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ADHD, Stimulants, & Back-To-School: Thoughts & Tips for Parents

ADHD, Stimulants, & Back-To-School: Thoughts & Tips for Parents

As we enter the Fall season, and the last quarter of 2020 (i.e., the year of all-things-bizarre-and-unexpected), kids have returned to school and we’re all trying to get back to some sense of normal. Some will be going back to the classroom after a 6-month hiatus while others will continue with virtual learning. There will be an adjustment to going back to the classroom, as the typical school day your child once knew certainly won’t be the same. As for virtual learning, many parents and teachers describe it as an ongoing adjustment process.

If your child has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), these changes can be much more challenging to navigate. There are numerous distractions that are to be expected throughout the learning process, both virtual or live, along with a drastic change in the structure and sameness your child was accustomed to. If your child has been on a break from his/her ADHD medication, getting them back on their routine also involves adjustment and change, such as coping with side effects. Some parents have opted to reduce the frequency of their child’s meds (or have taken an extended break) during virtual schooling since their child is at home and away from the more demanding environment of the classroom. Below we will discuss the issues and challenges related to your child’s ADHD and the various adjustments that we can continue to expect.

Sleep-Related Side Effects

Many children on stimulant medications struggle with the winding down process in the evening, particularly if a dose is taken later in the day rather than in the early morning hours. Getting your child back to a set bedtime might be a significant achievement; however, if they simply cannot fall asleep, your effort to ensure your child gets their 9 to 10 hours of sleep every night may be unsuccessful. You can circumvent the initial adjustment to a set bedtime and rising time by firstly, encouraging this schedule on weekends, too. Even a one or two day deviation can make it difficult for your child to get back into a healthy sleep schedule. Many parents utilize a children’s melatonin supplement. Although some pediatricians discourage using melatonin on a regular basis, it may periodically serve as a good emergency backup on those days when your child appears wide awake, energetic, and showing no signs of sleepiness—and it’s 9:30pm. Melatonin often takes effect within approximately 15 to 30 minutes, which can benefit your child the following day when they must be ready and rested for a day of virtual learning (or dealing with the various new social distancing protocols in school). Of course, check with your child’s pediatrician before adding a supplement to his/her routine.

Learning at Home

If you’re still back-and-forth about whether your child needs his/her ADHD medications during virtual learning, consider that although he/she is in the comfort of home, they will have to complete assignments, avoid procrastination, sustain attention and focus for long periods, and cope with boredom, among many other potential concerns. After a lesson, it’s likely that your child will want (and need) a break, putting independent work and assignments at risk of not getting completed. Afterall, at home there may be many more distractions (and activities your child would rather do) than he/she has access to while at school. Your child may still need his/her ADHD medications, but you can consider setting certain ‘med days’ if you can anticipate that a particular virtual learning day will be especially challenging for your child. For example, if your child struggles with math or writing, consider making use of their medication on these instances, if feasible. Ultimately, consider the big picture and what is best for your child academically. You want to make sure that you are doing what you can to maximize the quality and value of online schooling so that your child doesn’t suffer any long-term academic consequences. And of course, check with your child’s physician before making any changes and if you are unsure.

Social Distancing, Masks, & Going Back to School

For children returning to school this Fall, an average day will seem unrecognizable (and unreal) to everyone—parents, teachers, and kids alike. Your child will have to adhere to hours of mask-wearing, six feet apart reminders everywhere, hand sanitizing and hygiene, and COVID testing. Although it’s been over 6 months now that we have all had to make these protective actions a part of daily life, taking these measures in schools can be overwhelming for any child. Preparing your child ahead of time for these types of distractions and interruptions will be key to ensure that he/she can shift from adhering to these new rules and protocols to getting back to paying attention and completing schoolwork. Talk to your child (and your child’s teacher, as needed) and go over ways he/she can break down tasks and assignments into smaller parts; reduce visual distractions on your child’s working area; and arrange for more ‘attention breaks’ than usual. Protection strategies in school should safeguard all students, but your child’s academic progress doesn’t have to suffer. Maintain open communication with your child and his/her school as we all navigate these new forms of learning.

Dr. Michael Messina

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