Unschooling With ADD

Homeschooling Works
September 2, 2015
When Home Ed Kids Grow Up
September 2, 2015
Show all

Unschooling With ADD

By Kathy Ward

In recent years there’s been a strong trend for parents to remove their children from school and bring them home to learn because many schools have been failing to provide a positive learning experience for their children. These kids have been bright, personable, competent in many realms, and yet they’ve found themselves existing on the outskirts of the learning experiences that have been offered them, often having been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) or ADD (ADHD without hyperactivity commonly referred to as Attention Deficit Disorder). Frequently these children have other diagnoses attached to their ADD/ADHD, depending upon what their problems with institutional learning may be. These learning disabilities include but are certainly not limited to Developmental Reading Disorder (DRD or dyslexia), Developmental Writing Disorder (dysgraphia), Developmental Arithmetic Disorder (dyscalculia), NLD (Non-verbal Learning Disorder, which might be considered the opposite of dyslexia), and Auditory Processing Disability.

Many of the children have been disheartened, overwhelmed, or even become depressed by what they’ve encountered in an institutional setting. One child with an ADHD diagnosis I know felt that the only thing he learned his entire fifth grade year resulted from punishment. He learned how to care for trees. He had many hours to watch the school gardeners plant new trees, cultivate the roots, fertilize the trees, water them, and otherwise care for them from his perch atop “The Wall” where students who didn’t conform were required to spend their “time-outs.” While his parents realized that their child was becoming bored and unhappy at school, it was this knowledge, coming out as an answer to his Dad’s question, “What were the best things you learned at school this year, son?” which prompted his parents to bring him home to learn, heartsick over what he had been experiencing and feeling guilty that they hadn’t figured out what was happening sooner. While there are some dedicated teachers working in the schools who really want to benefit the children, sometimes the burdens of institutional education (such as ever-increasing classroom size accompanied by the need to be enforcers of crowd control and the lack of time available to do much of anything besides a one-size-fits-all program) totally obstruct any impulse by a compassionate, interested teacher to reach out a helping hand to an individual student. Many parents that I know who have children with a LD (Learning Disabled) label have been studying about the situation on their own and doing what they can in the hours that their child is at home. Many of them are burning out and asking “Why not homeschool?” Why not indeed? Many of them already are spending hours facilitating their child’s education. So it’s pretty natural to finally decide to bring their kids home.

Once these children are at home and have “deschooled” for a year or so, their parents begin to wonder if some large part of the learning disability they’ve been told about might not be school-induced. In households where child-led learning is practiced the child begins to learn naturally, learning what he needs when he needs to, and the stress of mastering a specific skill such as handwriting or multiplication tables at a specific age is gone. The child begins to unwind and blossom. He pursues his passions whether trains, art, raising animals, dance, writing poetry, or web page design. What if he wants to build his Lego creations dancing to his favourite CD, what if he wants to be outside exploring his environment and only comes in to touch base for short times each day? What if she wants to spend hours reading, looking at books, or drawing? When there’s no rigidity in the schedule, no jarring bells, no stifling need to remain seated quietly in the classroom, no rules of silence, many of these kids begin to regain their joy in learning, they begin to feel happy to be themselves again. And their parents begin to see that what was labelled as a “learning disability” has a flip side of “learning attribute” or “learning potentiality.” All these children needed was to be removed from an institutional setting and allowed to set their own pace.

Three Thumbnail Definitions of ADD
(1) The manual that health professionals who work with children use to attempt to nail down a diagnosis of ADHD or ADD (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition or DSM-IV) lists a plethora of symptoms that might appear in an ADD individual, child or adult. Some of them (but by no means all of them) are: distractibility, impulsivity, restlessness (having trouble remaining seated when required to for instance) which may be physical or mental, boredom and frustration with school (!), easily loses things, often hops from one activity to the next without completing the first, interrupts people frequently, difficulty waiting his turn when involved in group activities, daydreaming, sensation seeking, hyperactivity (in ADHD), may lack in social skills, academic underachievement, hypersensitivity to stimulation, mood swings.

