Homeschooling Kids with Attention Difficulties

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Today we have a wonderful guest post from “The Miz” of Life at the W.A.C.K.O.S. discussing homeschooling kids with attention difficulties…and, let’s be honest, that’s all of us at one time or another.

Once upon a time not so very long ago, Kris asked whether her readers had any “areas of expertise” that they’d be willing to share with other homeschoolers. Hmm, thought I. What might I be able to share? After all, with nearly 17 years under my belt of homeschooling my four kids through their elementary and middle-school years, I must be an expert in something. (I mean, in something other than not being able to find things and always being behind schedule.)

Aha, I remembered. There’s always KWAD-schooling! –that is, homeschooling Kids With Attention Difficulties, of course. (It’s okay if you didn’t know that term, because I think I made it up.) While I would not necessarily consider myself to have “expertise” in this area, I most definitely have “experience”, which probably counts.

Now, perhaps you do not have any KWADs. Perhaps your home is full of children who sit quietly in their chairs and don’t talk when you are trying to talk and don’t need to get up and move around every few minutes and don’t start talking about yesterday’s football game in the middle of reading about the Spanish-American War and have never ever sat for twenty minutes staring at a blank sheet of paper. That’s okay; you may stay. Many of my thoughts about KWAD-schooling are quite applicable to “normal” homeschooling as well (if there is any such thing). For that matter, most of them apply not just to schooling but to other areas of parenting as well.

For the record, both my husband and I have some attention-deficit issues, as does our oldest child (now 21 and about to graduate from college). Those issues manifest themselves fairly similarly in our oldest son and myself and quite a bit differently in my husband. But none of us even come close to my third child, now age 13. His attention deficit issues are severe and homeschooling him has proven to be remarkably challenging — and yes, often frustrating. There’s a reason his blog name is Spaz.

I’ve found myself a bit hesitant to share my thoughts on this, simply because I don’t always feel like I’m doing a great job with my KWAD. In fact, I often feel quite the opposite! I think that is inherent in the nature of KWAD-schooling. So I share these things with you not as one who has gotten it all figured out, but as one who is still plugging away trying to make progress. With that confession out of the way, here are A Few Things I’ve Learned over many years of Spaz-schooling:

(1) Less is more. “More” can be overwhelming and frustrating; “less” is do-able and therefore more motivating. Fewer concepts in one sitting, fewer math problems per lesson, fewer paragraphs to write, fewer assignments on the agenda all add up to greater success for my KWAD. Although I have been able to increase his “workload” this year, I still have to keep this principle in mind. He can only process so much at once; he can only sit and write for so long before frustration sets in. If I expect “less” in quantity, I can expect “more” in quality.

It’s good to realize as well that it’s okay not to do “everything”. When Spaz was little, there were many subjects we just didn’t “officially” do, simply because he could only sit and do so much. Given his musical bent, I felt that sitting for piano practice was more valuable than sitting for, say, spelling instruction. (I did not add “formal” spelling to the agenda until age 11, and added grammar only this past school year.) At 13, he now does a typical range of academic subjects for his age, but I still have to prioritize and emphasize some over others.

(2) Adapt, accommodate, and adjust. I’ve had to do things quite a bit differently with Spaz than with my other kids. Looking at what his peers are doing, what my other kids did at his age, or what the curriculum expects can be helpful, but ultimately I have to figure out what is within reasonable capability for him and adjust my expectations and methods accordingly. For example, scribing Spaz’ work for him –even math, when he was younger– has cut down on a lot of frustration over the years. I have also done many things with him orally rather than having him write. (I think kids often learn more when we do things with them anyway, so this is not necessarily a bad thing.) As he’s gotten older, I have been gradually weaning him off these accommodations, but they are still needed in some cases when his focus needs to be on a skill or concept.

Knowing how much to accommodate can be tricky, especially as my KWAD approaches high-school age. I don’t want to frustrate him (or myself), but I don’t want to baby him either. As he gets older, my efforts have subtly shifted; rather than always adjusting the expectations and methods to him, I sometimes need to help him adjust to the expectations and methods, within his capabilities.

(3) Be flexible, but structured! People with ADD thrive on structure even as they rebel against it. Our homeschool is rather relaxed, but there is a loose structure to our days. Neither Spaz nor I could function without it. On a related note…

(4) Be specific and concrete. Vague instructions and open-ended activities frustrate Spaz. “Make some sort of notebook page” doesn’t fly with him. If I want to give him choices, a list of suggestions and options is a big help. Also, written checklists are essential around here! They don’t guarantee diligence and focus, but they at least make it possible, and provide accountability as well.

(5) Acknowledge distractions; they are a given. For a KWAD, there is no such thing as a “distraction-free” atmosphere. Pencils are a distraction; sofa pillows are a distraction; the ceiling is a distraction. I have to teach Spaz (and myself) to acknowledge the distractions and willfully ignore them. (I’ve learned, however, that it is not a good idea to say things like, “Look those distractions in the eye and spit on them!”) Equally importantly, I have to learn to just do what I can do –like find a way to decrease distractions — and not worry about what I can’t do –like do away with distractions entirely.

(6) Plan around the highest-needs child. I learned early on to plan our school schedule according to Spaz’ needs and work everyone else around that. That may not seem fair, but it ultimately works best for everyone. At the same time, I have to make sure that my other kids’ academic and emotional needs are being met, too. When Spaz was 2, that meant having the older kids take turns playing with him while I worked with the other. At 6, it meant backing down on my ideals and giving him and my 3-year-old some “educational TV” time so I could do math uninterrupted with my 11-year-old. At 13, it means setting (and enforcing) times for him to work independently so that I can give my full attention to his 10-year-old sister.

