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Personal Notes on ADD
- Janie Bowman
In the 1800s, a determined mother marched into her son's school and confronted the schoolmaster. After giving him a good piece of her mind, she yanked her young, precocious child out of school and made the commitment to teach him herself.
The young man's name was Thomas Alva Edison, and had young Alva been in public school today, he would easily fit the criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. We can only speculate from historical evidence and anecdotal thoughts (he was overactive and constantly underfoot) that Edison may have been yesterday's ADD poster child.
Some 20th Century parents have a lot in common with Mom Edison. My oldest son Cj, now 18, walked out of middle school one day and refused to return. Contrary to statistics and popular belief, my son was not a behavior problem. Indeed, his only "infraction" was being a highly creative, very computer-literate youngster in a system that couldn't stop the emotional and physical abuse by his peers, and the misunderstanding by some of his teachers about his need for predictability and humane-ness in the classroom. Oh, yes, I forgot to say that he'd been diagnosed with ADD, and we became a homeschooling family by default.
We're not the only ones, however. Public schools are demanding higher and higher test scores as school administrators force teaching to the test, leaving children accountable for even more twaddle. Even in this century, the "system" protects itself by blaming children for being unable to learn. While public schools are fiddling around with scope and sequence, political correctness, and fiscal deficits, many children not sitting atop the bell curve are sliding further down either end until they push back against the system, and the system then pushes them out. It's no surprise, therefore, that more and more families with children who have attention differences are saying, "No thank you!" to public schools and are bringing their children home to heal.
With respect to public schools and the media, the homeschooling community has a lot in common with families with attention different children. While homeschoolers constantly deal with socialization questions, attention deficit children are constantly being hailed as socially immature. When homeschoolers are portrayed as being radically different from the norm of society, attention different families are seen as being defective. And both homeschoolers and folks with attention differences shake their heads when some obscure school administrator verbally exposes his ignorance by criticizing people or concepts he has little or no personal experience with.
ADD and Homeschooling
Attention differences are real. There is a continuum of symptoms unique to each individual, but no continuity. These people tend to be the risk-takers in our culture, people who confront our personal and bureaucratic mediocrity about change. They challenge our beliefs about anything and everything, which can lead to negative consequences if they aren't grounded to their families and provided opportunities to move in a challenging, positive direction.
What are the implications for homeschooling children with attention differences and their families? First, I question whether many of the children diagnosed with these differences would carry "disability" or "disorder" labels if bureaucratic schools would make the effort to teach each child in the manner in which he or she learns. Second, the cost of not respecting learning or attention differences is high. Without caring and diligent families, too many "different learners" are falling through the cracks.
I personally believe people with ADD are creative and innovative. Many would carry the gifted label in public schools, but they aren't allowed in gifted programs because they have difficulty achieving in typical, one- size-fits-all classrooms. This is where homeschooling can excel. While homeschooling isn't for everyone, we do have the opportunity to bypass many of these bureaucratic underpinnings and do what's best for our attention different children - and for our families. To help build understanding and compassion, I'd like to present some thoughts from those who live with ADD. Some names and identifying criteria have been changed to preserve privacy.
Living and Learning with ADD
As the parent of two high school students diagnosed with ADD, Krista spends many hours volunteering at her local school. Though she did homeschool successfully for one year, her children wanted to return to public school. When asked what she felt about ADD and education, Krista wrote:
"This is the bottom line: There is a set of people with a set of symptoms that makes it difficult for them to learn in their present learning environment in the schools. They don't function in the public school system as it now stands. This causes low self-esteem and feeds all the social issues that come out of it. If the system were meeting their needs, we would create successful, happy children instead of bashing them. Creating successful, happy children is no longer the purpose of education - the purpose of public education is to provide jobs for educators, and not to educate.
"As it stands now, if you are not a conformist, you have ADD. You then have to accept the need for a support group, to accept the idea of being a victim. This is hard to change, and until things change, people need compassion, advocacy and resources so they can keep their self esteem high.
