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Homeschooling LD/ADD Children: Great Idea or Big Mistake?

By: Suzanne H. Stevens and John F. Blair

Homeschooling is rapidly becoming recognized as a reasonable option for disgruntled parents who can't get their local schools to provide the special services their LD/ADHD children must have in order to succeed. To these families, home education is the last resort – something to be considered only after all other options have failed.

It's becoming increasingly common for parents to pull a miserable LD or ADHD youngster out of school in the middle of the academic year. It's as though something suddenly snaps. The family may have quietly endured years of IEPs, long conferences, tears from the child, notes from the teacher, promises from the administrators, and bad report cards in spite of all the energy they put into running a nightly study hall. They may have come to think of it as normal to feel trapped and helpless. But one day, in a sudden moment of clarity, they realize that their child's curiosity has disappeared, that he no longer has the impish zest for living that used to be such a charming part of his personality. When that moment of truth arrives, parents have no trouble severing their ties with the schools with just one word: Enough.

The decision is terrifying, but it is usually based on one absolute certainty: "Surely, we can do better than this!"

Homeschooling is not for everybody. But in the hands of the right kind of family, it can prevent many painful and destructive situations from developing and can bring healing to children who have been all but crushed by the system.

Many parents shy away from the thought of educating an LD and/or ADHD child at home because of the horrible hassles they've had trying to help the youngster with homework. Homeschooling LD and ADHD children is not as hard as helping them with their homework. Homework is always tackled at the end of the day when the child has already had all he can stand of teachers and books and frustrations. It's usually conducted by a parent who is tired from a long, hard day of responsibilities. As often as not, the parent and the child both resent the fact that they have to get enmeshed in assignments that are inappropriate, with directions that are not clearly understood, in books that are too difficult. There's almost always more work than can be accomplished in a reasonable length of time, and half the time, the necessary book gets left at school.

How does homeschooling work?

Those who are unfamiliar with homeschooling picture a mother locked in the house all day with a brood of listless youngsters plugging along through an endless series of boring workbooks. Others imagine homeschooling to be an excuse to let children run wild with no discipline, no formal instruction, and no prospects for success in the future. To the unfamiliar, educating children at home is thought of as second best-an option chosen by religious fanatics, antisocial bigots, and those who live so far from civilization that normal educational opportunities are unavailable.

This may have been true in pioneer days, and it may apply to some home educators today, but in general, those who choose to educate their offspring take the job very seriously. They make it their business to get the training and guidance they need to provide a strong background in the basic skills, while also nurturing and developing special interests and talents in their youngsters. Through conferences, book fairs, catalogs, and support groups, homeschooling parents make it a point to determine which materials are best suited to their children. Through workshops, seminars, consultants, college courses, and a variety of homeschool support services, they receive the special training they need to master the instructional methods most appropriate for their children.

A Utah mother of six assumed full responsibility for teaching her LD children to read. With the first one, it took some experimentation before she found a method that worked. Once she established a routine combining effective techniques with the right materials, she believed she had "the answer."

Much to her surprise, the closet full of expensive materials that had worked so beautifully for her eldest didn't do a thing for the next in line. In order to get her number-two son reading, she had to go through a whole new process of exploring materials and trying out alternative methods. By the time the second child was learning successfully, number three was ready to start.

Fully trained and experienced in two methods for teaching reading, the mom figured that introducing the third child to the printed page would be a breeze. Not so. Neither of the approaches she had so carefully developed brought the desired results for the newest first-grader. It was back to the catalogs.

By the time LD child number four reached first-grade age, this family knew what to expect. As with the siblings who had gone before, a completely customized reading program had to be created just for this one little beginner. It was labor-intensive and quite expensive, but the results were outstanding. One by one, each of the six LD children in the family entered the regular neighborhood school in the third grade, fully functional at grade level in all subject areas.

Highly trained, fully certified LD specialists rarely have a record that good!

