Online school poses new challenges for students with ADD and ADHD, could have long-term effects, doctors say

FITCHBURG, Wis. — Online school is presenting new challenges for children with learning disabilities, and doctors say there could be long-term effects.

When Core Knowledge Middle School in Verona first shifted online, 12-year-old Max Kratochwill was excited to not have to deal with some of the hassles of having in-person class.

Now, over half a year later, he thinks doing seventh grade virtually is “not fun at all.”

“It’s kind of hard to focus because I have my TV right next to me and I have a bunch of background noise,” Max said. “I miss looking at the teachers in-person and saying ‘hi.'”

Max probably isn’t unlike his other classmates in missing in-person school. But, learning virtually poses some unique challenges for him as well — Max was diagnosed with ADHD when he was 10 years old.

“He has a hard enough time focusing when the teacher is right there keeping him on task,” Kay Kratochwill, Max’s mom, said. “Now that he’s trying to do it on his own with me keeping an eye on him, it’s definitely been difficult.”

Children with ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, often struggle with staying focused and keeping their attention on one task at a time. This can be made even more difficult when lacking a designated workspace free of distractions.

“He has so many more distractions here than he does at school,” Kay said. “We’ve had to change his work environment three different times because of continuously finding distractions.”

For many families, online school puts an added burden on parents to help keep their kids on track. But, not all parents are able to do so — Kay has vision loss and physical disabilities that make it hard to give Max the extra help he needs.

“It’s frustrating everyday,” Kay said. “If I could see well enough to view all of these programs that parents are supposed to be involved in it would be a lot easier for me.”

The school has provided them a lot of resources and offered compassion for their situation, which Kay said have been extremely helpful in supporting Max through his frustration. They’ve also discovered ways to help him focus, like petting his pet guinea pigs during class to calm him down.

Max isn’t alone in struggling to balance online school while having ADHD. Many children with learning disabilities are being left without the support that they need.

“These kids are unfortunately starting off at a disadvantage,” Dr. Aruna Tummala, a psychiatrist at Trinergy Health, explained. “They already struggle with focus, concentration and they’re highly distractible.”

The difficulties of online school for kids with ADD and ADHD could have long-term effects on their self-esteem, behavior and coping mechanisms. Dr. Tummala said that she’s already seeing an uptick in child anxiety following the pandemic.

“We are talking about children whose personalities are developing; they are constantly changing,” Dr. Tummala said. “They are absorbing all of the stress that we are experiencing as a collective.” 

As cases of coronavirus increase in Wisconsin, it seems likely that online school will continue for the the foreseeable future. According to health professionals, it’s important that parents and teachers adapt in order to better support children that are struggling with this new norm.

Dr. Tummala advises parents to give up some of the ideals that they may have for their children, and to give themselves and their kids permission to not perform all the time. She also recommends trying to stay on a regular schedule and to incorporate free time and activities for kids.

“You’re your child’s only advocate at this point and you have to be their best advocate,” Kay said. “Fight for them and do what they need  to help them succeed, or at least get by for now.”