Homeschooling a child with ADHD can be a daunting task. Is this homeschool thing even right for them? Will they fall even further behind their traditionally schooled peers if you opt to homeschool them? Will you be setting them up for failure when the “real world” doesn’t cater to their ADHD brain?
These are all common and valid fears when you’re deciding whether to homeschool your ADHD child. I had them too.
I’ve been homeschooling my son with ADHD now for four years.
I also taught a wide assortment of ADHD students in the classroom for ten years. In that time, I’ve seen some interesting things and I’m here to tell you:
Homeschooling is a wonderful option for ADHD children and their families!
Let’s dive in to learn more about what ADHD is, what it is NOT, and how you can most effectively meet the needs of your kids in your homeschool.
What is ADHD?
“an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. People with ADHD experience an ongoing pattern of the following types of symptoms:
Inattention means a person may have difficulty staying on task, sustaining focus, and staying organized, and these problems are not due to defiance or lack of comprehension.
Hyperactivity means a person may seem to move about constantly, including in situations when it is not appropriate, or excessively fidgets, taps, or talks. In adults, hyperactivity may mean extreme restlessness or talking too much.
Impulsivity means a person may act without thinking or have difficulty with self-control. Impulsivity could also include a desire for immediate rewards or the inability to delay gratification. An impulsive person may interrupt others or make important decisions without considering long-term consequences.
Well, that’s all lovely, but what does that actually look like in real life?
In our family, ADHD often looks like a few different things:
- Hyperfocus on areas of interest. In the elementary years for us, this usually pertains to Minecraft and LEGOs.
- Constantly moving. A child with predominantly “hyperactive type” ADHD will be constantly on the go. Mine seems to have an endless well of energy, both physically and mentally. If he’s outside, he’s probably doing something really physical. If he’s physically resting, his brain is probably moving a million miles an hour. He has a constant stream of new and exciting thoughts in addition to a constant need to run!
- Losing everything. If he doesn’t have a clear spot for something, or if an item doesn’t make it back to its spot, it’s lost.
- Super distractable. Even if the thing he’s attending to is interesting, something new and novel WILL pull him away immediately.
- Sudden spurts of interest in something new. This usually follows the pattern of: “discover the thing”, “learn everything about the thing”, “immerse completely in the ecosystem of the thing”, “watch every YouTube video imaginable about the thing”, “start a project about the thing”, and finally “get sick of and abandon the thing”.
- Inability to focus on something that isn’t relevant or interesting. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to. Sometimes he knows it’s important, but it’s just really hard to bring himself to focus on something he has no interest in or relationship to.
- Interrupting. He isn’t trying to be rude! He just had a really amazing thought pop into his head that he has to share with you right this second or it will fly out of his brain, never to be seen or remembered again. This ties into impulse control.
- Impulsive behaviors. These are usually benign but sometimes consist of blurting out random catchphrases or doing something silly or careless. Our kiddo doesn’t often do dangerous things on impulse, but that can be the case for some kids.
- Task switching. Usually seen as switching rapidly between tabs in a browser, flitting from task to task (i.e. he started off brushing his teeth and midway through he had a thought and now he’s wondering why he’s standing in the kitchen with his toothbrush).
- Half-completed projects. This is related to the spurts of interest, lack of focus on irrelevant things, and task switching. All of those behaviors generally lead to half-completed school or personal projects being abandoned throughout the house.
ADHD is NOT:
- A behavior flaw
- A character trait
- A lack of discipline
- Anyone’s “fault” (including yours, as a mom, if you’re beating yourself up for not taking enough vitamin B or Omega 3’s during pregnancy…you can stop that)
- Something you can “cure” with diet and exercise.
Sure, eating a cleaner diet, eliminating artificial dyes, and staying active all help to manage ADHD, but they don’t make it magically disappear.
ADHD is literally a difference in the way the brain is wired. It is a type of “neurodivergence”, or a deviation from the norm in terms of how the brain functions.
It is NOT inherently inferior to a neurotypical brain; it is simply another way to be wired!
Related: Why Homeschool? Our Top 10 Reasons
Benefits of Homeschooling an ADHD Child
The traditional school setting is not ideal for kids with ADHD. School typically has:
- Students sitting still to learn
- Infrequent breaks
- Decreasing amounts of recess or breaks
- Instruction that is delivered in only a few ways (lecture, reading for information)
- A high teacher-to-student ratio
- Instructional pacing geared to the “average neurotypical student”
Not that there aren’t great teachers out there trying to differentiate instruction and come up with novel ways to meet the needs of their neurodiverse students. There are! But the fact remains that the inherent structure and implementation of school often punishes typical ADHD behaviors and labels those students negatively from an early age.
