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ADHD & Academic Concerns During a Pandemic
June 22, 2021

This week’s blog was contributed by Jeremy Sharp, PhD, licensed psychologist and clinical director at the Colorado Center for Assessment & Counseling and the host of the Testing Psychologist Podcast. Dr. Sharp earned his undergraduate degree in experimental psychology from the University of South Carolina and earned his master’s degree and doctorate in counseling psychology from Colorado State University. He specializes in psychological and neuropsychological evaluation of children and adolescents and provides private practice consulting for psychologists and other mental health professionals who want to start or grow psychological testing services in their practices. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with his wife (also a therapist) and two kids. 

The past 18 months have been a rollercoaster for all of us. It seems like a lifetime ago when we got the news that my then-seven and eight-year-old children would NOT be going back to school after spring break in March 2020. I remember thinking, “Okay, we can get through this for a couple of months...things will be back to normal in the fall.” But no! Things were definitely NOT back to normal in the fall for us or for most families in the U.S.  

There are many implications for kids being out of school or partially attending school for the better part of a year. I’d like to focus on the implications for practitioners who may be seeing increased referrals for issues like ADHD and learning issues. 

Although some data suggest that mental health utilization (both psychotherapy and assessment) went down during the pandemic, this frankly does not match the anecdotal evidence from around the country. It seems like every practitioner I talk to is completely full—with longer waitlists than ever. Our practice has seen a huge increase in referrals for assessment of ADHD and learning disorders, and I think there is a direct link to the pandemic. Here are a few reasons why: 

  1. Instability in the environment. Kids do well with stable, consistent environments. Speaking for myself, other parents, and practitioners around the country, there was very little stability or consistency over the past year. Here are just a few examples of environmental changes: kids transitioning from in-school to in-home learning, parents transitioning to working from home, parents transitioning to being an in-home teacher, and cancellation of after-school programs and activities. Many families experienced variation or reduction in income. Marginalized groups and lower-income families may have experienced food insecurity. The list goes on and on. Increased instability = increased anxiety, acting out, distraction, or withdrawal. 

  1. Parents getting a firsthand look at kids’ behavior and academic skills. During the pandemic, many parents transitioned into the role of in-home teacher or a facilitator of education. For those parents who previously relied primarily on teacher comments or conferences to gauge their kid’s academic performance, this was an eye-opening experience. Parents suddenly got to see just how distractible, unfocused, fidgety, and (sometimes) disruptive our kids could be throughout the school day. If any parents of kids with ADHD were in denial about their children’s symptoms, those symptoms quickly became clear. Were they likely worsened by the instability mentioned above? Definitely. But many parents acknowledged and sought support once their kids were home all day trying to learn. 

  1. Parents being more burned out than usual. Not only were kids under more stress, but parents were also struggling during the pandemic. As mentioned previously, the world was turned upside down for us, too! It was challenging to juggle work (if you were still employed), finances, kids being home, spouses suddenly being home together more than usual, and any number of other things. When parents get stressed, it’s easy to focus on the negative or undesirable aspects of your child’s behavior. These might include not sitting still, interrupting the teacher, not doing their work, blurting things out, and so forth. Even if these behaviors are occurring with typical frequency, a stressed-out parent may notice them more often and perceive them to be more severe. 

  1. Increased variability in learning. Again, structure is important. In addition to the big-picture environmental instability discussed earlier, the academic realm itself was quite variable for many kids. Teachers absolutely did their best to develop and implement remote learning options. And yet, many children ended up with multiple platforms or websites to navigate. Many did not have stable internet access, which disrupted video and audio delivery. The remote school day typically looked different than the in-person school day, with many kids completing their work more independently than before. For kids with attention concerns, this was a recipe for disaster. 

Related post: Jeremy Sharp on Trauma-Informed Assessment 

All of these factors created quite a dilemma. Yes, many clinicians have seen increased referrals for ADHD evaluations, but how does one evaluate ADHD with so many environmental influences? These are just a few strategies that we’ve employed: 

  1. Conduct a more thorough intake. Our intakes now include explicit questions to gauge the impact of the pandemic. We ask about changes to the family routine, including parent work schedules, parent involvement in learning, kids’ reactions to the pandemic in general, loss of sports or after-school activities, and the timeline of in-person vs. remote learning. 

  1. Pay more attention to history. With a neurodevelopmental disorder like ADHD, history is always important. It should not just emerge out of nowhere. But with many parents now seeing longstanding or acute symptoms of ADHD firsthand, this factor is more important. In the past, we may have gotten by with documenting symptoms within the last year and going on our way with a diagnosis. Now, we must look further back. Were these symptoms present prior to the pandemic? Are they only happening during academic times? Do they vary based on in-person vs. remote learning?  

  1. Be less confident. Principle 5 of the American Psychological Association’s guidance on psychological teleassessment during the COVID-19 crisis explicitly states that we should widen our confidence intervals when making conclusions and clinical decisions. This is incredibly important. Most evaluations over the past 18 months have a big, metaphorical asterisk beside the results that says, “We are not as confident in these results as we typically are. Here’s our best guess.” We’ve gotten over the fear of saying, “This is unclear right now,” and have no shame about asking families to come back in 6–12 months for a brief, updated assessment. 

In summary, there are many things for us to consider as we see increased referrals for ADHD testing. We must take environmental factors into account, acknowledge that parents and kids are more stressed out than usual, know that certain groups have less access to resources than others, and generally be more diligent and less confident in diagnostic results. It’s a thrilling time, as my colleague Dr. A. Jordan Wright says, to “be brave” with our work as we navigate challenging circumstances to do our best in helping these families. 

 

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