We live and breathe ADHD here and homeschooling with ADHD is a huge part of that. Two children and a parent have formal diagnoses and the remaining four people in our family are highly suspected based on extensive similarities, family history, and informal observations.
It’s been a hard road, mainly because it took us years to understand that children/adults with ADHD aren’t just fidgety and impulsive.
Their brains are structured differently — and it affects EVERYTHING.
1.Their brain tends to have a smaller basal ganglia, cerebellum, hippocampus, and amygdala
2. Their brain’s pre-frontal cortex develops more slowly
3. They have lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine
4.Their brain’s Default Mode Network is more active than those without ADHD
5. Regions of their brain that are part of the “selective visual attention system” are overly-connected
This is a HUGE post. Don’t hesitate to bookmark the page, read it in sections, come back later, etc!
- DON’T SKIP THIS PART! — How ADHD Affects the Person & the Homeschool
- Thriving when Homeschooling with ADHD
- The Most Important Thing for Homeschooling with ADHD
PLEASE DON’T SKIP the next section
ADHD affects the entire person, so we have to understand the full person if we truly want to thrive in our homeschool.
How ADHD Affects the Person & the Homeschool
These differences in brain structure can lead to any/all of the following in a child or adult with ADHD:
Social & Emotional Maturity Delays
Kids (and adults) with ADHD tend to be 30% younger than their chronological age. So when you have a 9 year old with ADHD, they will likely interact and behave like a 6 year old — because that is where their brain is developmentally.
Being asynchronous is part of life with ADHD.
I have to constantly remind myself that my 14 year old is intellectually 14-15, socially 10-11, and behaviorally 12-13!
Homeschool effects: these delays often lead to a disconnect between our child’s current capabilities and our expectations, especially when it comes to their workload, level of independent work, social understanding, etc.
This affects both their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep; it’s often due to racing thoughts.
Homeschool effects: kids who haven’t slept well are more likely to be argumentative, fidgety, and slow in processing information.
“Extreme emotional sensitivity and emotional pain — and it may imitate mood disorders with suicidal ideation and manifest as instantaneous rage at the person responsible for causing the pain.” Source
For one of our children, this aspect of ADHD led to intense, violent rages that could last for three hours or more.
Homeschool effects: rejection sensitivity can result in meltdowns over any kind of correction related to their schoolwork, or even a perceived correction. It can also lead to not wanting to work at all; they come to believe they “can’t do anything right” which leads to “why should I even try”.
These are different than bipolar swings as they can happen multiple times in a single day. Be sure to watch for signs of an actual mood disorder as those can be a comorbid condition with ADHD.
Homeschool effects: mood swings can often lead to unwillingness to work, poor work quality, and/or argumentative behaviors.
They struggle to think think before acting or speaking, “Should I do this, what will the consequences be?”
I was constantly told as a child, “Think before you act!” But my brain didn’t understand it needed to think on what I was about to do, never mind about needing to think about thinking before I did it!
Homeschool effects: fidgeting, doodling, squirming, leaving their workspace, interrupting, constant talking, tangents, etc.
They often lack the ability to hold on to information while doing a task; this also involves the ability to apply past knowledge or experience to current situations. This is why traditional consequences don’t usually work for kids with ADHD; they aren’t able to make a permanent connection between the behavior and its consequence.
This does not mean we don’t hold kids with ADHD accountable; it just has to be done differently. But that’s a topic for another day.
Homeschool effects: they can forget previously-mastered concepts on a daily basis.
Those with ADHD experience everything around them at a heightened level so they can enter fight-or-flight at the drop of a hat.
Homeschool effects: you may feel like you’re walking on eggshells during school hours. Noises from siblings, an unexpected assignment, the number of problems on a page, the room temperature, the order of subjects…anything and everything can trigger a child prone to emotional dysregulation.
Because the ADHD brain is being inundated with everything in the surrounding environment (in addition to everything that is already residing in the brain!), it’s extremely difficult to stay focused on one thing.
This doesn’t mean however that those with ADHD can’t focus. Hyperfocus is a real thing, but it only occurs when an activity triggers enough dopamine production/processing in the brain.
Homeschool effects: this can lead to constant curriculum-hopping, in search of something that will engage our children.
Task initiation, Planning, and Prioritizing
Those with ADHD can find it literally impossible to get started on a task; they go into overwhelm mode and shut down completely.
This is often triggered by their lowered ability (or inability) to see where to even start, how to continue once started, or to accurately estimate the amount of time the task will require.
Now some children/adults with ADHD can be excellent planners, but follow-through often remains a huge hurdle for them.
Also, since the ADHD brain has difficulty sorting through everything that is being seen, heard, or felt, all of these demands hit the brain at once.
It can feel like needing to sort through a room-sized pile of mixed belongings — while more are being added.
Homeschool effects: unwillingness to do schoolwork, saying they don’t know what to do even when they have a list, meltdowns over the perceived amount of work or the perceived amount of time the work will take.
Again, some people with ADHD can come up with excellent organization systems, but maintaining those systems is extremely difficult for them.