Those labels stick and follow students through school and into adulthood.
They change their perception of their abilities to thrive personally, academically, and socially, and usually not for the better.
Homeschooling offers us a unique opportunity to meet our ADHD kids exactly where they are and partner with them on their own unique learning journey.
Here are some great strategies I have learned over the years for working with students having ADHD.
12 Strategies for Homeschooling Your ADHD Child
1. Forget what you know about traditional schooling.
You do NOT need to have your student sitting still at a desk completing worksheets for 6-8 hours a day to call it “school”. There are myriad ways to learn about an infinite world of topics! Here are some examples of ways we’ve adapted:
- Instead of doing a worksheet about 3D shapes, try making some out of paper or clay.
- Instead of writing out spelling words from an irrelevant list, try having your student label things with post-it notes around the house, or mix up spelling words to make silly sentences.
- Let them color, stretch, swing, play with LEGOs, etc. during read-aloud.
- Write the alphabet on the porch with sidewalk chalk and then jump to the letters to spell words.
2. Keep activities short.
5-15 minutes is a good timeframe to work with across age groups but let me be clear: this does NOT mean that you can only do math for five minutes. It means that you might actually have 30 minutes worth of math, but you spend part of your time using manipulatives, part of it playing a game, part of it doing something active, and part of it actually writing. You may even take brain breaks between activities.
Even when I taught at the high school level, I was expected to go no more than 5-10 minutes without transitioning between types of activities. My principal would actually note this during our formal observations.
Why is this so important for the ADHD brain? Because it craves novelty! Even a neurotypical brain will struggle to attend to something for a full 30 minutes straight without waning.
So keep activities short and manageable. When your learner appears to be losing focus or getting fidgety, do this next thing, which is:
3. Take brain breaks.
All brains need breaks but ADHD brains even more so! Take frequent breaks to walk, run, stretch, or play outside. If you need a calm activity, try a five-minute meditation, listen to some gentle music, or put on a podcast. You might even try some brain breaks over on YouTube or check out the ones from GoNoodle.
4. Move a lot!
This might seem obvious for the hyperactive type, but movement is also really important for us inattentive types! Why?
There is a growing body of research showing that movement “sparks real, positive changes in the brain that increase attention and improve mood”
Incorporating movement into your day will ultimately help your ADHD learner focus better and retain what they learn.
5. Go outside!
Spending time outdoors in the actual sunshine and fresh air does wonders for regulating the nervous system. Bonus points if you have your kid engage in risky play like climbing trees! The sensory input is important and the gross motor movement really helps their sense of where their body is in space and how to move it (aka proprioception).
6. Use visual organizers.
Executive function can be really tricky for a person with ADHD. After all, it can be difficult to keep track of your daily schedule, school assignments, projects, goals, and more even if you don’t have ADHD.
Using a visual system that is out in an open space can be a huge help for homeschooling an ADHD child. The trick here is keeping it out in the open so that it stays top of mind. Lots of folks simply say “just use a planner!” but the moment you shut the planner those tasks cease to exist in the mind of someone with ADHD.
This can be as simple as writing a to-do list on some list paper on the fridge or as complex as having a color-coded whiteboard calendar in the living room. There are myriad ways to go about it, so experiment to see what works for your family!
7. Break down tasks into manageable pieces.
For most ADHDers the real problem isn’t “task completion”, it’s task “initiation”. Getting started when it looks like there are a million things to do is overwhelming and usually leads to feeling frustrated and doing nothing.
Try breaking down tasks into smaller parts with their own individual checkboxes. It helps if your formatting makes the tasks big, clear, and the subjects separated. Having everything listed out in one big list looks overwhelming and makes them harder to actually do. Keep it simple!
8. Manage Distractions
Notice I don’t say “eliminate”. Sometimes, ADHD brains can benefit from something I think of as “managed distractions” in the homeschool environment. This can be something as simple as a fidget toy or a balance ball. It can also be music, background noise, or even a TV show off in the corner of the room.
To the neurotypical person, the concept of having a show playing in the background may seem like a frivolous distraction that might pull their attention away from the task at hand. I thought that at first too!