The next one surprises many people, and it surprised me, too, when I discovered it:

(7) Hyperactive child doesn’t necessarily mean kinesthetic learner! Not all KWADs learn best with hands-on methods. When Spaz was little, I had thought that hands-on projects would be just the ticket for him. I thought wrong. They ended up being more of a distraction for him than anything, and often still are. We can do projects, as long as I do a lot of prior prep and limit them to 40-60 minutes (at age 8-ish, it was 20-30 minutes). Figuring out his learning style and working within it was a big key for us. Spaz learns and focuses best by reading and looking at things.

Even so, having something to keep his hands busy can be helpful when we are reading aloud or discussing. (Coloring maps while I read history works well for him; playing with Legos doesn’t.) That’s because…

(8) Active body often equals engaged brain. This can be a hard one for me. Times tables on the trampoline? Sure! Having kids pacing, wiggling, or twirling while I am reading to them or trying to write with them? Not so much. Yet as annoying as that can be for me, it actually can help them to think and focus. (And I so want to get a couple of those big balls for them to sit on instead of chairs.) Of course, there is a balance. The older Spaz gets, the more concerned I am that he learn the social art of sitting still. That’s where the above-mentioned keeping-hands-busy principle helps — sometimes.

I do try to have the kids get some of their energy out first thing in the morning. Weather permitting, I require trampoline or other vigorous outdoor activity before we even began the day’s schoolwork; in the winter we might put on loud music and jump around the living room. I am sometimes delusional enough to hope that this will enable them to then sit and work or listen quietly for the rest of the day. It doesn’t work that way, of course, but it does help a great deal, as does the next tip.

(9) Breaks, breaks, and more breaks –short ones, long ones, preferably active ones. In addition to longer “scheduled” breaks (outdoors when possible), Spaz sometimes needs a few minutes of activity here and there to rejuvenate his brain. A good “piano break” or a short indoor “action break” –shooting a Nerf basketball or running up and down the stairs– and he’s ready to tackle the academics again. I also find that the most difficult subjects, such as writing, are best done by him either first thing in the morning or right after an outdoor break. Frequent breaks do lengthen the “school day”, but they also increase tolerance and help to preserve sanity (mine).

(10) Know when enough is enough. This can be hard when he and I are both exasperated! KWADs have a very low threshold for frustration. Sometimes I know I need to push through, other times it’s better to say, “We’ll come back to this tomorrow.” (And rarely, when the frustration is accompanied by an exceedingly bad attitude, we may have to ditch the schoolwork entirely…and have a Chore Day.)

I hope that some of what I’ve written here has been an encouragement to those of you in the KWAD-schooling boat. Hang in there! KWAD-schooling can be demanding, draining, and frustrating, especially once the KWAD hits adolescence — but it is worth it. There have been times when I wondered whether my son would ever gain self-management skills or be able to work independently. That continues to be a challenge, but he has greatly increased in independence and focus over the last year and a half. While there are still many issues we need to work on, he has come a long way. And I have thus far managed to refrain from purchasing that one-way ticket to Siberia, either for him or for myself. We’re surviving! There is hope!

Those are some fantastic tips, aren’t they? I agree with “The Miz” that they’re good tips regardless of whether your child is a KWAD or not. What about you — what tips have you found that work well for your child with attention difficulties, whether the difficulties are standard or just occasional?

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This article was written by a Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers guest author. See the author's full bio in the body of the post.

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  1. I am a mom of a KWAD and this post greatly encouraged me. My son is 6 1/2 and he and Spaz have a lot in common. We are finishing up kindergarten and I feel like I’m only doing half the work that other moms are doing. But inside I always felt like less was more, as well, because I see how much he’s learned this year. I also agree that many (including me) assume a KWAD = kinestetic learner but that’s not always the case. If we do too much movement then I’ve lost his focus altogether. He does better when we incorporate small amounts of (big) movements throughout the hour or so of homeschool work at the table. I see things more clearly now after reading this and I so appreciate how she shared what worked for Spaz at various ages. Maybe we can make it another year after all! Thank you!

  2. This sentence made me laugh out loud:

    “Now, perhaps you do not have any KWADs. Perhaps your home is full of children who sit quietly in their chairs and don’t talk when you are trying to talk and don’t need to get up and move around every few minutes and don’t start talking…”

    I do have one of those. We had to adapt his read aloud time to let him play quietly on the floor, color etc. If I didn’t allow him to MOVE he had such dificulty, I would have to re-read (again) sentences, paragraphs and pages because he couldn’t focus without movement.

    Great advice! Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. This is great. I’m bookmarking it to come back to. It’s like someone wrote the manual for homeschooling my son. lol!!!

  4. My son is dyslexic and very distractable. Your article was soooo helpful for me! I’m already using some of your ideas, like starting the day with physical activity. I really appreciate your writing this. Thanks!

  5. I’m the mom of two KWADs: One 17yo girl who could (has), quite literally, stare at a blank sheet of paper for 3 hours. The other is our developmentally delayed 8yo son. He does NOT have ADD but he does have serious attention difficulties due to his brain damage, and seeks sensory input through almost constant movement. Thank you so much for posting this, if for no other reason than it is a good thing for us to be reminded that the box doesn’t fit these kiddos, and we need to keep it in mind.

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