ADHD in Students: On the Rise Since the Pandemic? 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a chronic neurological condition that consists of persistent issues including hyperactivity, difficulty maintaining attention, and impulsive behavior. While ADHD has always been a prominent neurological disorder, in the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, curiosity surrounding diagnoses and treatments have starkly risen.

The most common recommendation given to those with ADHD is creating a consistent routine. Being able to rely on a daily routine helps those with ADHD shape their understanding of the world, and the pandemic has stripped them of that security. Many students struggling with ADHD have been able to operate despite their neurological tendencies due to daily routines, such as school, cushioning their reality. As we’ve all been pushed into our homes, losing social and physical connection with others, students with ADHD have lost their means of operation and must reconstruct their practices in order to adapt to the ever changing world. 

One of the biggest challenges to the conventionally operational world from the pandemic was education. The switch to online learning forced students, parents, and teachers to abort their tried and true strategies and rework their procedures in order to try and better support students and their families. For many students with ADHD, school is one of the most onerous obstacles to overcome. The school system does not always support the needs of students with ADHD, especially those who do not have 504 or IEP plans. 504 or IEP plans are arrangements made for students with disabilities that affect their ability to learn productively, providing special adjustments for them to learn successfully, and are historically hard to come by. One thing that in-person school allowed for them was the needed sensory stimulation to remain engaged with their peers and school material as they could move around, communicate, and process information in their own manner. Online learning required them to remain in solitude, staring at their computer screen for over half the day while home life and world issues demanded so much from them emotionally. 

Many students struggling with diagnosed or undiagnosed ADHD questioned their adequacy as learners during this period, leading them to dig into their curiosity surrounding learning disabilities. Student Duncan MacArthur (12) has been diagnosed with ADHD and describes how online school having a soft structure led to him losing motivation. “Nothing had urgency,” he claims. “You have two weeks to do an assignment but you end up doing it the night before, [and] even then you could have gotten another week of extension to complete if needed.”

This then begs the question, did the COVID-19 pandemic cause these problems with learning for students with ADHD, or did it just unmask these issues students were already facing? According to a study published by WebMD in 2020, the majority of parents included reported that their child’s ADHD symptoms had worsened since the lockdown. 66% reported an increase in angry outbursts, and 56% reported that their child’s ability to maintain a daily routine had declined. As parents and teachers have sat front row to their students’ educational struggles during the pandemic, the push to get help from behavioral health specialists is undeniable. 

Many therapists and healthcare workers have recognized the growing interest in ADHD consultations. Franklin guidance counselor Holly Vaughn-Edmonds described the large number of students reaching out to consider setting up a 504 or IEP plan after returning to school as a “tsunami.” While there has not been a census of those with ADHD since 2016, according to a 2016 survey by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 9.4% of children are diagnosed with ADHD, a majority of that number being students ranging from 12-17 years old. Compared to their first survey in 2003, the percentage of students diagnosed with ADHD has risen 2%. 

“I used to think I just hated focusing,” says MacArthur. He feels frustrated that he couldn’t explore different strategies for managing ADHD before the pandemic; “I feel like I was cheated almost.” He reflects that not having these strategies before the pandemic really held him back academically and made him stray away from extracurricular activities. Many people with ADHD cannot sit down and work on something they need to get done and struggle with managing their time productively, as they are not aware of time passing, which is most commonly referred to as “time blindness.” For MacArthur, the repetitive nature of online school led to nothing surrounding education being special anymore. None of his days had any variety to inspire him to really engage in his classes. 

As we continue adapting to in-person school, accommodating students who have come to terms with their ADHD during the pandemic can look like increased access to 1:1 help, extensions on assignments, and supporting sensory needs. As many of them have not had official behavioral counseling, making IEP and 504 plans more accessible will be of the biggest necessity for these students. 

According to Understood, an online organization that focuses on helping those with learning disabilities such as ADHD or dyslexia, only 2.3% of students in the US have a 504 plan. According to the U.S Government’s Civil Rights Data Collection, 1 in 8 public schools and districts aren’t consistently offering 504 programs for their students. It is more likely that the 7 in 8 schools and districts with 504 plans available are schools of greater financial privilege, primarily serving white students. Just like all systems created, the system implemented to diagnose and treat those with ADHD has shown racial disparities. In multiple studies done by JAMA Network Open and The American Academy of Pediatrics, white students are more likely to be diagnosed and treated for ADHD despite all other racial categories presenting similar symptoms. Leading factors such as income, cultural norms, and practitioner bias can all be to blame for this inequality. The process of getting diagnosed can be costly due to the need for consistent treatments that may not be covered by insurance.

According to Understood, students who are underserved in relation to their learning disabilities are three times more likely to drop out of school, two times more likely to be unemployed, and 31% more likely to be bullied. With a national precedent of disenfranchising and ignoring students with learning disabilities, the impacts are undeniable. Prioritizing creating equitable learning environments establishes a precedent of valuing all learners, despite their neurological disposition.

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