October 2, 2023

Learning Loss During the Pandemic: Motivating Students with ADHD

Q: “After more than a year of online learning, our son with ADHD has lost many academic skills — and his self-confidence. He is chronically stressed and anxious about school, and homework has been incredibly challenging for him. We’re trying to help him make up for this learning loss, but he refuses to cooperate and often lashes out. How can we help him get out of this rut and motivated about school again?”

To varying degrees, we’ve all experienced loss in the pandemic. And many of us, children included, took a step backward. This is especially true for students with ADHD and other learning challenges, who were most vulnerable to falling behind with virtual instruction. Anger is a common and understandable response to this loss, especially with the return of in-person learning. Motivating your child to engage in learning will be more important than ever this time.

1. Understand Your Child’s Anger

To help your child, first acknowledge his feelings and really understand the source of his anger. He worked hard to learn foundational academic skills and was likely doing well before the pandemic. Now, he probably feels like he’s losing face — and status. As you acknowledge your son’s anger, remind him that we all have an obligation to step up and try to get back on track.

Still, talk to him about appropriate responses and consequences for outbursts. You can say, “You can feel angry, but it’s not OK to throw a book or yell at me. If you do that, you’ll lose privileges.”

2. Build His Confidence

Next, you’ll want to work on building up his confidence. One way to do so is to start skills-building work at the last academic level where your son excelled. Note that this might mean revisiting schoolwork from more than a year ago. If he doesn’t understand why he has to do “baby work,” explain to him that it’s normal and smart to slowly ease back into a skill that’s been rusty for a while (this is also true for non-academic skills like swimming, golfing, or piano playing).

[Get This Free Download: 4 Secrets to Motivating Students with ADHD]

Another way to boost engagement is to make learning fun for your child. Avoid sticking him in front of a screen or having him follow an automated learning program. Instead, sit down to read a book with him, watch a related video together, or have him pick another way to review the subject matter.

3. Is Perfectionism In the Way?

Perfectionism can be a barrier to motivation, as it freezes us in place and brings out oppositional behavior in some children. If you sense that your son won’t engage in a task because of fear of failure, try to temper his expectations. Ask, “What would the finished task look like for you? What characteristics would it have?” Then, have him aim for just one or two of the task characteristics he listed.

4. Talk to Teachers

Your son’s teachers may not be aware of his struggles, but it is imperative that they stay in the loop. Begin by directly asking his teachers: “Are you aware that my son is spending two and a half hours on an assignment that used to take him half an hour?”

Good teachers will respond with something like, “I want your child on track 75% of the time. I don’t want him to experience stress and frustration — that’s not what school’s supposed to be about.”

[Read: 9 Clever Teaching Strategies for Common Learning Hurdles]

As a former teacher, I often suggest to educators that they communicate clearly with students about their homework expectations. They might say that the assignment should take about half an hour, and direct students to mark how far they got in that time. If a significant portion of students don’t finish in that time frame, the teacher should adjust assignments moving forward. If most students are on target, however, the teacher should troubleshoot directly with struggling students.

Don’t be afraid to raise these concerns with teachers and the school at large. Chances are that other parents have the same concerns about their children.

Learning Loss for Students with ADHD: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Motivating Your Child with ADHD: What Ignites Interest in and Energy for Learning [Video Replay & Podcast #364] with Jerome Schultz, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on July 20, 2021.

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“Q: My Child is Angry and Frustrated Due to Learning Loss.”