Under the Table and Teaching: 11 Expert Tips for Schooling Kids with ADHD from Home
Unschooling. Homeschooling. Crisis schooling. What is the difference? And what are the best learning strategies for your child with ADHD at this stressful time? Here are tips and strategies from education experts who understand the distinctions and today’s inescapable realities.
Seemingly overnight, a new learning vocabulary has invaded the popular lexicon.
Before March 2020, terms like homeschooling, unschooling, road schooling, remote learning, distance learning, and virtual learning belonged to a subset of families who, for various reasons, choose to educate their children at home. This subset is not small — 1.7 million students between the ages of 5 and 17 are being homeschooled, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) — and it’s steadily growing. Between 1999 and 2012, the percentage of students who were homeschooled doubled from 1.7 percent to 3.4 percent.1
But earlier this month, the population of students educated at home ballooned considerably to more than 55 million — children and teens enrolled at the nearly 125,000 public and private schools across the U.S. that have temporarily closed to stem the tide of a global pandemic.2 Today, teachers are connecting to their students using digital platforms like Google Classroom and Zoom, but also using worksheets and chapter assignments to keep academics progressing for students without reliable access to computers or the Internet. Meanwhile, parents are working hard to support their children and fill in knowledge gaps at home while juggling their own professional demands. Everyone is learning on the job.
What’s become clear fairly quickly is that this new reality does not meet the definition of “homeschool.” Though children are learning at home, they are not truly homeschooling, which typically includes regular field trips, group classes, and time spent in the community. Some experts have coined the phrase “crisis schooling” to fill the gap. Here, veteran homeschoolers and unschoolers explain the distinctions, and share their strategies for educating children with ADHD and learning disabilities outside of a traditional classroom.
What is Homeschooling?
Renown anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.”
Homeschool can take many forms, but essentially it’s built on the premise that parents accept total responsibility for their child’s education.
Religious families seeking faith-based education embraced homeschooling nearly 50 years ago, but homeschoolers today cite many motivations including stopping bullying, introducing less homework and more flexibility, allowing more sleep, tailoring teaching to their child’s interests and learning style, and addressing special needs — learning or attention difficulties, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, etc.
The term homeschooling is somewhat misleading, as many families that make this educational choice enroll their children in group learning classes and activities at local museums, libraries, and learning centers. They foster learning outside of the home and encourage their children to form social connections with peers on sports teams, in homeschool collectives, and elsewhere.
What is Unschooling?
Unschooling is often described as a type of homeschooling, however the approach to learning is notably different. Unschooling is dictated by the child’s interests and is less structured than is homeschooling. Homeschoolers are guided by state and national standards — parents plan lessons, assign homework, and grade assignments. Unschooling is whatever the student wants it to be. To some degree, both unconventional approaches to learning are driven by the individual child; unschooling takes this to the extreme.
Unschooling families look for opportunities to make learning opportunities out of everyday visits to the grocery store or the veterinarian or household tasks like replacing the smoke alarm batteries or the car air filter. Children are encouraged to pursue their interests — like dinosaurs or fashion or farming — with books, videos, hands-on activities, games, experiments, and even internships.
The trend to educate children at home began growing in the 1970s. John Holt, an educator, and author of several books including How Children Fail (1982), is considered the father of unschooling and the person who coined the term. Researchers and authors Dorothy Moore, Ph.D., and her husband Raymond Moore, Ph.D., are credited with advancing the homeschool movement; homeschooling has been legal in all 50 states since 1993.3
Peggy Ployhar is the founder of spedhomeschool.com, a website that offers support and resources for homeschooling parents of children with special needs. She homeschooled her three children, who share among them diagnoses of autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. Ployhar says most of the families with whom she works homeschool because their children learn differently. She is quick to point out that her audience doesn’t distinguish between homeschooling and unschooling. “In the special education realm, it’s whatever works best for your child,” she says.
Her advice to parents during this unusual time is simple: slow down. “We’re all doing the best we can right now. Your kids will be all right,” she says, explaining that she knows children who received no formal education for an entire year due to family crises. “And guess what? It made no difference to their academic progress. The kids caught up to their peers eventually.”
Children are learning how to cope with stress and manage time through our daily example, and these are important life lessons, too, Ployhar says. “It’s critical to be flexible and remain as positive as you can. Kids pick up on their parents’ energy. An optimistic, can-do attitude is often contagious!”
How Can You Help Your Child with ADHD Thrive at Home?
Crisis schooling isn’t unschooling or homeschooling — it’s an unanticipated response to forces beyond our control. But, as Ployhar and her team have found, children can learn in all sorts of unconventional ways. If your child has an IEP, take solace in knowing that many accommodations (one-on-one time, extra time to complete assignments, shorter work periods to improve focus, and plenty of movement) happen with regularity at home.
Yes, parents should expect a period of adjustment as learning at home is a logistical shock for many. “Being successful at home has very little to do with replicating a regular school day,” Ployhar says. “Learning for seven hours at school is not the same as learning for seven hours at home.”
