I remember reading the email from my sons’ school like it was yesterday. On March 11, 2020, we received notice that all in-person instruction would be suspended indefinitely. Due to COVID-19, all students would transition to a virtual learning format. My immediate thoughts focused my 9-year-old son who was in 3rd grade, who two years prior had received a diagnosis of ADHD. How would he receive the services he needs to succeed? How in the world is this going to actually work? Will he be left behind?
3rd grade is a very hard year developmentally and academically for children. In K-2, students are still having their academics “hands held” according to the KnILE Center. Student who were then learning to read are now reading to learn in 3rd grade. 3rd grade to sees a significant jump in mathematical operations and the critical thinking associated with them. Additionally, 3rd grader’s bodies are becoming flush with hormone that are the precursor to puberty, making social and emotion interactions all the more intense. Now, imagine all a 3rd grader is going through and add all of the elements of ADHD into the cocktail. This is where my family found ourselves for the remainder of a school year that had been uprooted and forced to adapt.
According to the CDC, children with ADHD experience more obstacles in their path to success than the average student. The symptoms of ADHD, such as inability to pay attention, difficulty sitting still, and difficulty controlling impulses, can make it hard for students with ADHD to do well in school. These descriptors are all try of my son who, while extremely bright, finds the new independence of 3rd grade academics and social life anxiety inducing.
The first few weeks of virtual learning were manageable. We believe that this is mostly due to the relaxed expectations of the school at the beginning of the pandemic. However, as virtual learning became the new normal, expectations increased as did the amount of work my son was expected to complete each day on a devise that we have limited due to understanding that increased screen time is crippling to children with ADHD.
As we approached the end of the school year, we could see the impact virtual learning was having on our son. Past the impact e-learning had on his grades, we began to see him lose interest in subjects and topics he had once enjoyed and were at time, obsessed with. As with so many others, virtual learning and the stress of COVID-19 were taking their toll on my son’s mental health.
There is so much more to school than academics. School is also a space in which students learn social skills, emotional regulation, and coping skills to work through stress. Students with ADHD need this space more than others due to under-development of certain structures in the prefrontal cortex of their brains that control executive function. School becomes a platform for students with ADHD to not only engage their brains academically, but to engage in activities with others that increases both their emotional and social intelligence.
Entering the Fall and 4th grade, my partner and I knew that we needed to have a game plan. We decided to discuss our strategies with his new teacher so we were all on the same page. We researched strategies to help him focus while on a call. We also discussed our son’s need for social interaction that went beyond academics. And, we engaged his pediatrician to explore his current medications and if there were adjustments that needed to be made.
This school year has been markedly better than our previous go with virtual learning. Maybe it is that both us as his parents and his school have found a rhythm and structure that is realistic and meets the challenge before us. Or, maybe it is that my son, and children in general, are extremely resilient. Whatever the reason, my son is growing academically and socially. It also does not hurt that my son’s 4th grade teacher has gone above and beyond for my son, as she also has a son in elementary school who has a diagnosis of ADHD.
While my son’s experience with virtual learning has not seen my greatest fears come to fruition, the same cannot be said for thousands of other children in the United States that have both a diagnosis of ADHD and have been forced to “attend” school virtually. Researchers are pointing to 2020 and defining it as a missing year for education. If this is true for education in general, the impacts COVID-19 has had on those struggling to learn with ADHD are only amplified. COVID-19 has exposed a fault line in our school system that is not kind to those who learn differently. It is my hope that we would take this opportunity to not only invest in our schools, but learn ways to do better for children who do not fit the neuro-typical academic mold.
I have been blown away by my son this school year. I may be bias, but I am so proud of his ability to rise to the task. It is so easy to forget as adults just how resilient kids can be. Even when a global pandemic was thrown at him and his parents lost their cool way too many times, he has met the challenge.
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