoints can make work feel more doable. This can be done visually with a checklist, or simply through the use of an interval timer. If you know your child can focus well for a given period of time, break down tasks into periods of whatever length your child can handle. Then your child has a greater chance of completing the tasks and can build momentum on each success. It may take trial and error to figure out what works best, and there may be some days when your child can focus longer than others, but setting a framework with bite-sized bits of time will help them be more efficient.

Mendoza: Encourage keeping a task list. Having a clock or timekeeper to estimate how long something will take and then noting how long it actually took, is helpful. Talk with your child. Ask, “What do you think helps you stay on task?” I know my 16-year-old son shoots the basketball into our driveway hoop every couple of hours and then gets back to his schoolwork with revived energy!

DelBello: Defining a schedule of activities and daily to-do lists is extremely helpful. Make sure they have adequate or even generous time allotted to complete tasks. Use of time reminders will help ensure they stay on schedule. Make sure electronics, including cell phones, are put aside, so that there is limited access to distractions while they are supposed to be working.

Like all things with parenting, it may take some trial and error and there may be some tears shed along the way, but you will get it. And remember, your child’s teacher wants to see your child succeed and is there to help, so be sure to reach out and ask for suggestions along the way.

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