ADHD/LD Schools

“Unschool” Your Child

Is the traditional school setting the best place for kids with attention deficit? Some experts say no, and that “unschooling” results in more motivation, better learning, and more complete mastery.

A mother who learned how to homeschool her daughter with ADHD, pictured laying next to her, both reading
Mother laying with daughter on living room floor, brown hair

Is school the best place for our kids to learn?

Is sitting in seats for inordinate periods of time, doing busywork that has little connection to life outside the school doors, an efficient way to turn on and light up a tender brain?

For some kids, yes. For many children with ADHD, probably not. Two experts make the case for alternative methods of learning for our kids.

According to Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor of psychology at Boston College, some kids with ADHD start meds just to succeed at school. Gray contends that many of them wouldn’t need drugs if schools adapted to their learning styles.

[Many Schools Get Failing Grades When Teaching Kids with ADHD]

“The diagnostic criteria for ADHD make it clear that this is a school problem,” says Gray. “Many of the official diagnostic symptoms have to do specifically with school behavior,” says Gray. “Things like, ‘makes careless mistakes in schoolwork,’ ‘often does not follow instructions and fails to finish schoolwork,’ ‘blurts out answers before questions have been finished.’ In fact, most diagnoses are initiated by teachers, who suggest to parents that their child has ADHD, adds Gray.

Gray conducted a survey of parents who homeschooled, or as Gray likes to say, “unschooled,” a child diagnosed with ADHD. Only six of the 28 families who responded reported that their child was on medication for the condition. Of the remaining 22 individuals, 13 were never medicated and nine had been medicated previously, when they were students in a traditional school. The majority of those responding said that their children learned well without medication as long as the children were in charge of their own learning.

Children in charge of their own learning? That sounds like apostasy to a school system based on “Sit down, be quiet, and learn, Johnny. Now.”

Laura Weldon, author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything, says that conventional schools operate on the principles that kids should be able to sit still and pay attention, meet age — and grade — appropriate learning goals, and get good scores on tests. Research tells a different tale.

[How Homeschooling Saved My Smart, Curious Son]

  • “We all need to sit still and pay attention at times, but a heavy dose of this every day isn’t conducive to learning,” says Weldon. Some experts claim that a fraction of what we learn is acquired through hard-core instruction. We’re also less likely to retain the information we do learn. Students who explore, discover, watch, imitate, collaborate, and ask questions are more motivated to learn — and retain the material they have mastered.
  • “Each child progresses on his own timetable,” says Weldon. “Pushing kids doesn’t advance achievement.” When kids are under pressure to achieve, from evaluations, rigid school curricula, and so on, studies indicate that they understand less of what is being taught. Furthermore, child development experts say that top-down instruction that is overly directive and controlled by adults causes children to lose interest in what’s being taught.
  • Good test scores only predict that students will score well on later tests,” says Weldon. “Research tells us that education that’s focused on raising test scores cultivates shallow thinking and compromises the abilities needed for success. In fact, high test scores in school don’t correlate with later accomplishments in adulthood.”

Says Weldon: “We humans are geared to learn, unless the learning situation is disconnected from the child’s interests or designed specifically for evaluation purposes. Then we tend to resist. That’s because we naturally avoid coercion and seek out what is meaningful, useful, and interesting.”

[When It’s Your Own Child: Views From Parents About Special Education]

How does a parent gently engineer the process of free-range learning? Homeschooling is one way. Short of that, Weldon suggests giving your child the rare luxury of free time — time to spend time in nature, to engage in open-ended play, to indulge in family time, to daydream.

“Top-down instruction and adult-run experiences have a place in a child’s life, but they can’t compare to the development gained when children have sufficient free time,” Weldon concludes.

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