Successful homeschoolers come in all flavors The United States and Great Britain have a long history of educating children at home. The practice has helped produce outstanding adults in many fields. Among United States presidents, George Washington, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Woodrow Wilson, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt benefited from homeschooling. Other well-known statesmen with similar schooling were William Penn, Winston Churchill, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin. Many great military leaders received some homeschooling, among them Robert E. Lee, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur. Many successful composers, writers, and artists were given homeschooling: Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Irving Berlin, Hans Christian Andersen, Pearl Buck, Noel Coward, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Helen Keller, George Bernard Shaw, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Claude Monet, and Andrew Wyeth. Great innovators and inventors have benefited from homeschooling: Alexander Graham Bell, George Washington Carver, Pierre Curie, Leonardo daVinci, Thomas Edison, Cyrus McCormick, Andrew Carnegie, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Albert Einstein, and Charlie Chaplin. Two particularly well-known women who received homeschooling were Florence Nightingale and Eleanor Roosevelt. The explorers Lewis and Clark were both homeschooled.

The one thing all homeschooling parents have in common is a total commitment to providing their children with an education of the highest quality. They truly believe they can arrange for or provide such an education themselves, at home and in conjunction with resources available in their community. In most cases, their belief in their ability is well founded.

A multitalented high-school student was extremely active in a number of theater groups in his city. He had major roles in at least five or six productions every year. He took dance lessons, guitar lessons, voice lessons, gymnastics, art lessons, and acting classes. He was also interested in video and made dozens of productions in his basement studio.

Ideally, this fifteen-year-old should have been at some expensive school for the performing arts. But Cal had a severe learning disability, along with a troublesome Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. It would have taken a highly specialized (and extremely expensive) LD school to create classes where he could be successful. Through homeschooling, the boy's parents provided him the advantages of a school of the arts combined with a specially modified academic curriculum to accommodate his learning difficulties. No amount of money could have purchased an education more appropriate for this particular student. By educating their gifted son at home, Cal's family created the ideal program to fit his unique strengths and weaknesses. Few children are so fortunate.

Contact with school

Many homeschoolers maintain a connection with the schools their children might otherwise attend. Whether parochial, public, Christian, or independent, if approached creatively, most educational institutions will develop a cooperative, helpful relationship with homeschooling families and make parts of their programs and facilities available to part-time students who do the bulk of their work at home or on some other campus.

A particularly persistent New England father enrolled his seventeen-year-old son in the state university system as a special student. Twice a week, the youth commuted to classes. The boy also took an advanced electronics course at the local community college. And he had art and an advanced-placement history course at the local high school, where he was captain of the football team. As for homeschooling, his mom was his instructor and partner for world literature and foreign language. The two of them were finishing up the fourth year of their mail-order Spanish course. For their literary studies, they were reading the works of contemporary Central and South American authors in the original. In addition to the book learning, they spent half an hour a day stretching their vocabulary by working in the garden or cleaning up the kitchen with no English allowed. Once a month, they spent the day with a group of Hispanics. Every summer, they went to Central America on a two-week mission for their church. These two became very skilled at using their foreign language. No nearby school offered training any better than what they were getting at home. This young man had it all!

Using professionals

Other homeschoolers use professionals to do some of the teaching. No matter how remote the area, there is almost always somebody available to provide instruction in the subjects in which the mother feels inadequate. LD specialists in private practice can do therapy with homeschooled youngsters or coach and instruct teaching mom. High-level math courses, advanced lab sciences, art, music, and foreign language are commonly taught by professionals. Sometimes, a group of homeschoolers bans together and hires a certified instructor to teach a whole class of students.

Guidelines that set limits on homeschoolers vary from state to state. Homeschooling is generally done any way the family finds appropriate. It's just a matter of dreaming up what is ideal for a particular child, then making it happen.

The father of a youngster who showed talent in creative writing let his son do the regular college preparatory program at the local high school except for English. That instruction was provided by the parents, who were both English teachers.

It was an extremely successful venture. The young scholar matured into an internationally recognized poet when still in his twenties!

