Joy, concern for students with ADHD as in-person learning returns

A student walks down a hallway.
A student walks between classes at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., on the first day of in-person learning March 30.
Charlie Riedel | AP file

As another school year starts, families and students living with ADHD are hoping to return to some semblance of routine amidst the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week, we’re examining how the pandemic has affected school-aged children. On Tuesday, we wanted to take a closer look at the opportunities and challenges faced by kids with ADHD as they go back to in-person learning, many for the first time in months.

“Students with ADHD have had a really hard time with the transition to remote learning” during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Margaret Sibley, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital who specializes in ADHD in adolescents.

“The structure that you can produce in an in-person classroom” is important if you have “trouble staying on task and paying attention,” Sibley told host Tom Crann.

In the classroom, teacher cues and interaction with physical materials can help students with ADHD stay engaged. But all of that goes away with virtual learning.

“We’ve seen kids with ADHD suffer more in the pandemic than the average student,” Sibley said.

That’s why “there’s a lot of joyfulness in the ADHD community about the positive impacts” of returning to in-person learning this fall, Sibley said.

But Sibley warned that students with ADHD might have to make up “lost ground” academically after the disruptions of the last school year: “There’s recovery that needs to happen for these students.” 

“My biggest concern is for the kids who are 16 and older and can therefore drop out of school legally,” Sibley said.

Kids with ADHD are at an elevated risk of dropping out, and they might have lost interest in academics when school turned into hours in front of a screen.

Sibley urged schools to make sure they serve the needs of students with ADHD in order to keep them in school and help them graduate.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

This series is part of Call To Mind, an initiative from MPR to foster new conversations about mental health. Learn more at CallToMindNow.org.

If you are concerned about your child and ADHD, Sibley recommended speaking to your primary care physician, who can put you on the path to a thorough evaluation.

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