How on Earth do you get a child with ADHD to do their schoolwork? Is homeschooling a recipe for disaster when ADHD is involved? This article is focused on actionable strategies to help get ADHD students engaged with homeschooling.
The big superpower of having ADHD is hyperfocus. It’s also our biggest weakness. See, attention deficit is just hyperfocus on the wrong thing, to the point that you can’t pay attention to what you’re meant to be doing.
In our society, largely created by and for neurotypical people, this can be problematic.
My own view is you can’t change the child to fit the learning, but you can change the learning to fit the child.
My belief is that a lot of teacher-student and parent-child conflict comes from us trying to change a child to fit our environment instead of changing the environment to fit them. I’ve come to this conclusion from studying archaeology and teaching, and watching a lot of Supernanny.
With that in mind, here are some ways to engage an ADHD child with home learning:
- Don’t make it a confrontation. Most children will push back and meet fire with fire.
- Use positive language. Not wheedling/cajoling, but in an authoritative and confident tone tell them “you’re really good at X, do some of that for thirty minutes, you’ll blast through it easily.”
- Don’t dismiss their efforts, however small. If your child usually spends hours not picking up the pen, make sure you tell them they did good when they write the date, for example.
- With a task you know they struggle to engage with, remove as many barriers as possible. For example, make sure they’ve got the right pen, the right worksheet, are sitting at a table, and have their hair tied back if it bothers them.
- Try earplugs. For them, not for you! Although if they’re getting at you, you could wear some too and have a “golden hour” where everyone gets less sensory input. Neurodivergence runs in families and confrontations can happen because neither of you are processing the way society teaches you you’re supposed to.
- Try earphones with music. Sometimes if I’m trying to get work done I need something to distract the part of my brain that bounces around. Experiment with different types of music. For me, it needs to be something I can’t sing along to but which I like the sound of. Instrumentals with lots of layers and complexity or songs that are unfamiliar or in a foreign language work well for me. You know your child best, and your child might get fixated on this being an opportunity to listen to their favourite band, which could waste a lot of time turning into an argument with them. You need to help them understand that’s not the point. As with all these tips, if experience suggests they or you will be unable to do this, then leave it.
- Change of scene. Taking work outside or to a different room can really help change the emotions involved.
- Make learning practical. Instead of doing pen-and-paper work, think of a way to re-frame it so they meet the same learning objective with a different path, for example can the objective be learned from doing something in the garden or by a making project rather than a written task? It might take longer but they’ll actually learn the thing rather than wasting time not learning anything from a worksheet they can’t engage with.
- Take regular breaks. For those of us with ADHD, transitions can be difficult to manage. The point of a break is to refresh your mental energy. If someone with ADHD is hyperfocused on a task, let them run with it as long as their needs are met because otherwise they’ll get stressed out by the interruption and might struggle to get back to the task afterwards. This is counter-productive. Reframe how you think of a break. Your ADHD student might need to take a break by eating or drinking at their desk and continuing to work. Obviously they will need to drag themselves away for the toilet, but this is a good time to take a “proper” break.
- Try and use project-based and gamified tasks rather than the type of activities usually used in a school. Children with ADHD really thrive with projects.
It can be really stressful when you want what’s best for your child and they’re not doing the thing. Try not to escalate.
The blueprint I was shown growing up was “it’ll be the worse for you if you don’t…” You know the type. It starts with “a good hiding” and gets worse from there. While most people’s escalation doesn’t start quite that high, escalations only work on downtrodden children who are scared of you, and while it might give short term results it will also cause resentment and damage your relationship with your child.
Long-term, escalation will make it harder to engage the child in things later down the line. If you start out guns blazing at the top of your discipline strategy, you’ve got nowhere to go and you’ve put yourself in a corner. Take a step back. Take some deep breaths (I know, these don’t always work). Try to learn some frustration-management strategies that do work for you. That’s key because children are experts at picking up on our emotional states.
Frustration management will really change the energy in the room and I’ll try to post more about it in the future but if you need acute help managing really strong emotions try to find a therapist who understands ADHD (the therapist is for you but if they’re knowledgable about ADHD, they won’t give you bad “child management” advice).
Ultimately, what’s best for all of you is to not be locked in a constant power struggle. There is no “win” and “lose” and it’s not you against them. The only way you “lose” a power struggle is if you damage your relationship with your child. Stepping back, telling them you’re wrong or sorry when you’ve let your frustration show, isn’t “losing”, it’s teaching them that responsible adults reflect on their actions and look to do things differently when they know they got it wrong.