Parenting during COVID-19 is extremely challenging—especially if you have a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)! Children with ADHD struggle to keep their attention focused and their behavior within appropriate limits, and this is accentuated when their routine is disrupted. Children with ADHD will need extra support and structure to manage their attention and behaviors to weather COVID-19 successfully.
Structure is essential.
All of us need structure, but for children with ADHD it is essential! Children with ADHD tend to have more difficulty managing their behavior and staying on task when their schedule is uncertain. This is particularly true when they don’t know how long they will need to wait to do pleasurable activities.
Create a daily schedule which includes:
- Waking up and going to bed within an hour of the time they would during the school year
- Keeping hygiene routines (teeth brushing, hair combing, baths, making their bed) similar to what happens during the school year
- Identifying times for school work, chores, play and highly rewarding activities.
Chunk learning activities into smaller time segments.
Instead of thinking about school as occurring between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., schedule learning in terms of segments of time between 20 and 40 minutes long. Most children cannot sustain attention on an activity for more than 40 minutes and this is especially true of children with ADHD.
Consider the amount of time your child can typically attend to an activity. Plan to give them pleasurable breaks after each learning activity for the same length of time. Make sure to let your child know how long the chunk of time for learning will be and what you’d like him to accomplish.
For example, tell your third grader he needs to work on his math facts for twenty minutes, and you expect him to complete one side of the worksheet. Then, set a timer for twenty minutes so he can see how much time is left, and you will know when it is time to check in and see if he has met the expectation.
Seek teacher input.
Your child’s teacher can be an amazing resource who can assist you by telling you about what has worked successfully in the past.
Contact your child’s teacher and find out things like:
- How much help does your child usually need when working independently.
- What has helped your child focus in the classroom.
- How much assistance the teacher believes your child needs on the assignments she/he is giving your child each week.
- Which assignments are essential and which ones can be eliminated if your child is struggling to attend and complete school activities.
Schedule time for free play.
In addition to school activities and chores, your child needs space for free play. When the weather is nice, send your child outside for at least 30 minutes once or twice each day.
Don’t attempt to structure free play for your child. Allow them to determine what they will do as well as determine how you will be allowed to participate (if you have time to join in the fun).
Child-centered play—where you join in and allow your child to direct the play—is incredibly important for children but can be difficult for parents. Child-centered play requires parents to enter into their child’s world and allow the child to be the boss. This means parents must refrain from making suggestions about what activities you could do and from advising children about better ways of doing things.
Remember, you are choosing to have fun their way (even when it doesn’t make sense).
Think outside the box to provide rewarding activities.
Structured rewards are important and give your child something to work toward. Identify things your child enjoys, and then let them know when these activities will occur.
Since many activities children normally enjoy are currently not options, you may want to consider things like:
Go to a virtual zoo.
Take a virtual museum tour.
- British Museum
- Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
- NAS Langley Research Center
- National Museum of US Airforce
- Oxford’s History of Science Museum
- National Museum of Computing
Visit a virtual national park.
Go to a virtual class, concert or show.
Create DIY sensory toys together.
Children with ADHD sometimes manage their emotions and their energy using sensory toys. If you have these at home, great! However, if you don’t you can make this an art project and work with your child to create them.
Here are some DYI ways to create sensory toys:
Set your work aside.
Many parents are juggling working at home in addition to childcare. If you are working from home (and even if you aren’t), it can be difficult to set your work down and give your full attention to your children.
All children need their parent’s undivided attention—including those with ADHD. Children with ADHD have difficulty managing behavior, and if they must compete for your attention, they will act out using these behaviors to get your attention.
To prevent this, make sure you set a time when you will be done with work. When that time arrives, truly leave work and be present with your child. Doing this allows you to invest the time and energy your child needs to recharge so they are ready to spend time managing themselves when you need to work tomorrow.
Expect some trial and error.
Finally, allow for lots of trial and error—both on your part and on your child’s part. Try things out and keep what works while having a good laugh as you discard the things that don’t work.
There is no “right” way to navigate parenting children with ADHD during a pandemic!
Approach this time with an attitude of experimentation and be willing to fun as you figure it out in partnership with your child.
Jean earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.