Through homeschooling, this family found a way to give its son a language-arts program of outstanding quality. Judging from the outcome, the energy invested paid off well.

Flexibility

One of the beauties of teaching children at home is the flexibility that allows families to design their own schedule. There are no fixed rules. Many ADHD youngsters are "night people" who just start coming to life when other children their age are turning in for the night. Even when they don't stay up as late as they like, it's extremely difficult to get them out of bed at the crack of dawn in order to dive into the books. Their brains just don't perk up until the middle of the day. For them, a school day that starts around ten in the morning (or after lunch) makes more sense. With older children who have a job or talented youngsters who need the daylight hours to practice music or sports, academics can easily be postponed until late in the day. And for those who really want to be free from the restrictions imposed by schedules, there's nothing to say that homeschooling has to be done at home. One California mother takes her three students to the beach twice a week. She says their best discussions take place during the commute.

Since homeschooling is done in a quiet environment where there are few distractions, youngsters with an Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder find it easier to concentrate. Children with a learning disability have all their assignments tailored to fit their abilities and needs. Under the watchful eye of a truly dedicated teacher, students with a low tolerance for frustration can avoid the aggravations that lead to tears and outbursts of temper. Thus, by making it possible for children to work at full capacity and at top speed, most homeschooled LD/ADHD students get all their work done in three to four hours a day.

Freed from the restrictions imposed on those who work with large groups, homeschooling parents can turn almost any corner into a good study space. Gathering around the kitchen or dining room table is popular. Some families give up the den or the living room in order to make it into a classroom. Kitchen counters are great places for working on projects, and front porch swings are ideal spots for reading. Parents who work with ADHD students often do a lot of teaching outside. They'll chant arithmetic facts with a youngster who is rhythmically bouncing on a trampoline, or call out spelling words while the child shoots baskets. When a quiet environment is necessary, public libraries are available.

Some homeschoolers believe in teaching through real life experiences. In using the instructional methods they refer to as "unschooling," they rid themselves of the stifling effects of structure, eliminating anything that even vaguely resembles schools, schoolrooms, and schoolbooks. To those who see all activities as part of learning, the whole world becomes a classroom.

Who will do the teaching?

What kind of qualifications must parents have in order to successfully teach their children at home? In some states, a high school diploma and a willingness to give it a try are considered sufficient. Other states require close supervision from the public school system or special training for the teaching parent. A few states only allow those with a college degree and a teacher's certificate to educate their offspring at home. A call to the state board of education or department of public instruction can clarify the legal restrictions involved. But that information only tells parents what the local laws allow. Other issues also need to be considered.

The one ingredient absolutely essential is total commitment. Without enthusiasm and cooperation from every family member, educating children at home is not likely to be successful. In most homeschooling families, the mother does the bulk of the day-to-day instruction, but fathers are often actively involved in the teaching of a subject or two. The men often volunteer for math or science and do their part in the evening after they get home from work.

Most families that are providing school at home are quick to point out that homeschooling is a lifestyle-an undertaking that involves every member of the family every day of the year. By making such a commitment to the process of educating children, every family activity takes on meaning as part of the teaching. Vacations become field trips where new skills can be applied and developed. Hobbies and leisure activities become elements of the academic program. There is no such thing as a day off. Everything that happens to a child is seen as educational.

The traits that make a parent suited to the task of homeschooling have more to do with temperament than background or education. Planning and carrying out a good educational program for a child requires patience, courage, creativity, determination, persistence, energy, enthusiasm, optimism, and more patience.

Parental pitfalls

Some people are not cut out to be teachers. They have the wrong temperament for the day-to-day supervision of those who are struggling to master a new skill. They want to be helpful, flexible, encouraging, inspiring, and kind, but some part of their makeup prevents them from doing so.

