As an adult with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I find virtual meetings extremely taxing to my focus and sensory system. As executive director of a nonprofit that serves students with disabilities, I know that virtual learning is similarly challenging for many kids — they just don’t always have the words to explain how or why. In an effort to help teachers (and intervention specialists) better understand the stresses of remote learning, here is the letter I would write if I were an 8-year-old student trying to navigate school today.
I miss you! I also miss sitting at my desk in your classroom, where you can sense when I’m having trouble or going off track. Online learning is so much harder for me, but I think I’ll get there with your help. Here’s how you can help me:
1. Set the rules and the agenda. At the start of the lesson, please explain what we will be learning and what is expected of me. If I don’t know or am not reminded of when the lesson is ending, I feel overwhelmed and start thinking only about how long I have to sit and listen. My mind does not focus on what you are teaching. My anxiety kicks in, my heart races, and I feel a prickly sense run through my body. My ADHD brain craves real structure and parameters.
2. Be aware of your movements. When you shift back and forth — or move your hands and arms a lot — it makes me feel nauseous, like I’m getting the stomach flu. I can usually stifle my reaction, but I can’t control it and learn at the same time. My sensory system is also rattled by the quick switches — between speakers and subjects — that happen often during classroom meet-ups. Please allow me to look down or cover my face with my hands when I need to. I’m still participating but taking a short visual break really helps.
3. Check the volume. My sensory system is still adjusting to online learning. Sometimes I forget to use tools I have because I’m preoccupied with sitting still for the entire session. Please remind me that I have the ability to control my own volume on my device. This sense of control is liberating.
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4. Live vs. recorded learning. I may seem lost during the live session, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from playing back the recording later. Viewing the lesson in “chunks” — when I’m better able to listen and learn — could be more effective for me. I might need cues from my parents, and I know this service won’t always be possible, but if there’s any way you can arrange it, I know some of us will benefit from a video library of lessons.
5. Please consider my ADHD when you schedule time with me. If we are going to have a one-on-one learning session, can we do it at 10 a.m. instead of first thing in the morning? I learn better after I take my medicine, but it needs time to kick in. I’m also more productive after exercise, and usually tired from virtual meetings by 2 pm. The perfect time for me to focus and learn is from 10 am to noon.
6. If possible, ask me open-ended questions about how I feel at different times during the day. If you simply ask what my “best” time of day is, I’m going to try to please you or my parents — I can’t help it. I need tools for self-discovery. Learning to gauge how I feel at certain times of the day, may be the most important lesson of the school year.
Remember this still feels new for me. I don’t adjust to changes as quickly as do some other learners. There are still a few weeks of school left, though — and just because I didn’t do well initially, doesn’t mean I’m not getting the hang of it. The school year isn’t over yet, and I still think I can adapt. I just need a little more time.
Thank you for your patience with me!
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Updated on May 26, 2020