Will your child’s ADD get better if you homeschool?
I’m no educational psychologist, but I’ve been homeschooling for sixteen years in three states. I often hear, “Will homeschooling help ADD/ADHD?” I’ve met hundreds of homeschooling families at conferences and workshops I’ve presented, I’ve answered hundreds of calls at a statewide homeschool phone line, and I’ve been a homeschool evaluator in Virginia for quite a few years now.
Over and over again I’ve heard variations of this story —
When I took my child out of school, his attention problems became manageable.
Learning at home, my child no longer seems to have ADD.
Homeschooling makes me realize that school did not fit my son, but that there is nothing wrong with him.
Homeschooling lets my child work with his active side instead of against it.
My daughter’s ADHD is still present, but since we took her out of school, it’s no longer blocking her from learning.
We have stopped treating our child’s ADD with medication since we started homeschooling, and she’s still better than she was in school.
This sounds promising, right?
But it’s not magic. The parents who observe such a change in their children also generally report actively shaping their homeschooling to address attention problems their child had in a school setting.
Beginning to homeschool a child with ADD/ADHD*
Consult your doctor if you are considering changing, reducing, or eliminating medication for ADD/ADHD. Some children remain on ADD medication while homeschooling. Some children take a reduced dosage or specially timed dosage. Others taper off or stop taking medication altogether. These medicines change the body chemistry, and abrupt changes of certain meds may be unhealthy or dangerous.
What You Need to Know to Start Homeschooling
There are many opinions about whether children who are homeschooled need to take medicine for ADD/ADHD. Read what homeschooling parents are saying, and consider the pros and cons. You are your child’s parent, and you get to decide what to do. However, keep in mind that this is a medical decision as well as an educational one.
Take deschooling seriously. Children who have been in school with problems classified as ADD/ADHD have often been really stressed by the school experience. Read all you can about deschooling, explain it to your child, and commit to really letting it happen.
Deschool yourself. If you are considering removing a child from school, or you have just begun homeschooling a child who was formerly in school and battling ADD/ADHD using school approaches, then you will need to deschool yourself. You have absorbed a lot about the things that an institution needed your child to do in order for that institution to try to educate him or her.
Now you need to make discoveries about the learning situation your child needs to thrive. Learning at school and learning at home are not the same. Homeschooling parents frequently have to unlearn the defaults they learned as parents of school children. This is why we call it deschooling.
Ideas for homeschooling a former school student with ADD/ADHD
Plan your day according to rhythms rather than a schedule, especially at first. A helpful rhythm includes attention to alternating activities. For example, all day long, alternate indoor and outdoor activities. Alternate “close work” and “big work” — such as alternating writing or drawing with building a tree house. Alternate a contemplative atmosphere (candles, tea, gentle music) with a purposely energetic atmosphere (rockin’ music, dancing around the kitchen table, singing at the top of your lungs together).
At first, you may need more of the outdoor time, the “big work” time, and the high energy time. Keep those periods longer with much shorter periods of indoor, close, contemplative work. Follow your child’s lead. If it takes four hours of running and playing for a child to be ready to read and draw for fifteen minutes, you can do that — you’re homeschooling.
Pay more attention to homeschooling style than curriculum. Many beginning homeschoolers have their heart set on finding the right curriculum, as if it will solve all educational problems. More likely, finding the right general approach to homeschooling for your child will be more important than curriculum in the early months and years of homeschooling a child who has been considered to have ADD/ADHD.
Read about the different homeschooling methods and try the one that seems most like it will fit your whole child, not the one that seems like it would meet your immediate academic goals for your child.
I know that sounds backwards — but keep in mind that with ADD/ADHD children, learning will not take place, no matter how badly you want it to, if their energy and focus challenges are not addressed. If they have had a hard time in school, they now have to overcome that trauma. A curriculum that does not fit will only cause the trauma to be reinforced.
For most of these children, a homeschooling style that is more hands-on, interest-based, and project-oriented will be most effective. Consider unit studies, eclectic homeschooling, unschooling, or project-based homeschooling to get started. However, your child is not his attention deficit — and you can also consider other aspects of his learning style and personality to choose a homeschooling style. If it doesn’t work, you can make changes.
Do not replicate school at home. If you set up a miniature classroom, use textbooks, use a school schedule, require long periods of seat time, and use a teacher-based approach instead of a learner-centered approach, do not expect any change in your child’s learning or behavior. Homeschooling is not public school at home.