Perfectionist parents make terrible teachers. They fail to allow beginners to make the mistakes necessary for the gradual development of skills and understanding. Students don't learn everything all at once. It takes practice and experience. When there is no tolerance for errors, learning becomes a slow and painful process. Those who can't bear to let up on the pupil until an exercise is letter-perfect are best advised to leave the teaching to someone else.

A homeschooling mom and her twelve-year-old LD/ADHD daughter were at each other's throats constantly. The girl had been in and out of several schools. Her lack of social skills made her classroom experiences a horror story of humiliation and rejection. She was also hyperactive, extremely distractible, poorly coordinated, and disorganized. This young girl and her mom had been homeschooling for over a year, and both of them hated it!

The mother was a registered nurse and a perfectionist. By training and temperament, nothing ever suited her until it was accurate, neat, and complete. Directions had to be followed to the letter. No work was ever finished until it was perfect.

A parent with unreasonably high standards is not a good match for a student with a serious Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder.

Disorganized parents are also likely to have serious difficulties being in charge of an educational program. Even the unstructured approach of "unschooling" requires a certain element of control over the learning process. Unplanned, random events do not work together to expose a youngster to all the basic skills necessary to thrive in the real world. Successful teaching requires goals and a process of deliberate preparation. Someone has to decide on the activities used to expose learners to information and ideas, supervise day-to-day practice of skill development, and take responsibility for time-management techniques that establish realistic schedules and deadlines. Parents who want to homeschool youngsters with learning disabilities and Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder must be willing and able to maintain an orderly environment where such children can be productive in spite of their tendency to be disorganized.

On the other hand, some parents are too organized to manage a homeschool program. "Neat nuts" who try to impose their orderly preferences on LD and ADHD students usually end up creating a contest of wills that is very destructive.

Harry was an unusually disorganized teenager. From long-overdue library books to moldy sandwiches, he carried just about everything he owned in the huge backpack he used as a book bag.

Most parents would not have been particularly bothered by his slovenly habits. But Harry's dad did not hold with standard views on cleanliness. The man was a "neat nut." It was always easy to tell when the father had packed this eighth-grader's lunch. The brown bag was creased as precisely as the pants in a general's dress uniform. Then the top of the sack was folded twice, pressed to a crisp, sharp edge, and fastened in the exact middle with a staple.

In his attempts to force his untidy offspring to adopt his own orderly ways, the father's persistence evoked angry responses in the boy. There must have been some awful scenes. The father referred to his son's attitude toward neatness as "combative."

Parents with a short fuse often have serious trouble homeschooling. They find it extremely difficult to listen compassionately as a frustrated child complains about school being stupid and boring. Quick-tempered adults usually have limited tolerance for careless errors. And LD/ADHD youngsters make lots of them. It takes self-control and a great deal of patience to successfully teach any student who has difficulty sitting still, paying attention, and learning.

One other potential pitfall involves learning styles. Teachers tend to gravitate toward the methods and materials they found interesting and helpful when they were students. It's natural for visual learners to assume that everybody needs lots of illustrations, charts, and diagrams. Likewise, auditory learners tend to rely on long explanations without realizing that many LD/ADHD students find lectures exceedingly boring and confusing. Homeschooling parents need to make it their business to find out about learning styles, their own as well as those of all the children they'll be teaching. Homeschooling is not much of an improvement over the regular classroom if there is no attempt to customize the curriculum to fit each student's individual talents, interests, limitations, and needs.

Working parents who are truly committed to homeschooling usually find ways to work around their scheduling limitations. Students who are doing a mail-order program, a videotaped curriculum, or workbook-style courses require little supervision; they only need to confer with their teacher for brief periods a couple of times a week. As long as they can be trusted to get their work done and stay out of trouble, being home alone allows them the freedom to be fully in charge of their academic activities.

Sixteen-year-old Mike had lost interest in academics in the seventh grade. For four years after that, he slept through classes, refused to do homework, and hung out with troublemakers. He smoked cigarettes, came home drunk on a number of occasions, and did more than a little experimenting with drugs. He was on the verge of dropping out of school.

