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Distance Learning Presents A Challenge For Students With ADHD

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, we know in the COVID era, going back to school means many students logging on from home to school on a screen. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports that distance learning presents a special challenge for young people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Keriann Wilmot's son, who is 10, was diagnosed with ADHD in December. In January his school near Dallas started him on an individualized education program, and Wilmot says it was working. He was staying focused and getting more assignments done.

KERIANN WILMOT: He had had about two and a half solid months of support when COVID happened, and all of a sudden, it just disappeared.

HAMILTON: Instead of a school and teachers, Wilmot's son had a laptop and his mom. She's not just any mom. She's an occupational therapist who specializes in kids with learning disabilities. Even so, working with her own child was tough.

WILMOT: It was a different environment for him. And he wasn't used to me asking him to do these activities, and he wasn't used to this kind of work from school coming in the format of, you know, an email and his Chromebook every single day.

HAMILTON: He would avoid math and writing and go straight to his favorite subjects, science and social studies. But Wilmot says even then, online assignments were often a problem.

WILMOT: There might be something when he opened it that was, like, a really pretty .PDF that had lots of beautiful illustrations and fonts. And he would look at it and just get overwhelmed and shut the laptop and walk away.

HAMILTON: So Wilmot would get up at 6 a.m., open all her son's assignments and come up with a plan to get them done. Then she'd start her own full-time job, working online with other people's children. It was a lot, and at first, Wilmot didn't realize that her son was missing a critical part of school - recess. She thought he should do his schoolwork before riding his bike - big mistake.

WILMOT: He was like, Mom, I need the bike ride at the beginning of my day. And he was absolutely right.

HAMILTON: Many children with ADHD are less fortunate than Wilmot's son. Haftan Eckholdt is a developmental psychologist with Understood, a nonprofit that serves people who learn and think differently.

HAFTAN ECKHOLDT: Most parents have jobs, or they're looking for jobs. Most households don't have a space that they can say, like, oh, this is now your classroom. This is a space. And you'll have this, and nothing else will happen here.

HAMILTON: Eckholdt says a typical home is full of distractions.

ECKHOLDT: There's siblings and pets and all kinds of other things going on, including parents. And so there's a lot of things that are novel and very challenging to kids with ADHD.

HAMILTON: And there's no teacher in the room to counteract those distractions.

ECKHOLDT: When I was in grade school, the teacher might actually come stand near me. And so that was a way that - you know, for me to realize, like, oh, right. Here I am. I'm here.

HAMILTON: Even so, Eckholdt says distance learning does work well for some children with ADHD.

ECKHOLDT: There's certainly kids where not being around peers actually makes it easier for them to focus, and they feel like they have a lot more control and a lot less distraction around them.

HAMILTON: That's because there are so many variations of ADHD, says John Foxe, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester. But he says brain scans show that children with the disorder do have something in common.

JOHN FOXE: When we're recording these youngsters doing tasks in the magnet, what we find is that there are very clear differences in the engagement of the attention circuits.

HAMILTON: Foxe says those differences make it even harder for them to overcome the urge to use the computer for fun.

FOXE: A lot of kids with ADHD are spending a lot of time on screen time and video games at home at the moment but really struggling with the online lessons. And that, of course, makes perfect sense, too, because one of the things about that kind of content is it's highly motivating.

HAMILTON: Foxe says it's hard for a teacher to compete with that, so distance learning will simply be harder for many kids with ADHD. Foxe says for children with more severe learning and intellectual disabilities, it's just not possible.

FOXE: For those kids, sitting at home is a disaster - absolute disaster. And we need to get them back to school, but we have to do it safely.

HAMILTON: Public health officials are still trying to figure out how to do that.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.