Beware virtual school packages. Virtual courses and virtual schools can work in some situations. However, a child coming out of school with an ADD/ADHD diagnosis will often struggle at home if a parent chooses a packaged virtual school to “cover all the subjects.” That’s because some kinds of packaged virtual school curricula are not active or hands-on enough to engage a child who has attention challenges. You as a parent may initially feel better because the package seems complete; however, if the child cannot complete the package because it is not designed with your child’s learning challenges in mind, nothing has been gained.
One other caveat — if you educate your child using a virtual school package provided by a public school division, you will run into problems with the school division if your child does not complete his work and his standardized testing on their schedule. You will not have the same freedom to customize as you will have with independent homeschooling.
Consider delaying formal academics. Some people believe that the reason certain children are considered to have ADD is that they are being given formal lessons earlier than is developmentally appropriate.
If your child is still in the early years, under 8 or 9 years old, consider that many homeschoolers do not do formal academics during this time. This is called the Delayed Formal Academics approach. It sounds counter-intuitive if you have been used to a school environment, but there are many academic but informal things your children can learn during those years which will be more compatible with attention challenges than formal lessons.
If your child is a little older, he or she may “lag” with certain skills by school standards. One reason homeschooling works well is that kids can learn content even if they are not yet fluid readers or writers. This ability to build content during skills lags is especially helpful for kids who may be behind due to attention deficits in school.
Allow generous time for play. Children who are coming to homeschooling from coping with ADD/ADHD in school are like all children — they benefit from extensive play time. Creative, independent, high energy play is not only worthy in itself, but it also helps many children focus on more traditional academic work. This makes perfect sense to me — my days as a horse trainer taught me that horses who were given “turn out” in the pastures were much more able to concentrate on their training in the riding ring.
Let kids learn while their bodies are busy. I have read Greek myths to boys scootering in circles around me. I have read Johnny Tremain to boys playing in the sandbox. Contrary to all those who believe kids have to sit still and be quiet to learn, my kids seemed to learn very well when their hands and feet were in motion.
When focus occurs, don’t interrupt. Children who are able to follow their interests in a homeschooling environment often begin to show ability to concentrate for longer periods. It is often more important for them to practice paying attention than for them to shift to the next thing on someone else’s agenda. If you have a child who is building something, engaged in reading, or making art, do your best to allow these activities to continue. Children in school have to be moved along with frequent transitions to meet a school schedule. You can allow an engaged child to remain engaged.
Consider the environment. Help your child experiment with ways to adjust the environment. For example, some people study better with music on in the room or on head phones, because the music actually seems to occupy a distractible part of the brain. Other people do better with white noise or complete silence. Instead of telling your child which environment is best, help him or her take responsibility for exploring and making decisions about a learning atmosphere that’s effective.
Read more about small environmental factors that can make a difference — from eating something crunchy while doing math problems to turning off internet access during high focus times.
The ability you and your child have to create an environment that works best for learning is a big benefit of homeschooling. This really gives your child a life lesson in setting the stage for success. Work, vocational training, and college all require people to figure out how they concentrate best. As your child gets older, it will be an advantage that he or she has worked continuously on these issues as a homeschooler.
Autonomy, autonomy, autonomy. “ADHD-diagnosed kids seem to do especially well when they are allowed to take charge of their own education,” says Peter Gray, writing for Psychology Today in his article, “Experiences of ADHD-Labeled Kids Who Switch from Conventional Schooling to Homeschooling or Unschooling.” Give your children as much as educational autonomy as you can stand. This doesn’t mean giving up parental guidance or letting kids run amok. Instead, it means supporting your child’s educational interests by facilitating learning that is important to him or her.
I strongly recommend you read Gray’s report of his research about ADHD-labeled kids leaving school for homeschooling. What he has found is what many homeschoolers have found: when parents are willing to make big changes and support a child’s unique educational path, homeschooling can greatly reduce the impact of children’s attention challenges.
(*Much debate has ensued over “labeling” children with ADD and ADHD. I am using the labels since the audience for this article is parents whose children have been in school and diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. I recognize both the relief and helpfulness diagnostic labels can convey, as well as their potential for pathologizing what may actually be normal behavior in certain environments. With apologies to those on both sides of the labeling fence, I’m just trying to explain how homeschooling can be helpful to children who have struggled with ADD/ADHD characteristics in school).