Homeschool effects: difficulty lining up math problems on lined paper or following formatting requirements for written work. And the quintessential damaged/lost books, supplies, and papers.
Those with ADHD have difficulty estimating the amount of time that will be needed, how to spend that tine, and how to stay within the limits of the time available.
They can also struggle to understand that time itself is important.
Homeschool effects: it can take hours to complete one page of work, or they may refuse to start their work because they’re convinced it will take far longer than it actually will, or they might say they’ll get to their workspace in a minute — and they’re still missing an hour later.
You’ll often hear reward systems being touted as a help for those with ADHD; however, there are many people with ADHD who are not motivated by goals, particularly if the goal is too far into the future.
And, like all things ADHD, “too far into the future” has more to do with their particular brain’s perception than what others would usually consider to be “too much” or “too long”.
Homeschool effects: refusal to do schoolwork because their brain doesn’t connect that it will get them closer to their goal of play or other activities.
It can be extremely difficult for those with ADHD to “switch gears” when things change or obstacles come up.
This affects our child’s expectations, their ability to problem-solve, absolutely ANYTHING that requires adaptability to changing conditions.
Homeschool effects: meltdowns or refusal to work when the routine changes, or when they planned one thing and another needs to happen instead. Lack of flexibility can also lead to outbursts if a typographical error is discovered in a school book, or if the teacher manual’s answer doesn’t actually relate to the question that was asked.
This one is HUGE. Metacognition is the ability to see the big picture. It’s also the ability to accurately self-monitor or even to self-monitor at all. It’s the brain function that helps you understand what you are really doing.
Kids with ADHD don’t get why everyone is so upset because they literally don’t see what is going on with their own behavior.
Homeschool effects: they may not be able to transfer knowledge learned in one subject – or even a previous lesson in the same subject — to another lesson that uses that same knowledge.
Then there’s the overlapping conditions that can show up with ADHD:
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- social anxiety
- learning disabilities
- clinical depression
- sensory processing disorders
- and more
Thriving when Homeschooling with ADHD
Now that we know how ADHD affects our child, we can use that knowledge to set up a homeschool environment that enables them (and us!) to thrive.
Choosing Curriculum when Homeschooling with ADHD
Many people claim that kids with ADHD can only learn through videos, brightly colored pages, and other highly-interactive, dopamine-inducing means. But relying on these methods trains the brain to rely on constant input for a dopamine hit. This is a recipe for disaster in adulthood.
Instead, we want to give our kids a wide variety of healthy tools to help their brains engage with less-desired tasks (see tips later in the post).
So whatever you do, find a curriculum that is straight-forward, clear, and distraction-free.
I once found the most beautiful program that taught language arts through passages from the saints. I was so excited about this find. Then my 11 year old looked at me with wide eyes and said, “Mom, I don’t learn that way. I just need them to tell me what to do.”
The consistent formatting/teaching process between subjects models a sense of order for my kids. It’s also helping them internalize that sense of order over time.
This clarity and consistency also helps me as a homeschool mom (who likely has ADHD herself!). I’m don’t have to juggle different ways of doing things in each subject, so that frees me to focus on teaching and helping my kids through their highs and lows.
But in order to benefit from this structure, we had to know where to place the kids within the curriculum. I go into this in-depth in the following posts. While written with Memoria Press in mind, the principles in these posts apply to any curriculum!
How to Set Up Your Homeschool Space for ADHD
I know we all love the beautiful pictures on Instagram and Pinterest, but if you have a child with ADHD, this is not the time for tons of posters on the wall, bright colors, and complicated storage systems!
One day when I was looking for homeschool room ideas, my kids said, “That’s an ADHD nightmare! Mom, please don’t do that to us!”
Your Child’s Workspace
When setting up your school space, whether it’s a separate room, or your kitchen table, you’ll have a fair amount of trial and error. A good place to start is to ask your child what helps them focus and what tends to distract them.
This can be really revealing, but make sure you maintain your parental authority/judgement.
My son is far more comfortable doing his schoolwork on the couch; but it usually takes him hours longer when he’s there! So, we have a “school at the table” rule for him.
Here are some things that tend to be very helpful when setting up a workspace for homeschooling with ADHD:
- Avoid placing your child’s workspace in front of a window or in their room (even if they say they can focus better in their room). Windows can cause distraction and working in their room keeps them from receiving the support and accountability they need in order to focus.
- Provide plenty of natural light. ADHD can be worse in winter and on cloudy days because the lack of natural light affects various neurotransmitters in the brain. This is a huge trigger for some of my crew. If your school space doesn’t allow for natural light, consider daylight bulbs or one of those full-spectrum lights that are on the market now.
- Minimize distractions with a science/project board. We’ve gone through various seasons with this one. Sometimes it causes more distraction, other times it’s exactly what they need (see pic at top of this post). Again, trial and error.
- Have them sit with their back to a wall. Children and adults with ADHD can get really nervous when there’s an open room behind them. Because everything tends to assail them at once, they want to know what might be coming! Having them sit towards the room can help if this is an issue; but you may need to pair it with the science board idea to block distractions in the room.
