New grant to fund video game designed to help kids with ADHD learn academic skills

ATHENS, Ohio – A $1.38 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will fund the development of a new video game designed to help kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) learn academic skills and better succeed in school.

The three-year project, led by psychology researchers Brandon Schultz of East Carolina University and Steven Evans of Ohio University, is intended to help school teachers reinforce lessons about note-taking, assignment tracking, academic materials organization and study strategies with students who may struggle with these skills — especially as they advance into middle school and high school.

The researchers will work with Ohio University’s Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab to create the video game, which will use a storyline about mysterious extraterrestrials. The hope is to capture students’ interest while teaching them how to gather and organize information, according to Schultz, an assistant professor of psychology at East Carolina University who previously worked at Ohio University as a clinical research scientist.

The video game lessons will be based on the Challenging Horizons Program, a series of interventions Evans developed to help teachers focus on the most critical academic skills that students with ADHD lack. Those skill gaps not only hinder students from excelling in the classroom, but lead to behavioral problems as well.

Students with ADHD require a lot of practice and repetition of these skills, as well as performance feedback from teachers, in order to learn them, explained Evans, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Intervention Research in Schools (CIRS) at Ohio University.

“By doing this in a video game, hopefully the students will be enhancing the learning of those skills,” Evans said.

John Bowditch, director of the GRID Lab, and several Ohio University students will work with Evans and Schultz to develop and evaluate initial versions of the video game during year one of the project. All of the artwork, animation, code and sound design will be created in-house, Bowditch said.

“This will be an exciting project that highlights all of the GRID Lab’s strengths,” Bowditch said.

In year two, the researchers will host a series of focus groups in North Carolina during which students will play the game and provide feedback on the prototype. The team also will select students to go through the full 15-week intervention, which involves playing the game and receiving instruction from teachers on how to transfer those skills to the classroom. In the third year of the project, researchers will conduct a small, randomized trial to gauge the program’s feasibility and effectiveness.

The goal of the project is to provide a publicly available video game and intervention manual that teachers can download and use in the classroom.

“We really believe we’re at a point where we can help students with ADHD with cost-effective means like this,” Schultz said.

Previous research has shown that it costs about $5,000 or more annually to educate a student with ADHD, Schultz noted. These students require more counseling and disciplinary action, and are much more likely to be held back a grade than their peers, he explained.

Teachers also must spend more hands-on time with students with ADHD in the classroom, building trust and developing academic and behavioral skills, Schultz said.

“The game itself will allow the teacher to step back a bit from the teaching and correction process that is required,” he said. “Students with ADHD need repeated trials and corrective feedback. We’re shifting some of that burden to the game.”

Schultz hatched the idea for a video game that could teach the Challenging Horizons interventions after reading about a program that used an instructional game and mentoring from a healthcare professional to improve children’s adherence to cancer treatment protocols. He sought out the GRID Lab to help realize the idea because of their experience working on academic-related video games.

“I think they’re a fantastic match to get this accomplished,” Schultz said.

With support from a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the GRID Lab previously developed a nutritional educational game for children ages 7 to 9 called Virtual FoodMASTER that was distributed to schools in Ohio and North Carolina, Bowditch said. The GRID Lab also is home to Ohio University’s Immersive Media Initiative, which uses virtual and augmented reality for a variety of industries and applications—including providing 360-degree video training and education to medical and nursing students.