Why our ADHD family opted out of in-person school (for now)

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Our school district resumed in-person learning at the beginning of this month. We’ve been home navigating virtual school with ADHD for a year.

And we’ve chosen to stick with it.

Virtual school isn’t my first choice, but it ranks above the current in-person options — even if I disregard COVID risk, equity, and our responsibilities to less-privileged families. To become pandemic-friendly, in-person school became ADHD-unfriendly.

To be clear: virtual school isn’t great for kids with ADHD

That’s not to say we’ve sailed through this school year. At one point my child, who the school labeled “highly gifted” and whose teacher tells me he is “a joy to have in class,” received an overall math grade of 19.92% on his progress report. After one argument about incomplete work, he crumpled up several worksheets and shoved them into my beer fridge. He hoped condensation would form on them and destroy the thin paper. We’ve had our struggles.

The reality is, virtual school places developmentally inappropriate demands on our kids. Even adults have trouble sitting down at a computer, skimming over the day’s work, and deciding what to do first. Even adults have trouble watching one YouTube video and ignoring the suggested videos in the sidebar. The level of independent work being asked of our children, including self-regulation and prioritization skills, would (and does) challenge me.

But I’m an adult. Kids’ brains haven’t developed to a point where we can expect them to do this. Not only that, kids with ADHD often lag behind their neurotypical peers in self-regulation skills. This puts them at an even further disadvantage in virtual school.

Virtual school is also not great for parents with ADHD

My own ADHD only adds to that challenge. Many parents with ADHD struggled to keep our work organized pre-pandemic. Now we must continue to do that while helping our kids do the same. It’s a lot for anyone to manage, let alone someone with ADHD.

I’ve also struggled to cope with the constant awareness that I’m responsible for what another person is (or isn’t) doing. I have trouble settling down to work when I know I’ll be interrupted for a meeting starting in two hours. Now that I’m responsible for supervising my kiddo’s virtual school day, I can feel my brain avoiding any task requiring sustained focus. That avoidance is unsustainable for both my work and my mental health.

However, virtual school allows us to make lots of ADHD accommodations

That said, we’ve also made virtual school work for us. Long before the pandemic, everyday life with ADHD forced us to hone our make-it-work skills.

Virtual school has provided — or allowed me to provide — personalized accommodations for my kid:

  • We wrapped a bungee cord around the legs of his chair for him to bounce his feet.
  • I allow reasonable fidgets at the table during Zoom meetings, including puzzles and coloring pages.
  • Whenever possible, I print the day’s assignments and have him complete them on paper, with the computer closed.
  • I give paper assignments one at a time, to remove the burden of prioritizing/choosing on his own.
  • If he has an off day and doesn’t complete all (or any) of his assignments, I keep them aside and help him make them up gradually.
  • We use Apple’s Screen Time tool to limit app usage and set boundaries for time spent, even on educational apps provided by school.
  • He can get up and stretch, get a drink of water, or make himself a snack whenever he needs to.
  • I introduced a token economy reward for completing all the day’s assignments.
  • We also had a lot of behavior problems after lunch and other noisy in-person school activities. Virtual school lunches are still filled with conversation, but much quieter and less overstimulating because it’s just the three of us.

My kiddo has been attending and loving in-person school since age two. He’s an only child. I’ve never for a moment considered home-schooling him. However, virtual school hasn’t been all bad. It’s had its ups and downs and in the end, it’s not necessarily better or worse for him on average — just different.

In-person school in March 2021 doesn’t look like it did in January 2020

When we learned everyone would have the option to return to in-person learning this spring, we had a new kind of different to evaluate. I won’t speak to the ways privilege, equity, and the coronavirus itself played into my decision to stick with virtual learning. Purely from an ADHD standpoint, the reality of in-person learning felt like a poor fit for our family.

We aren’t returning to normal. As soon as I read the list of requirements, I knew it was too much to ask of my eight-year-old:

  • The kids have to stay at their desks all day, including for small-group work, lunch, and enrichment classes. Even in the Before Times, my kiddo left the classroom on various errands more frequently than his peers, as a way to help him decompress.
  • No toys, comfort items, or fidgets allowed — including the chewy necklaces he sometimes wears.
  • Instead of unstructured free play time outside with his friends before school in the morning, he’d spend that time walking to school and waiting in line for kids to be screened and let into the building one by one. Neither of us are very patient about waiting in line.
  • The school day would become one hundred percent screen time! Kids would be expected to manage all the apps to complete their work independently, with teachers staying at least six feet from them.
  • Due to high interest, my kiddo’s school had to adopt a hybrid schedule to keep the kids sufficiently distanced. This means he’d have two days at school, two days at home while other kids were at school, and one day with everyone home for virtual learning.

Basically, the format remains the same, except some students complete their virtual school day in the school building. Being in the building requires a lot of precautions — understandably! — but those precautions remove nearly all the benefits and accommodations we’ve developed for at-home virtual learning.

I want my “normal” work day back as much as anyone, but as soon as I stopped to think about what this in-person school day would actually feel like for my kid, I knew it would be toture.

This isn’t ideal, but ideal doesn’t exist right now

Many kids need to return in-person because virtual learning flat-out isn’t working. We’re fortunate to be able to provide our child with structure, supervision, outdoor social time with neighborhood friends, regular meals, a safe environment, broadband internet access, ADHD-specific guidance, and a nice laptop with free tech support from parents who are both IT professionals. Thanks to all these privileges, he has avoided the extreme mental-health distress and learning loss many children have experienced.

And I hesitate to rock that boat. Yes, I want in-person school to start again (SAFELY). I also don’t want to jump on the train just because it’s there.

For now, for our little ADHD family, virtual learning provides the accommodations and consistency we need. Disrupting our routine for two days every week, to put our kiddo into an environment he already knows won’t work for him, isn’t worth it.

Have you had to face this choice, too? How did you handle it?

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