Many families new to homeschooling are surprised to discover that at home learning takes less time. “If the time you devote to learning at home is focused, you don’t need to spend seven hours every day on school work. More is accomplished when teaching happens one-on-one, so learning goals can be met more quickly. Plus, there are fewer interruptions at home and transitions require less time.”
11 Ways to Support Learning at Home
#1. Focus learning on your child’s natural interests. “My son with ASD (now 23) always loved dressing up, so we did a lot of re-enacting and costume creating in our homeschool,” Ployhar says, citing one unforgettable history lesson on Russia between the two World Wars. “My son dressed as a Russian soldier and acted out their habit of combing through dead bodies for guns after battles. The country was poor and that’s what they did to survive. Neither of us will ever forget that gruesome chapter of history.”
#2. If your child gets stressed, take a break. “Don’t get into panic mode and push them until they’re frustrated and give up,” Ployhar advises. “It’s easy to see when your child is losing interest and kicking feet under the table, fidgeting, or generally not paying attention. Give them a break. If you see your child becoming stressed and not ‘getting it,’ stop and do something else. You can return to the task at hand later. They’ll get it eventually but not when they’re stressed.”
#3. Make learning a game. Children are motivated to learn when they’re having fun, so if your child is crazy for board and card games, run with it, Ployhar suggests. “Learning can be incorporated into almost any game or favorite activity hiding in your closet.” Connect 4, Chutes and Ladders, puzzles, LEGOS, and Jenga all work well to motivate learners. Tell your child they can add five pieces to a puzzle when they answer five questions. “When the lesson is complete, the puzzle will be finished.”
#4. Embrace Minecraft. Homeschool Community Member Carina Ramos says her son learns math, science and history using Minecraft. “I write out my son’s problems, then he goes onto Minecraft and uses squares to work out the problem,” she writes on Ployhar’s website. “It’s amazing how well he has learned multiplication through the use of blocks in Minecraft. He can take math word problems and use Minecraft to help him understand them and come up with the right answer.”
And there’s more good news for fans of Minecraft: As a public service, the maker of the popular game is offering some of its favorite educational lessons free now through June 30. Ten new educational modules — available to play alone or with others — now appear in the Minecraft Marketplace. Kids can explore the inside of the human eye, learn about Greek history, learn how to code a robot, and even visit the International Space Station.
#5. Add movement to promote learning. Ployhar’s middle son, now 21, has ADHD. “His mind slows down when his body is moving and that’s when he learns best,” she explains. “We did very little learning seated quietly at a desk or table. I got down on the floor with him. We crawled under the table and took lots of breaks that included jumping up and down.” Other families that homeschool students with ADHD report sitting on a beanbag chair, yoga ball, or under a tree to promote learning.
#6. Build focus with busy hands and feet. Allow your child to use Play-Doh or a hula hoop while answering flashcard questions, for example. “Kicking a goal outside or throwing bean bags across the room are other options homeschoolers have tried,” Ployhar says.
#7. Tap into online tutors. Bad at math? Foreign language not your thing? “Don’t sweat it,” says Ployhar. “Many of our homeschool learning partners are open to helping anyone now.” Check out Academic Warriors and True North Homeschool Academy. For additional options, see “curriculum picks.”
#8. Ditch the worksheets. Use educational videos, phone apps, educational podcasts, or other media to introduce or expand on a subject. (Use search terms such as “educational videos for teens”). Teach math using a neurodevelopmental approach. Rapid recall is a spiraling, multi-sensory input system for learning math facts in less than ten minutes a day. Visit brainsprints.com for videos and downloads.
#9. Take things one day at a time. Celebrate a learning victory, reward progress — even if it’s small— and resist the urge to compare what your child is learning to what others are doing. “And never, ever stop dreaming for your child or yourself,” says Ployhar.
#10. Follow your child’s lead. Every child is unique and you don’t want to squelch that individuality. “My son with ADHD always enjoyed cooking. He eventually learned to make craft beer — it became his passion project,” Ployhar explains. “During his gap year after high school, he learned how to play guitar, worked at a grocery store, and got a bartender’s license. Being exposed to so many different experiences helped him figure out where he shines. He’s happy today working as a bartender but is also exploring working for a brewery.”
#11. Accept that homeschooling may not work for you. Online learning isn’t the best option for students who struggle, but many families right now have no other choice. If homeschooling is simply too stressful given your work demands, other family obligations, and learning difficulties, then focus on happiness instead and just aim to get through this time together as a family.
For more information and special education resources, visit spedhomeschool.com
1The Institute of Education Science. “A Fresh Look at Homeschooling in the U.S.” by Sarah Grady. https://nces.ed.gov/blogs/nces/post/a-fresh-look-at-homeschooling-in-the-u-s
2Education Week. “Map: of School Closures” Accessed March 26, 2020. https://www.edweek.org
3 United States Department of Education. Statistics about Non-Public Education in the U.S. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oii/nonpublic/statistics.html
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