Parent’s all over the Western New York Region are experiencing the difficulty of connecting children with Attention Challenges to Remote Learning. Having the kids home 24/7 AND for many, also working from home, AND helping them each step of the way with their school work…that’s just about physically impossible, right?  Actually…right!

Kids with Attention Challenges & Remote Learning

Yet, this is 2020.  What previously seemed completely impossible is now very much our reality.  No one said it’s going to be easy and no matter how difficult it is parents everywhere are doing their best to figure it out.

This is real life, so how can we get through it without tearing out hair out?  

7 Tips for Kids with Attention Challenges & Remote Learning

It’s no secret that children with Attention Challenges face their own hurdles when dealing with both learning as well as school. Adding the necessity of learning in a Remote Learning environment can make learning even more difficult. Here are a few tips that we’ve picked up over the years working with children and teens with individual needs and their families work together to better access their education:

  1. Set the environment up for success.  

Having a quiet workspace setup makes a HUGE difference in helping your child stay focused during distance learning.  Make sure to have a separate area for them that they know is designated for their school day.  Their workspace should be structured around a clean desk area with limited clutter for optimal focus.  

Think about what in their area could potentially distract them.  You want to keep toys and fun electronics in a separate area so that they are not tempted.  Think about the lighting and whether it’s optimal for your child.  You can even ask them, “Is it too bright?  Is it too dim?”.  Is your child able to hold attention better with low music playing in the background?  Or perhaps there are t.v. noise coming in from the living room.  Could that be shut off or designated for a specific time when your child isn’t engaged in class?  Giving your child with Attention Challenges every opportunity for the best chance at focusing for extended periods of time is the goal.  Taking the time to think about their environment is a key step in helping them reach that goal!

  1. Find sensory tools to stimulate engagement. 

Many of us don’t think about how much our children with Attention Challenges are impacted by their sensory system, i.e. sensitivity to sounds, environment, smells, touch, etc.  This probably is the case for us too, but we’ve had more time to work on it!  Sensory regulation refers to getting the mind (emotions) and body (behavior and nervous system) in sync so that a person can navigate their environment and situations.  For our children (especially during quarantine), their bodies probably feel out of control a lot of the time, which can look like so many things: running around, fidgeting, wiggling, tapping their pencil.  The urge to get this to stop makes sense if you’re trying to get your child to focus, but your child really can’t help it.  Expecting your child to sit perfectly still isn’t a reasonable expectation, so how can you help?  If they are especially fidgety or bouncy in their seat, perhaps think about picking up a bouncy yoga ball for your child to sit on for at least part of their day.  If you notice your child playing with their hands a lot, maybe bring out one of their favorite stuffed animal characters that have a fun texture and have them give the stuffed animal some pets while they listen to their class session or even when they work on an assignment.  Some other tools that may come in handy: 

  • a stress ball (you can even make one with your child as a project!)
  • silly putty
  • bouncy elastic bands to put under the desk or chair 

You really have to see what fits the needs of your child, but there is a WIDE world of fidget tools that you can find online.  Perhaps have your child help you with your selections!  They might have a good idea of what can help them, too.  Each child is different and each day is different, so just keep track of which strategy helps and that it doesn’t actually distract them from their task.  

  1. Make expectations clear.

Part of what might be challenging for your child with Attention Challenges is not knowing exactly what is expected of them and feeling like they won’t be able to achieve all of the tasks.  It’s also so important for them to know “the why”.  Expectations without explanation won’t allow for your child to understand the connection behind why it matters.  Instead of saying, “I want you to pay attention to your teacher and do your classwork”, explain “Please pay attention to your teacher.  It will make it so much easier for you to follow along and not get lost.” and “Let’s do your classwork so that you understand the lesson better.”  By doing this, you’re creating an environment that’s primed for trust and purpose with your child.

  1. Create a visual plan.

Visuals are so helpful to children (and adults alike!).  Using a visual helps them tangibly track their progress and feel a sense of accomplishment when something gets crossed off the list. 

Break your child’s plan for the day into chunks so that they are only able to see the next couple of upcoming tasks.  If they see everything on the agenda they might get overwhelmed. 