(2) “There are some children,” she said, “who chronically daydream. They are often very bright, but they have trouble attending to any one topic for very long. They are full of energy and have trouble staying put. They can be quite impulsive in saying or doing whatever comes to mind, and they find distractions impossible to resist.” (Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., quoting his neuropsychiatry teacher in Driven to Distraction)

(3) Individuals with ADD or ADHD are “Hunters in a Farmer’s World.” (Author Thom Hartmann)

What strikes me in all that I’ve read about so-called attention deficit is the huge divide between the two dominant models for ADD. The first definition above tends to view ADD as a problem, a disease, or a disorder. The second definition resists portraying these individuals as disordered but instead addresses the problems that can arise from stuffing these children into a modern classroom learning situation and expecting them to reach their potential there. The third definition is the one that I like. It’s the one that has helped me to step out of the ADD-as-a-disorder paradigm and into a wonderful, freeing model of ADD as a variation, a set of skills and innate abilities, and a propensity for creative thinking. The third definition places ADD into a framework of diversity among people, situating ADD individuals someplace among a whole range of human differences. The deficit is not within the person, rather it is within the ways that we’ve chosen to educate our children at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. The great value of that third definition for me is that it points out clearly: A difference is not necessarily a disorder.

A Hunter in a Farmer’s World?
The concept of ADD individuals being “Hunters in a Farmer’s World” was popularised by Thom Hartmann in the 1993 book Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perspective and his follow-up book Beyond ADD. His theory is that ADD individuals are a genetic remnant of the hunter-gatherers in early human societies who are now having to find a way to live in the modern world which has been a Farmer’s world for centuries. Many thousands of years ago most people would have had Hunter traits such as constantly scanning the environment for prey and for danger (distractibility), quick decision-making (impulsiveness), a willingness to take risks, flexibility, they can totally throw themselves into the moment (during the hunt), time for them is elastic (it takes however long it takes to complete the hunt and down time is very slow), they think visually, mundane tasks may be boring to them, they have an ability to become suddenly hyper focused on their task (the hunt). Hyperfocusing is a common trait in ADD people. Some researchers think that ADD would be more properly termed an attention inconsistency rather than an attention deficit. All of these traits helped the hunter societies survive and thrive.

As the worldwide agricultural revolution began and during the more recent industrial revolution that followed, all of these Hunter traits became less and less of an advantage to the individual and to his society since whole societies were changing from hunting for survival to farming and then to manufacture. A farmer had to keep his attention focused on the tasks at hand, he had to sustain a steady, dependable effort, he couldn’t go off wandering in the woods to check out an interesting distraction during planting time or during the harvest. He had to care for his animals meticulously, day in and day out, month after month, year after year. In an agricultural society a risk-taking personality could be detrimental, but a careful, patient, organized approach was likely to bring success. Stability, goal-orientation, planning ahead, and a linear sense of time (as opposed to the Hunter’s more flexible, elastic time-sense) are needed to assure survival.

Over time the Hunter societies were eliminated one way or another, through isolation, or often through outright extermination. The Farmers needed space and land, the Hunters became expendable. Today most of our modern cultures are set up to reward the behaviour of Farmers, our schools are based on an agricultural (or industrial) model, using repetitive techniques, stressing linear rather than divergent thinking, the latter manner of thinking being the specialty of ADD individuals. Linear thinking is a step by step kind of thinking, it’s organized thinking, but divergent thinking involves forgetting some things, letting others go, stepping across boundaries and mixing ideas together in new ways. Divergent thinking is a creative style of thinking. Instead of coming to a point or a close, one’s thoughts tend to branch out, exploring new byways. Divergent thinking is associated with the right hemisphere of the brain and linear (or convergent) thinking is associated with the left hemisphere. While divergent thinking may be compatible with creativity, linear thinking generally is compatible with getting things done. Some studies have shown certain creative people are more likely to exhibit mixed or right brain dominance than the general population.

One of the things that Hartmann stresses is that society still needs its Hunters, whether most people realize this or not. Hunters are generally the pioneers, the entrepreneurs, the agents of change, the innovators, the creators.