Tools to Support Your Child’s Brain
We want to teach our kids how to meet their brain’s needs while still respecting those around them. Because of this, we have a repeating phrase in this house: “Use your tools.”
Here are the tools that are most helpful for our school days:
- Noise-blocking headphones. We’ve found affordable options at hardware stores and one of my kids is using bluetooth headphones that no longer have working bluetooth.
If your child isn’t comfortable with headphones, you may want to try a small earplug like Loops. I love my Loops!
Another option is hi-fidelity earplug like Vibes. They’re discreet and instead of blocking noise, they help to filter it so you can actually choose which sounds to pay attention to.
Any of these options are great for independent work. But if you need your child to be able to hear a lesson, while ignoring other noises, Vibes are the way to go.
- Music. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but many things with ADHD are. Some people with ADHD actually NEED background noise in order to focus!
Music can provide missing sensory input so their brain doesn’t have to go searching for it. This allows them to focus on the task at hand. Whether they need noise or not can vary from day to day so you’ll want to be prepared for both.
- Unobtrusive fidget cube. I love the cubes like these because they’re discreet. But you may want to put a piece of duct tape on the clicker button it has!
- Before-school Exercise. Activities that require bilateral (two-sided) movements are especially good for warming up the brain. I used to have my son climb the stairs in a one up, two down pattern and it really helped him!
- Timers. When a child is afraid to start a task because they’re afraid it will take too long, I ask them how long they think it will take. Then I tell them, “Let’s set my stopwatch to see if that’s how long it takes.” Nine times out of ten, this inspires them to start and, inevitably, the task takes far less time than they expected!
A visual-style timer is also a great tool when homeschooling with ADHD. It helps kids see the amount of time a task will take. This can reduce overwhelm and help them build a more accurate sense of time.
- Alternative writing tools. We use whiteboards, chalkboards, sand trays, sidewalk chalk…you name it! My daughter was anxious about a math page recently and pulled out a tray of salt to write her problems in. The texture was soothing for her and she went on to complete the page without issue!
- Highlighters. If you follow me on Instagram, you know we’re obsessed with highlighters here!
Structure or No Structure?
Kids with ADHD get really anxious when they don’t know what to expect, so predictability is critical when homeschooling with ADHD.
- School Hours. When deciding on school times, the first thing is to have a school time. It doesn’t have to be 9 on the dot, but having a flow is important.
Something like “We always start school after [xyz thing in your day]”.
Second, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Many kids with ADHD have INCREDIBLE focus early in the morning while others are at their best in the evening. Homeschooling gives you this flexibility so if your child needs that, go for it.
- Checklists come in all styles and it will definitely take some trial and error to figure out the best fit for your child.
Some families swear by visual/moveable checklists when homeschooling with ADHD. Others, like ours, find them too difficult to manage due to impulsivity with the pieces.
Some kids are able to navigate a planner without frustration. If this is your child, you can use a highlighter to mark the day’s work for them. A piece of cardstock can be paper-clipped to the top of the page to hide the remaining days.
Other moms write/type their child’s assignments on a separate sheet of paper to reduce overwhelm. I have one child who needs her assignments in a list format and other children who actually prefer a weekly grid. I use Homeschool Planet which allows me to print out the format each child needs.
- Breaks — or Not. “Take breaks!” is a common piece of advice but it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Some kids with ADHD absolutely need breaks, while others are worse for them.
My son was worse with breaks but he still needed downtime so I would have him fun, yet meaningful work: photocopy a page we needed, or grab me a glass of water (if it was for himself, I would never see him again!)
I know this next sentence might scare you, but please hear me out: you’ll need to work one on one with your child. They need outside support and modeling in order to build their stamina and attention.
As someone who has done this, trust me when I say that the time you spend doing this now — regardless of their current age — is going to spare both of you so many days of struggle, contention and heartache.
Working one-on-one helped my children get to their current stage where they’re now able to work independently and with focus for set periods of time. It was worth every second.
In addition to this, I’ve found that constant review is essential for my kids with ADHD. Take a look at these posts for ideas on how to do this (without losing your own sanity!):
The Most Important Thing for Homeschooling with ADHD
I want to touch on something that often gets overlooked.
ADHD is a true special need, just like autism or dyslexia or a medical challenge. But we also need to remember that there’s a difference between supporting our children and carrying them.
When we’re supporting them, we’re showing them how to solve the daily problems they face, reminding them what we showed them, and holding them accountable for at least trying to follow through.
Now there are days when even the ability to try is neurologically impossible for our kids. Those are the days that I carry them — but even then there are limits. They can’t disrespect others, they can’t put a hole in the wall during a meltdown.
But how I respond to those things will be different if it’s a neurologically impossible day instead of a “it’s hard and I don’t want to try” day.
It takes discernment to tell the difference between “it’s hard to try” and “I literally can’t try,” but as you and your child work together on modeling, supporting, and accountability, it will become easier to tell the difference.
Next to raising children with ADHD, homeschooling with ADHD is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s also the most meaningful and sanctifying work of my life.