But we decided to experiment with it this year, and the results shocked me.
Every time I had my son complete a handwriting page without any distractions in the room, his handwriting was super messy. The letters were all different sizes, cases were mixed, and they often looked like they were floating off the page. Then we tried another page but put on a cartoon off to the side, and suddenly his handwriting was even and neat! We have had similar results across the curriculum. It seems completely counterintuitive, but it can work.
9. Experiment with a daily schedule vs. routine.
There are many different ways to go about this. Some homeschoolers enjoy having their entire day mapped out to the minute and keeping it consistent throughout the week. Others like having a general routine without any rigid timeline so they have opportunities for creative exploration.
I tend to be a fan of having a daily routine with a flexible schedule versus a super rigid timetable, but I admit to also using a timed schedule when it fits us.
We have had some success using the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes on task, 5-minute break) and letting him choose what subjects to tackle during each work period. We simply ask Alexa to “Set a timer for 25 minutes” and she lets us know when it’s time to transition.
Knowing that there is a break coming and that the work time is limited makes it easier to focus over the course of the day.
10. Use curriculum as a tool and not a taskmaster.
The best homeschool curriculum is the one you can make work for you.
Lots of homeschool curricula come with checklists of what to complete week by week or day by day. In theory, if your child completes all of the lessons in the prescribed time frame, they will learn X, Y, or Z during the school year and you will be able to call it a “success”.
Unfortunately, life happens and our kids are human. Some lessons need more time to sink in than others. And yet other lessons they might breeze through since they already know it. Sometimes, we have to take time off to tend to illnesses or other emergencies. Some days, your best homeschool friends might ask you to come over for poetry teatime, and you have to weigh dropping the lesson versus denying your family an opportunity because “if we don’t get this lesson done today we’ll be behind”.
The curriculum should serve YOU. You do NOT serve the curriculum.
You are allowed to drop lessons, take extra time on others, and even *gasp* not finish the entire thing during the course of a regular school year. Choose a different curriculum or opt for none at all if you’d rather work a la carte! The point is to make it work for YOU.
And while we’re at it:
11. You don’t have to work at a desk.
Dedicated homeschool rooms might look nice on Instagram, but your child does not have to complete their work seated at a desk. Heck, they don’t even have to complete it at the kitchen table.
We have completed work in our treehouse. At the park. In the bed. Upside down. Heck, my child once completed a math worksheet perched on the top of my car.
Our ADHD kids often benefit from being allowed to move, and even our seatwork is no exception. Open yourself to creative seating options!
12. Collaborate with your learner.
Finally, learning is best done in partnership. If we get to break free of the traditional school paradigm, then we have an opportunity to break free of the “teacher as preacher”, “sage on the stage”, and “taskmaster” approach to teaching.
We can choose to take more of a guide, tutor, or mentorship approach. I often say that I am like my child’s Yoda and he is my Luke Skywalker. Sometimes, he accepts my sage wisdom readily and learns a lot. Sometimes, he shirks my guidance and flies off to Cloud City to rescue his friends.
It’s a balance.
But it’s one I enjoy much more than standing over him insisting he gets his work done.
We both ask questions. We have deep conversations. He gets to see me get curious about things and investigate. We take time to do science experiments together. Oftentimes, I’ll get down and do some of the work with him, especially things like copy work or math.
Partner with your child. Ask what they need. Experiment with methods and try new things. Become a student of your child and you might be surprised at how far it gets you!
The good news: homeschooling is a great option for students with ADHD.
Homeschooling offers great benefits that public schooling and traditional classroom environments just cannot. Whether you have an official ADHD diagnosis or not, homeschooling can allow our differently wired kids an opportunity to structure their school day in a way that suits them best. You get to take a unique approach to learning and harnessing your child’s learning style. It can make a real difference in their self-esteem and mental health over the long run and can be the best option for helping many of our ADHD learners succeed.
That doesn’t make it easy though, especially for us homeschool parents!
Seek out homeschool support groups online or locally (if possible) for parents in the thick of ADHD homeschooling. Hearing the personal experiences of other homeschool parents can be super helpful. Look for groups on Facebook or check out Coleen Kessler’s “The Learner’s Lab” to connect with other neurodiverse families.
Ready to learn more? Click here to learn all about getting started with homeschooling. Be sure to follow along for more homeschooling goodness on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. And be sure to subscribe below for homeschool encouragement plus access to our resource library. I look forward to seeing you there!
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