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How to use an LMS to support students with ADHD and developmental challenges

Educational Therapist Ezra Werb discusses how an LMS helps students with ADHD, learning and developmental challenges.
How to use an LMS to support students with ADHD and developmental challenges
How to use an LMS to support students with ADHD and developmental challenges

At the start of the quarantine, my phone was flooded with calls from panicking parents. They were freaking out about the online portals their kids were suddenly meant to navigate. As an Educational Therapist working with students with ADHD, learning and/or developmental challenges, I understood their concern. But in the years leading up to this, I’d already seen some of my students benefit greatly from Learning Management Systems. Their teachers had been early to the game, getting their students up and running online (Hāpara was one of the first I saw).

I assured these parents that although troubleshooting and a bit of extra scaffolding may be needed, these systems have been incredibly effective at both supporting and building executive functions in students.

A student’s cluttered backpack

In the past, I’d begin my after-school meetings with students by asking them what assignments they had coming due. Inevitably, I’d then watch them turn over their backpacks. They’d let loose, crumpled papers, empty folders and broken pencils pour out like a waterfall of junk. This sort of scene is certainly not limited to students with ADHD, but it is a familiar one.

To support them, I’d spend time teaching students how to organize papers into folders and help them develop routines to do so. I’d also communicate with their teachers to coordinate our support for them in this area. But within a couple of weeks, ultimately, some students just couldn’t sustain it.

Executive functions and students with ADHD 

Organizing one’s academic life, whether it’s a third grader or high schooler, is incredibly important for success. It’s also incredibly difficult for kids with ADHD and/or learning challenges. It requires many executive functions working in coordination for extended periods of time. 

The steps here might include:

  • being attentive to a teacher’s instructions
  • focusing on which of those instructions are the most important
  • writing down what assignments are due
  • writing down when they are due
  • placing loose papers in appropriate folders for quick retrieval later
  • maintaining focus over weeks to follow through on their work.

For some of us, these may seem like simple tasks that come naturally. But let’s think of them in terms of the executive functions they require:

  • Initiating mental activity
  • Planning ahead
  • Foreseeing consequences
  • Working memory
  • Focusing/selecting out key pieces of information

And this is just the preliminary cognition to organize and plan school work. We haven’t even gotten to starting the actual work yet!

How an LMS can help students with ADHD

Years ago, when a few of my students started on classroom portals, the benefits were swift and obvious. Now, instead of taking time to sift through a backpack full of papers, the student and I could just open up the LMS. With a little clicking around on tabs and folders, we’d see exactly what was due. Any needed readings or material was right there––PDFs, slideshows, etc. And the assignment instructions were typed out clearly. It was like an online Trapper Keeper! 

Planning and foreseeing consequences are challenging for students with ADHD. Being able to see the due dates of both upcoming and long-term assignments has helped me reinforce the strengthening of these mental tasks for them. By looking at the upcoming calendar, it may help them grow an awareness of the benefits of looking ahead. That includes their upcoming days, weeks, months and figuring out how best to plan out their work production.

Communication is key for students

Many of my students with autism and/or ADHD are hesitant to speak with teachers, whether it be to ask a question or to offer a response. This may be due to lack of confidence, speech issues or social challenges. One particular student of mine, a sixth grader on the spectrum, never spoke out in class or approached a teacher. After starting to use the online portal, he began typing messages to his teachers. He would ask about assignment directions or let a teacher know he’d completed a task. This was a big step for him, in terms of self-advocacy and social confidence. The online interface allowed him direct communication with teachers in a format he felt comfortable with. Even more striking, in the ensuing weeks, he started to raise his hand in class.

The direct-feedback feature has also been effective. With Google Docs and Slides, as well as other “comment” features, I’ve seen my students receive clear and to-the-point feedback on their work from teachers. For years, I’d watched my students get written comments on their work pages. They were scrawled in red-inked pen (sometimes illegible), jammed into the margins of papers. 

I’m thinking of a particular student who struggled greatly with self-monitoring his work and would never edit his writing based on teachers’ comments. This changed when they started using Google Workspace for Education in his classes. It became so much easier for him to see teachers’ comments and efficiently make the suggested changes to his work.

Troubleshooting and scaffolding tips for students

For students with ADHD, learning and/or developmental challenges, we may need to take steps to troubleshoot and scaffold.

  1. Show students where an assignment is when you upload it
    Before the end of class, take a minute to show students exactly where a given night’s assignment and related documents are located. Have them quickly locate it on their own computers. Then when they’re ready to do the work independently, they’ve already gone through where to locate what they need.
  2. Help them initiate work production
    When attempting to get started on work, students with ADHD often struggle to initiate their thinking. As an additive to tip #1, walk your students through starting production on homework. If they need to start a new Google Doc or Slideshow, have them do that at the end of class and rename it accordingly. Give them a few minutes to quickly brainstorm some ideas for their writing or some time to complete the first question. In other words, send them off having already broken the ice on initiating the assignment.
  3. Send an extra message
    It probably can’t hurt to send them a direct message after school to make sure they’ve located what they need to do on a given night. Plus, it increases communication with them.
  4. Give a full tutorial to start the year
    Some students with ADHD need extra support to navigate the portal well enough. They may need help finding the assignments and content needed on a given day. As we enter into year 2 of online classrooms, don’t assume your new students know the geography of the app.
    Start week 1 by taking your students on a tour of your “classroom.” Show them exactly where assignments will be located and where information will live. Don’t give any significant assignments that first week. Use it as a time to help students adjust to how you will organize everything.

The sudden shift to online platforms has made some parents and teachers anxious. That’s especially true regarding students with ADHD, learning and/or developmental challenges. But getting up and running online helps these students develop an awareness of skills like organization, planning, communication and foreseeing consequences. With some support and scaffolding now, they will eventually be able to manage it all independently.

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