Out of desperation, Mike's mother and father gave in to their son's pleas and arranged for homeschooling. Since both parents had full-time jobs, the boy would have the house to himself all day long. From his past performance, he certainly did not look like an ideal candidate to be trusted with so much freedom. But his parents had tried everything else and were willing to give such a radical measure a try.

Much to everybody's amazement, Mike settled into his new homeschooling routine like a hand slips into a glove. Every day, he happily completed all of his assignments. His work was of good quality, he did well on tests and reports, and his attitude was excellent. Without the constant contact at school, his old party-loving crowd lost interest in him. He got more active in the youth group at his church and made new friends. By the middle of the fall, he was looking into colleges.

In early February, Mike's mother lost her job. While she was unemployed, she spent a lot of time around the house. Mike found her presence a terrible disruption to his concentration. Just as he'd sit down to the computer to write a book report, the whine of the vacuum cleaner would claw at his mind for attention. Every time he took a break, he'd get parental reminders about the need to do schoolwork. He even viewed sweet, motherly invitations to share a gourmet lunch on the patio as in invasion of privacy.

Mike was tremendously relieved when his mom got a new job. He was pleased to get her "out of his face" so he could get back to work!

Although the unsupervised approach is best suited to older students, there are a number of families who find that their nine to fourteen-year-olds have the maturity to act responsibly while left unattended to do their schoolwork. One such family is homeschooling two boys, ages thirteen and nine. The youngsters get up and get their day started before their parents leave for work. They do their assignments independently of each other. The younger son relies on his brother for assistance when needed. The older boy uses E-mail when he needs help. When there are decisions to be made, the teenager is in charge. During breaks, the two shoot baskets or play computer games or tinker with their bikes or work on projects or do their chores. When the mother gets home, the boys get free time until dinner. In the evening, each son gets one hour of private homeschooling instruction. Both parents participate in the process of checking work, teaching new concepts, and making assignments. Not every pair of brothers could handle so much responsibility, but for this family, it works beautifully.

LD and ADHD youngsters are notorious for daydreaming or piddling around when left to study alone. Yet when they are given assignments they can successfully complete without assistance, and when they are placed in an environment where they are free from interruptions and distractions, some of them blossom into contented independent learners.

What about socialization?

There are young people who crave solitude. Our culture tends to fear any kind of isolation that might turn a child into a "loner." Yet for some children, particularly those with poor social skills, it is a kindness to remove them from the constant burden of having to interact with their peers.

Children who have trouble paying attention cannot tune out the activity going on around them. They notice everything. Only a handful of teachers present their lessons with such dynamic energy that all the students in the class keep their minds riveted on their schoolwork. Thus, in most classrooms, children with an Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder spend most of their time with their eyes on their classmates, rather than their teacher. If there's any horsing around going on, they are likely to be in the middle of it. Sometimes, they are the ringleaders. Often, they are mindless followers. All too frequently, they are the victims.

When families switch to homeschooling, this entire social problem is eliminated. The distractions caused by the presence of other children no longer pull attention away from schoolwork. By placing LD and ADHD youngsters in an environment where they cannot be influenced by the actions of other children, their tendency toward impulsive behavior can no longer get them classified as lazy students, stupid kids, troublemakers, outcasts, or nerds.

For children with a learning disability or an Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder, that's one of the biggest advantages of homeschooling. By not forcing them to blend into the general mix, parents get control over who will have the opportunity to influence their children. During their formative years, children learn by emulating the behavior of those around them. The little kids copy the big kids. Those who wish to be sure that their youngsters are not exposed to role models who will lead them toward violence, drugs, foul language, sexual promiscuity, and other undesirable behaviors see homeschooling as an affordable option. Homeschooling allows parents to be selective about the company their children keep.

