Suddenly Thriving

Some students with ADHD are surprising themselves and others during this unusual time.


by Joyce Cooper-Kahn, PhD


I’m hearing a lot about students with ADHD and other challenges who are struggling to adjust to the academic routines of learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their struggles are real and deserve our attention. Still, would it surprise you to know that some children and teens with ADHD are doing better in “quarantine schooling” than they did in school-based learning?

Many students with ADHD and executive functioning challenges are suddenly thriving. If you’re lucky enough to be the parent or teacher of such a student, take a moment to breathe a sigh of relief. You get a reprieve from the chronic worries and intensive efforts to help your child.

In this new world of remote learning, academic conditions and demands have changed for the better for many students. If we can understand what has changed that allows for success, then we can use the information as a guideline for accommodations in school plans. Just as importantly, we can help our students to: (1) build confidence in their own ability to succeed, and (2) build self-awareness that allows them to design their own learning and work environments in the future.

How do we understand this improved performance? How can we build on it to help students succeed when they return to the classroom and beyond?

We know that many students with ADHD have difficulty engaging with busywork and are easily distracted. They falter when they must bring themselves back to a task that is not particularly interesting to them. Many grow restless and tired when they must sit and attend for long periods of time. Individuals with weak executive functioning may also find it a challenge to keep track of assignments, due dates, and materials. They may find it difficult to transition from one subject or task to another.

Suddenly, the demands of school have changed!

Below are some of the favorable elements of remote learning that I have seen and heard about in the last few weeks:

  • Schooling for many students is now a combination of direct instruction (live or pre-recorded) and a tutorial model. Students access the direct instruction and then have the option of attending online office hours or chat sessions for more help. Suddenly, students who don’t need help are free of the repetition and busywork that they often rebel against.
  • Assignments, due dates, and procedures are recorded by the teacher and given to the students. Suddenly, students are not required to write down assignments, remember due dates, simultaneously listen to the teacher and record the important information about assignments in their agenda books.
  • Students are working in relative isolation. Suddenly, fewer distractions!
  • Most students are spending less time in direct instruction. Suddenly, they have more flexibility to schedule their work time as it suits them. One preteen told me that she has a two-hour break midday. In addition to eating lunch and getting outdoors, she spends at least one hour on her assignments. So, now she can get much of her work done when she still has some daytime energy and can be more efficient than when she must do her homework late in the day. Suddenly, no nightly homework fights!
  • While working independently certainly has its drawbacks for many with ADHD, for some it is freeing. Students can take on a project, complete an essay, or read without the demand to move on after an arbitrary amount of time. Suddenly, fewer transitions!
  • Books, notebooks, papers, materials, whiteboards (or other planning tools) are all in one location. Suddenly, no demands to remember what to bring to school or take home!
  • No travel time means extra time in the day. Suddenly, the morning routine is a bit easier! (As one teen explained to me, this opens up the option of some “easy-outs.” Like dressing from the waist up only if she’s running late. Or eating lunch while she listens to her pre-recorded lesson.)

Students who are suddenly thriving are building their confidence, too. They are starting to believe in themselves and to understand how context shapes their productivity and their experience.

What an opportunity!




Joyce Cooper-Kahn, PhD, is a clinical child psychologist and coauthor of two books on executive functioning: Late, Lost, and Unprepared:  A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning (Woodbine, 2008) and Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators (Wiley, 2013). She is co-chair of Attention’s editorial advisory board.


  1. Nadia Ramsey on June 19, 2020 at 4:51 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with this article and I am extremely proud of these students for doing well!

    I have always proposed to teachers and parents about kids with ADHD that it is not about what we feel is right or normal for them. It always has to be about what makes the kids with ADHD feel better and perform exceptionally well without compromising on their health, happiness, and peace. Their pace is different and their surroundings are also meant to be different for better performance. Sometimes, their peers and fellow students also make it difficult for them to concentrate and bullying can be one of the reasons too. I have actively worked in reducing bullying-related incidents and anything that can pose as a threat to their mental health. So I encourage teachers and parents to the same. Last year as a project, I researched some facts and myths busted, pasted these facts on the walls of schools to help raise awareness. I hope they continue to shine and thrive well! 🙂

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