"I believe children with ADD need to be nurtured. But the system points fingers at what it wants others to believe the problem is: parenting. The truth is, there is a set of symptomology that requires a certain style of parenting, and parents are doing this, for the most part. But not the schools. The schools have it backwards. Even though my children spent most of their lives in public schools, they were used to being nurtured at home, and the public school environment was a shock to them."
Veronica's son has never been diagnosed, though she says "many friends have accused him of being hyper and have made a layman's diagnosis of ADD.. Who knows, if perhaps I had brought it up with the doctor, an ADD label might have been official."
Veronica continues: "So, as he approached school age, I began to worry how he could possibly cope with the playground politics. Little by little, the idea of homeschooling came to me. I began to teach him to read. When he started making progress, I realized that if I could teach him to read, I could probably teach him the rest, so I seriously began looking into [homeschooling].
"Even so, 'school' time was difficult at times. He hated learning new things. Also, our school routine could never vary. Deviation from the routine would bring emotional outbursts. Some days seemed very long indeed.
"I think the biggest hardship, though, were my well- meaning friends who were convinced that public school would cure his difficulties. Over the years (he's now 12), I think homeschooling has been our best choice by far. It has allowed me to eliminate many distractions during our school day, permitting me to get to know him in a way that I would not have if I had sent him to public school. And now, friends who are watching the show are seeing immense progress, and are beginning to give us credit for doing the right thing after all. This in turn, bolsters our son's respect for us and our decisions."
Learning from Children with ADD
Matthew Kutz, now 18, was homeschooled at various times during his life. He says the most positive thing about homeschooling is that "there were no limits because of curriculum. There were no classic tales being banned or censored."
His family and friends were supportive, but he found great resistance from the school district. "Don't be afraid to let [your children] try something new," Matthew says. "Have patience with your kids - this is new for the both of you."
Greg Nelson, 16, took classes at his local high school last year and is currently taking Logic and Geography at his local junior college. He's also involved with the EPGY series of distance education at Stanford, and classes from the University of Minnesota. He feels the most positive aspect of homeschooling is not having to deal with lots of homework at night.
"That was what really weighed me down before. I never felt like I learned much from homework. It was all the same stuff over and over. With college courses, I do what I want and need according to what I have to produce. The next day is not always the deadline. I can take more time on things I'm not sure of, and speed up through things I already know. The only problem is that I may not always be able to get my questions answered unless I look it up on my own.
Greg offers this advice to parents: "Some parents might worry that college courses are too hard for high school kids but the way that college is set up may actually be easier... I don't have to change gears five or six times a day. Instead, I have three or four classes that are more intense. There isn't a lot of busywork and there is a syllabus or outline that tells you what to do when. You know going into the class what the work will be and the standards for grading it. I don't feel like a lot of it is a waste of time the way I did in regular school."
What Really Matters?
Public school or private school? Meds or no meds? Does ADD really exist? We've juggled many of these issues while raising our son, Cj. In public school he had great teachers and dysfunctional teachers, but homeschooling has been the best choice for our family. The structure children with ADD crave is not one of isolation or being surrounded by four walls with an authority figure at the head. Rather, structure is predictability and consistency. It's providing a world-view of life, including diversity, mentoring, healing and the time to pursue personal interests. Structure may mean tapping into public school programs, or programs for children with disabilities, like Cj's involvement with the DO-IT program at the University of Washington. Or it may mean getting back to nature, studying ants for three years, or being involved in projects to save our environment.
It's not surprising families with attention differences and the homeschooling community have many things in common. Homeschooling isn't easy, and certainly more challenging for some families than others. But if we want to provide important learning opportunities for our children and also teach them respect and compassion for diversity, we, as parents, have to take the first step. Just ask Mom Edison.
© 1998 Janie Bowman
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