Custom-designed programs

Those who successfully homeschool LD and/or ADHD youngsters tend to design programs that are child-centered. If the student has special interests and talents, they get top priority. Also, there is a strong commitment to teaching the basic skills. Most homeschooling families are absolutely adamant in their belief that all children must master reading, writing, spelling, and math. The time schedule might not coincide with the sequence set out by regular schools, but teaching parents rarely give up until the goal is achieved.

It's not unusual for home educators to postpone formal reading instruction until a child is eight or nine. On the other hand, many teaching mothers introduce phonics to four-year-olds. It's a matter of readiness and a personalized curriculum that fits the student's capabilities and the parent's teaching style. Faced with an area where a youngster's development is slow, many homeschoolers have the courage to wait for a window of opportunity where interest and desire motivate the child to leap into the subject with enthusiasm and optimism. It's the teacher's job to be alert to the subtle signals that indicate when a new stage of development has prepared a youngster for success in previously unexplored territory.

Alice, a pert little ten-year-old, had not mastered even the most basic elements of mathematical computation. She'd gotten stuck somewhere in the first grade and never progressed. Every year, her mother introduced her to a new book and a new set of teaching techniques. Every year, the child resisted instruction and gained no new skills. As a youngster, her mother had been slow in catching onto arithmetic. She had complete faith that her daughter was merely following the same pattern and would catch up.

In the summer vacation between fourth and fifth grade, Alice ran across an old first-grade math workbook. One rainy afternoon, she curled up in the porch swing and worked her way through all the problems. She had so much fun that she asked her mother if they had another book of "number games." By bedtime, the child finished the material in the second-grade book. To finish the third-level workbook, she needed a little instruction. With her mother providing guidance when needed, Alice played with her math books for the rest of the summer. By the time the family resumed homeschooling in the fall, Alice was doing fifth-grade arithmetic, just like she should have been. Somehow, over the summer, reasoning with numbers came to make sense to her.

Many homeschoolers have had similar experiences. Some children just can't seem to learn to read when the basic literacy skills are introduced in first and second grade, then suddenly catch on somewhere in their early to mid-teens. Although they get a late start, it all comes together for them, and they're on grade level within a few years.

That seems to have been what happened to Winston Churchill. He was a nonreader until the age of thirteen or fourteen. He was well versed in the classics and world history, because he was homeschooled and his family read to him. In his mid-teens, he was sent to a military academy, where he learned to read and write and spell well enough to become a war correspondent when he was only nineteen. In his mature years, Churchill wrote several highly respected volumes on the history of World War II.

Albert Einstein followed a similar pattern. As an adult, he often referred to his "retarded development." Although he did not learn to read until he was a teenager, he was a successful student in a major university in his early twenties and was a prolific letter writer throughout most of his life.

Many students have trouble when forced through a fixed curriculum at a predetermined pace. For those whose intellectual growth does not progress in accordance with standard developmental patterns, homeschooling has the flexibility to let the student's readiness be the determining factor in deciding which skills and topics are introduced. When a student is really ready, learning is a natural, spontaneous, pleasant process.

Can parents really teach LD and ADHD children?

Families who make the choice to homeschool their LD and/or ADHD children get the information they need about materials and instructional methods through support groups, conferences, and a network of specialists who help home educators develop the skills they need to successfully teach their children at home. LD children will still have trouble learning to read and write and spell when schooling is done at home. In most cases, the teaching parent keeps changing the curriculum until one is found that works. Homeschooled youngsters with an Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder still have difficulty sitting still and paying attention. Through patience, determination, a thorough understanding of the child, and a commitment to providing everything necessary for successful learning, most homeschoolers figure out ways to keep ADHD students organized, on task, and energetically involved in academic activities.

In the hands of the right parents, LD/ADHD students thrive in the quiet, noncompetitive environment outside the regular classroom. When asked if such a radical commitment was worth it, these parents usually beam with delight as they say, "We've got our child back."

"The LD Child and the ADHD Child: Ways Parents & Professionals Can Help," Suzanne H. Stevens, John F. Blair, Publisher, 1996, Chapter 10, (pps. 216-231). ISBN 0-89587-142-4.