Online Learning Leaves Some Students Struggling

 ADHD Weekly, February 4, 2021

Students struggled to adapt to online learning during the pandemic, say researchers, parents, and students themselves. Those hardest hit are low-income, minority, and students with special needs, including ADHD.

“We are alarmed by what we are seeing across the country, due to the pandemic and the school closures,” says Jim Blew, Assistant Secretary for Planning Education and Policy Development at the US Department of Education. “The academic progress of our students has been stunted especially for our most vulnerable children.”

The Northwest Evaluation Association states that not only are students struggling with online learning, but large learning gaps are evident, particularly in math. Educators are concerned because math is cumulative, so missing out on parts of math instruction can set students further behind.

Students with ADHD are struggling more than their peers who do not have ADHD, according to a recent article in the Journal of Adolescent Health, which found, “Fewer adolescent routines, higher negative affect, and more difficulty concentrating because of COVID-19 were each associated with greater adolescent remote learning difficulties only in adolescents with ADHD.”

Struggles for online learners

Students who were struggling before the pandemic are struggling even more with at-home learning. Many students with ADHD find it harder to pay attention during online instruction. In a classroom, teachers can use nonverbal signals to help students with ADHD stay on task. With hybrid learning, which has students both in the classroom and at home, the teacher is in the classroom but must divide her time between in-person and online instruction. The teacher may not be able to use the same strategies to help both groups. Online students are not getting those in-person classroom cues that helped them stay focused. Additionally, it’s even harder for students with ADHD to stay motivated to complete class assignments. The whole structure of online learning requires a student to be organized and focused, an executive function challenge. While learning from home, students with ADHD are required to do things that they are challenged to do on their own.

Some parents and teachers, meanwhile, created new ways to help students with ADHD stay on task. Some parents let their children sit in swings or on exercise balls during online instruction. Aware of their child’s restlessness, others worked with teachers to include more movement breaks during the school day. Many teachers found that having students share or be a part of the instruction process leads to better student engagement. Others found that easily overwhelmed students benefit from instruction in online breakout rooms. Flexibility in instruction and re-imagining online lesson plans can be especially supportive for students with ADHD.

Next steps for students online

What is the outlook for struggling students, and what needs to be done to help them catch up? The pandemic could be seen as a wellspring to enact change in an educational system that was already failing, according to researchers and educators.

Educators are considering new approaches to school, creative steps by teachers, and more options for different school settings. Immediately meeting the needs of students through individualized instruction has been suggested, along with helping students to catch up academically.

“Our research suggests that academic remedies are going to take years and not months, and that academic rescue is only part of what students are going to be needing,” says Macke Raymond, director at Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. With helping students catch up to grade level first in mind, the challenge is how to help students as past efforts have been historically unsuccessful, according to Blew. The challenge now will be how to design education plans that work and are targeted to individual student needs.

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