Here’s an observation from Dr. Will Krynen, M.D. in Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception by Thom Hartmann (p.20): “As a physician I’ve worked among indigenous hunting societies in other parts of the world, from Asia to the Americas. Over and over again I see among their adults and children the constellation of behaviours that we call ADD. Among the members of the tribes of northern Canada, such as the caribou hunters of the McKenzie Basin, these adaptive characteristics — constantly scanning the environment, quick decision-making (impulsiveness), and a willingness to take risks — contribute every year to the tribe’s survival.” It’s pretty clear that these are the same traits which, while a blessing in one environment, are a problem in today’s institutional schooling. Unfortunately today’s Hunter children from every environment have been labelled as the ones with the problem, they are the ones being treated and “fixed” rather than the schools. Hartmann’s books and the other books listed here turn that model on its head and show that ADD children are gifted in certain ways and offer suggestions for helping the children to access these gifts so that they may find ways to express their extraordinary abilities.

In her book The Edison Trait: Saving the Spirit of Your Nonconforming Child, Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., starts with Hartmann’s Hunter theory and delineates a different sort of Hunter-like profile. She calls this person the Dreamer and uses Thomas Edison as her model. Here’s what she says about the Dreamer: “Although Edison-trait Dreamers are explorers, they don’t quite fit the profile of the Hunter. They do not have quick-to-accelerate and given-to-the-chase Hunter qualities. While they seek new places and new experiences, they do so at their own self-styled pace. They are wanderers set on their own inner course.” She goes on to liken the Dreamer ADD individuals to our ancestral food gatherers among the hunter-gatherer societies of the ancient world. These people are inclined like the Hunters to go after what they want, follow their instincts, and act on their own. Like Hunters they are highly visual. And as Hunters do, they often operate within their own concept of time, or timelessness to be more accurate. Dreamers have a unique fondness for collecting things, especially objects of nature. Dreamers seem to be a good representation of a subset of Hunter/ADD individuals, perhaps those less inclined to be very active and more apt to be on the quiet end of the spectrum. Some Dreamers have a visionary bent. Dreamers, like Hunters, are often misunderstood and have no small difficulty navigating through a Farmer’s world and its schools.

Something that Hartmann hints at in his books is that in coming years, in the Information Age, which some see as a time of rapid and radical change, those individuals who have been blessed with Hunters’ minds may again find themselves at an advantage as they navigate the exciting and possibly tumultuous times ahead.

Hartmann’s book was revolutionary when it was first published but was well received by many experts in the field of ADD research and treatment and it has provided a healing vision for many individuals with ADD, both adults and children.

Creativity and ADD

“I’m alarmed that to think than modern science may be turning creativity into a medical disorder” – Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., from The Myth of the ADD Child.
People who score high in tests of creativity sometimes show more hyperactivity than other children. Children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD very often have high scores on tests of creativity. Many personality traits commonly associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are also associated with highly creative people.

The highly creative individual has the ability to take dissimilar pieces of information and join them in completely new ways. Artists of all kinds, musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, scientists, mathematicians, engineers, troubleshooters, and inventors all depend on creativity. Many parents of Hunter or Edison-trait children are quite aware that there is a large overlap between what we call ADD and creativity, even if their children have never taken a test for creativity. It’s that obvious.

Traits of Gifted/Creative Kids (From the National Foundation for the Gifted and Creative)

High sensitivity
Excessive amounts of energy.
Bores easily and may appear to have a short attention span.
Requires emotionally stable and secure adults around him/her.
Will resist authority if it not democratically oriented.
Have preferred ways of learning; particularly in reading and mathematics.
May become easily frustrated because of his/her big ideas and not having the resources or people to assist him/her in carrying these tasks to fruition.
Learns from an exploratory level and resists rote memory and just being a listener.
Cannot sit still unless absorbed in something of his/her own interest.
Very compassionate and has many fears such as death and loss of loved ones.
If they experience failure early, may give up and develop permanent learning blocks.