Kaylee Falcon, AMFT

A whiteboard could do just the trick if you are able to write down everything for the day and then cover all of it except for the first couple of items (i.e. 1.  9 am English with Mr. Ross,  2.  Complete handout).  This way your child has a chance to take it step by step and feel mastery after each task they have completed.  Have the whiteboard in a spot where your child can reference it easily, preferably right by their workspace.  You can even include things like eating breakfast and check it off so they can feel proud of each undertaking they have achieved.

  1. Utilize timers and incorporate breaks.  

Take note of how long of an interval your child is able to hold attention for and try to increase it each time.  You can even make it like a game where the reward is your positive praise (I will expand more on why this important in #6): “Wow!  You stayed focused for 8 minutes!  That’s awesome!  I bet you can make it to 9 minutes next time!  What do you think?”  If your child is only staying focused for a couple of minutes at a time, although I’m sure that can be frustrating, it’s ok!  Meet them where they are at and slowly build up their tolerance to sustaining their attention until that next break.  

Breaks are key to helping your child get through their school day.  This was the case when they were at the school campus, too.  They had a snack break, lunch break, PE, and mostly likely little breaks worked in throughout.  As much as schools are attempting to simulate the structure of the school day, the sequences just aren’t the same.  Try to incorporate as many breaks as you can and diversify what those look like.  For example, one break can be to have a snack, the next to do 10 jumping jacks, the following to take a walk around the block, etc.  Main point: lots of breaks!

  1. Integrate positive affirmations and praise.  

Who doesn’t like hearing that they are doing a great job?  Maybe there are a few people out there, but I feel confident in saying that most people love it when their efforts are recognized.  Remote Learning truly is something none of us were prepared for and even more so for our children.  This is really difficult and especially so for a kid who is impacted by attention challenges.   Celebrate each little victory with your child.  Throw in those high fives.  If they were able to come back to the desk after a short break, let them know how awesome that is!  

If you would even like to integrate a reward system for your child to support them with a buy-in, then do so.  Most kids are so motivated by video games, but the rewards don’t have to be based on that.  You and your child can decide together what would be motivating to them.  It might be beneficial to keep the rewards little and have them be frequent and later move them towards less frequent, but larger rewards.  Maybe at the end of each day, you can go to their favorite park (at a social distance, of course!), bring a frisbee or a fun game/toy, and pick up their favorite snack.  Spending quality time with your child is their greatest reward!

  1. Validate your child’s feelings.  

Just being there with your kid and sitting through those challenging moments can go way further than you might think.  Simply mirroring for them how they are feeling, “Man this Remote Learning is SO tough!  This would be really hard for me if I were a kid doing school online.”  Using statements like “It’s ok.  We can try again later.” and  “You’re so brave for doing this.  I’m so proud of you.”, can help your child know that you see them and how difficult this is for them.  Each day will be different. Some days might go great and some days you might just have to give your child a huge break to calm down from a tantrum.  That is ok!  There really isn’t a perfect way of going about this.  Keep in mind that every child is different and where they are at in their developmental stages will impact what works and what doesn’t, but take heart – you’ve got this!

When the day is through, REVIEW.

After each day of supporting your child with remote learning, talk it over with them to see what they thought.  What worked?  What didn’t work? 

Review with them the positive moments and challenges. 

Kaylee Falcon, AMFT

For example, “I noticed you really had a hard time and you were upset with me that I was having you continue with your work, but you know what, you were able to calm down and push through it!  How did that feel?” or  “That was a really tough day.  I noticed it was really hard for you.  We can try again tomorrow.”  Giving them the space to express what helped and didn’t help or what was too hard to deal with encourages open communication that will further your relationship that is built on trust.  Knowing that you are there for them and with them is everything.

Kaylee Falcon is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT), School Based Art Therapist in the Los Angeles area.  When she isn’t working with amazing neurodiverse youth, she can be found crafting ceramics and needle-felted puppets.  Kaylee is also a very big fan of practicing self-care via streaming shows with her partner, Chris, and cute pups, Westley and Peanut (the ferocious chihuahua).

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