How to Support Students with Attention Difficulties While Learning at Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic

All parents and families are struggling to work from home while supporting and fostering learning and development for their children, and frankly just keeping them busy during this time at home. For children with attention difficulties, it can be even more challenging to keep them on task and engaged. However, when it comes to helping children with attention difficulties to learn and thrive while at home, structure is key for supporting their attention and behavioural difficulties during this time.

Chunking their learning. Turn students' 9-5 days into 30-45 minute chunks at a time, with adequate breaks inbetween each chunk. Research has indicated that 45-minutes is the maximum amount of time young learners can stay focussed for. If your child is still getting distracted, start smaller; it is up to you and your child to find the optimal length of time for them to sit, focus, and work for.

Set a timer, or better yet, get your child to set the timer. This will provide your child a visual of the time that has passed and get them to practice responsibility and independence by setting their own timer.

Follow a structured routine. Once you have established a work/break routine, stick to it. This predictability will help your child stay focussed and work hard.

Make expectations specific. Tell your child exactly what they need to do and for how long. This way there is less room for confusion and frustration with instructions.

Start your routine the night before. Have your child lay out their outfit for the next day, create a to-do list for the work they want to finish, and tidy their workspace before bed. This way your child will feel organized before bed and follow a similar routine as they did during in-person learning.

Create a separate workspace for your child. Make sure your child has a small desk space that is neat, avoiding any unnecessary distractions any clutter and mess. Try and find a space that doesn’t face a window and has little open shelving. This space should not be the bed, research shows that productivity and sleep quality decrease when working from the bed.

Reward specific behaviours with praise and activities. Be sure to provide loud, enthusiastic, and specific praise immediately after a child has done a task. This way your child will know exactly what behaviour to repeat next time.

Physical activity breaks will improve children’s’ attention, working memory and mood after taking part in physical activity. Set specific times throughout the day for your child to get active. This can be done in small spaces by doing jumping jacks, jogging in place, and jump rope. Implement frequent 15-minute movement breaks between their schoolwork and use it to transition between activities. To boost self-esteem and independence, ask your child to take out the trash, helping with watering the plants, or other chores that involve movement. At the end of the workday, get the whole family involved in an outdoor activity such as walks, jogs, bike rides, or any games or sports.

Noise cancellation. White noise can block out any noises that distracting your child from their work. Especially now, when most people are working from home, children’s work environments are prone to lots of noise from the rest of the family. By masking any noises that are coming from the rest of the house, your child is less likely to be distracted by noise while working.

Stay optimistic. This is a new and strange time for everyone. It will probably take time to find the perfect routine. Set expectations for your child, but welcome failure as a learning experience. Use the failure to help you re-work goals to help your child succeed during online learning.    


If you would like to read and learn more about attention problems in children, you can access The ABC’s of Mental Health, a free resource created by professionals at the Hospital for Sick Children that provides ways you can promote wellness and understand what behaviours may indicate a problem:

If you are still unsure of the severity of your child’s behaviours, it may be useful to contact a clinical psychologist or other mental health professional to discuss.

If your child would rather talk to someone anonymously about their problems, there are many free resources they can use:

Ontario - Kids Help Phone

Phone service is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, national service offering bilingual (English and French) professional counselling, information and referrals and volunteer-led, text-based support for young people.

Tel: 1-800-668-6868


Free, confidential, and anonymous helpline, for individuals ages 17-25. Open 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. Provides professional counselling and information and referrals for mental health, addictions and well-being over the phone and in-person, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Tel: 1-866-925-5454

Text: GOOD2TALKON to 686868 (chat with a trained, volunteer Crisis Responder)

Mental Health Helpline

Listens, offers support and provides strategies to help you meet your goals. Provides information about counselling services and supports in your community  over the phone and in-person.

Tel: 1-866-531-2600


Gerstein Crisis Centre Telephone Call Line

Free, voluntary, and confidential crisis intervention service over the phone and in-person, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Tel: 416-929-5200

Distress Centre Telephone Call Line

Crisis line offering free services for individuals in distress who require urgent emotional care and for individuals who have been physically or sexually assaulted or who are at risk of being assaulted.

Distress Centre Central: 416-598-0166

Distress Centre North York: 416-486-3180

Distress Centre Scarborough: 416-439-0744

Distress Centre Peel: 905-278-7208

Mental Health Service Information Ontario (MHSIO)

Information about mental health services and supports in communities across Ontario.

Tel: 1-866-531-2600


By Ana Zdravkovic, M.A., Ph.D. Student and Esther Geva, Ph.D, C. Psych.

July 20, 2020