In Conclusion
It’s a sad fact that treatment of children has been quite appalling throughout history. Every era and every culture has shown consistency in this, even though it’s not a topic that we talk about very much. People haven’t generally made any allowance for differences in children, haven’t analysed their own theories about “bad” behaviour, and only recently have many adults begun to analyse and criticize our own ways of responding to diversity in children’s behaviour. We can be sure that fidgety, zingy, active children along with dreamy, distractible, impulsive children have been around as long as there have been children. If children in general haven’t been treated well, these children have been treated very poorly indeed. Far too often it’s been recommended that they be beaten, and in some cases even killed. These children have been subjected to some of the very worst that we have had to offer. It is only recently that portions of our society have begun to acknowledge that children are more than property and ought to be treated respectfully as individuals in their own rights. It’s only recently that people have begun to view what was once called misbehaviour as something else, something besides a moral problem deserving a punishment or something besides satanic possession (yes, even today there are places where this is taught). Hopefully we are on the verge of even more extensive changes.

Unschooling and people with Hunter traits are a wonderful combination. In a home where the learning is child-led, learning variations are well-tolerated. Learning that’s uneven compared to the one-size-fits-all learning of most schools is taken for granted, even encouraged. Math texts can be put aside while a child learns hands-on and practical math skills by cooking or baking with a parent, by constructing a bird house or animal pen or even a simple garden fence; biology, zoology, herpetology, ecology are right there in her hands for a child who is raising iguanas and reading everything she can get her hands on about them; children who want to write a story but can’t manage to do it alone can dictate to someone else; a story can be listened to on audiotape; any number of pieces of beautiful literature can be read aloud to the child by someone who enjoys doing it so that they can hear and respond to the flow of beautiful language, even though their reading skills are not yet matured enough to do it alone. Is it a problem for a child to run around, play, jump, and climb most of the day when the child is learning all of the time in her own best way with the support of a loving parent? Knowing that all people are really natural learners at heart when the constraints of institutionalised learning are removed once and for all has shown us that many of the traits that are labelled “learning disabilities” in the classroom fall away and show their positive side in an unschooling home. Disabilities become differences and differences open the door wide to discovery and wonder.

Books with a positive view of ADD/ADHD traits

Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood by Edward M. Hallowell, John J. Ratey – This book is considered a classic on ADD, for all ages. It was written by two doctors who live with ADD themselves.

In Their Own Way. Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Own Personal Learning Styles by Dr.Thomas Armstrong

Awakening Your Child’s Natural Genius. Enhancing Curiosity, Creativity, and Learning Ability by Dr. Thomas Armstrong

7 Kinds of Smart. Identifying and Developing Your Many Intelligences by Dr. Thomas Armstrong

The Myth of the ADD Child by Dr. Thomas Armstrong

A.D.D. and Creativity – Tapping Your Inner Muse by Lynn Wiess, Ph.D

Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World: Unlocking the Potential of Your ADD Child by Jeffrey Freed and Laurie Parsons

How Children Fail by John Holt

How Children Learn by John Holt

Learning All the Time by John Holt

Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perspective by Thom Hartmann

Beyond ADD: Hunting for Reasons in the Past and Present by Thom Hartmann

Anything about ADD written by Thom Hartmann

The Edison Trait: Saving the Spirit of Your Nonconforming Child by Lucy Jo Palladino

Books about different kinds of intelligence (aka Multiple Intelligences) written by Howard Gardner may help to understand your child’s various talents and abilities.

Originally appeared in Gentle Spirit Magazine, Vol.6, No.10
Copyright 2000 Kathy Ward
Kathy describes herself as a daydreamer, eccentric, head-in-the-clouds, too sensitive, too intense, obstinate, contrary, impulsive, procrastinator, moody, accident-prone, not practical, too idealistic, absent-minded, addled, space cadet, she’d-lose-her-own-head-if-it-weren’t-attached Dreamer child, mother of some Dreamers and Hunters~

Last updated on

1 Comment

  1. Kat says:

    A fantastic article that has given me such a great list or resources for my ADD/ADHD children. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap