ADHD is a commonly-used term that’s labeled on a host of behavioural and learning challenges. And raising a child with ADHD can stretch a parent’s resources to the limit. Can you homeschool a child with ADHD? Yes! And not only can you homeschool them, but, just like homeschooling any special needs child homeschooling ADHD kids could be one of the best things you do for them.
*Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional or therapist. Please consult your own doctor to diagnose, treat and support your child. The information written here is my personal opinion and experience, and not to be taken as medical advice.*
What is ADHD?
First, let’s define ADHD.
The acronym ADHD is short for “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder”, and it’s characterized by key symptoms of inattention and increased physical activity.
ADHD, contrary to what many people think, is actually a neurological disorder, not a mental health issue. There are significant physical challenges related to ADHD beyond the disruptive and impulsive activity. ADHD can affect things like motor planning, executive functioning and time awareness, but also a person’s ability to sleep, their appetite and metabolism, their sensory nervous system, and their heart and blood pressure.
ADHD is one of the many neurodivergent umbrella of disabilities, along with ASD, epilepsy, Tourette’s, dyspraxia, etc. It’s a difference in brain chemistry and/or structure that causes the behavioural and learning challenges. With ADHD, the root causes are still being researched, however, the issues are chemical imbalances that lead to understimulation of the frontal lobes.
When my daughter was first diagnosed with ADHD, the pediatrician described it this way. Think of the frontal lobes as a string of Christmas lights, run by batteries. In typical people, the string of lights is bright, all the lights are lit, and the batteries recharge every night, quickly and easily. But in people with ADHD, the lights can be dim, or only certain ones lit up at a time. Sometimes, there were shorts in the cord, so the lights that lit up changed. Sometimes nothing lit up and the whole string was dark. The problem isn’t in the lights, though. It’s in the cord and batteries.
People with ADHD can have a wide variety of symptoms, and not all people with ADHD have the same symptoms. Typically though, ADHD kids will have issues with attention. They may be inattentive or easily distracted. They may hyperfocus on something, or zone out and appear to be daydreaming. People with ADHD can also be hyperactive. They might move constantly and excessively, or inappropriately. They might struggle with impulsivity. ADHD can also cause sensory issues.
People with ADHD will have issues with executive function. This is the term used to describe a person’s ability to manage projects and organize themselves. Executive function helps with the awareness of time passing and time management as well. ADHD kids and adults can also struggle with working memory — the short-term memory that lets you accomplish tasks or solve problems, and keeps you aware of what you have, even if you don’t see it (object permanence).
ADHD also has a host of physical symptoms that are lesser known or recognized. For example, someone with ADHD might have pica or bedwetting issues, and they might struggle with recognizing internal body signals like hunger. People with ADHD often struggle with sleep. They can have insomnia, delayed sleep onset disorder, and issues with oversleeping or deep-sleep. And they can have heart issues, with irregular heart rates or heart rates that spike up suddenly.
How do you treat ADHD?
Again, I’m not a doctor. But in my experience, ADHD is often used to label the symptoms of ADHD (disorganization, distraction, hyperactivity, impulsivity) without ruling out other disorders that can cause ADHD symptoms. Many things can cause similar symptoms — food sensitivities or undiagnosed allergies, ASD, vision or hearing issues, SPD, anxiety or depression or other mental health issues, and things like PANS or PANDAS.
Knowing what’s causing the ADHD symptoms will help you treat the symptoms.
For the neurological cause of ADHD, or what I often refer to as “true” ADHD, our doctor recommended stimulant medication. And when you go back to the lights description, it makes sense. Stimulant meds are like fresh batteries in the light string. They force everything to light up and work properly. Unfortunately, stimulant meds — like batteries — don’t last long. So you have to keep taking a new dose to maintain the effect.
For kids like mine, ADHD stimulant meds are like insulin for a Type-1 diabetic. No amount of diet, exercise or lifestyle changes will change the fact that a Type-1 Diabetic can’t make the correct amount of insulin to survive, so they need insulin for the rest of their life. And no amount of diet, exercise or lifestyle changes will change the fact that my daughter’s brain chemistry requires stimulant medication to correct the imbalance and make her brain function properly.
Now, some of the problem is that ADHD can be “co-morbid” with other mental health, behavioural, and learning challenges, like ASD or anxiety. And that can change the effectiveness of medication. For example, ADHD + ASD may mean that stimulant medication doesn’t work, but a non-stimulant medication does. ADHD + depression may mean that stimulant medication can be dangerous, and a non-stimulant medication plus an antidepressant is a better medication choice.
Having regular doctor care is VERY important for someone with ADHD!
One of the easiest and safest ways to check and see if you would benefit from stimulant medication is to try caffeine.
My daughter ran out of her medication before we could get her prescription refilled. And she had an important meeting that day that she wanted to be attentive for. So, I gave her a caffeinated energy shot. For typical people, this drink would be the equivalent of 2 cups of strong coffee. For my daughter, it helped her focus for about 90 minutes. Just long enough to handle her meeting. Then, surprisingly, she came home and took a long nap. The caffeine knocked her out!
If your reaction to drinking a cup of coffee is to get sleepy and relaxed, or even to fall asleep, you may benefit from stimulant medication.
Stimulant meds for people with ADHD shouldn’t turn them into “zombies” or be addictive. If they were addictive, people with ADHD wouldn’t forget to take their meds all the time! So if those things are happening, go back to your doctor and check for different causes of the ADHD symptoms.
So how do you educate a child with ADHD?
First, create your plan for homeschooling ADHD kids.
ADHD is another kind of learning disability, like dyslexia or autism. And just like homeschooling any other child with special needs, creating an IEP can help you figure out your homeschool plan. Determine what your child’s strengths and needs are, figure out the goals you want (or they want), and then organize the supports you need to put into place to achieve those goals.
Next, evaluate your current family lifestyle.
I know, I just said that diet, exercise and lifestyle changes won’t fix ADHD. But that doesn’t mean they won’t help! Diet, exercise and lifestyle changes aren’t a cure, but, along with medical support, they can be a huge help in supporting your person with ADHD.
So start by looking for food triggers.
Does dairy or too much processed food increase the distractibility? Maybe keep a food diary and see if you can find any correlations between coping skills (or lack of) and what they’ve eaten. Maybe they need more frequent snacks? Blood sugar crashes don’t help with focus or impulsivity.
Recently, my daughter noticed that, shortly after taking her medication, her mood would crash, and her anxiety would spike, and so would her impulsivity and distractibility, despite the medication. She, at first, thought it was the medication, and she needed a med or dose change. But then we investigated a bit more, and we both noticed that she would take her medication either well after eating, or on an empty stomach. And when her mood dropped, she’d often crave sweet things. So she changed to making sure she took her meds with food, and started grabbing a protein-heavy snack for that mood crash time. And right away, she noticed that her mood stopped varying so wildly. Blood sugar crashes can make ADHD symptoms much worse.
A good sleep schedule is also essential.
Creating a sleep routine and good habits around sleeping — and using sleep aids when necessary (on the advice of your doctor!) can be very helpful to managing ADHD symptoms. After all, it’s hard enough to focus when you’re tired, let alone tired AND with ADHD.
Focus on good health habits before the academics.
Make sure your ADHD person is nourished and hydrated (they may need reminders — lack of awareness of internal body signals!), that they’ve had a balance of movement and rest, and that they’ve kept up with basic hygiene.
Third, set up their environment to be ADHD-friendly.
Declutter. Clutter is distracting, so less is better when it comes to coping with ADHD.
At the same time, people with ADHD have problems with remembering where to find or put their things. Out of sight, out of mind! So using open shelving and labels can help with organization and distraction.
Keep colors, scents and sounds calm and neutral when and where they need to focus. If you do use music to help them, something that isn’t going to be loud but also has a regular rhythm can help regulate.
Homeschooling ADHD kids is sometimes just a matter of trial and error to find what works for your kid. ADHD is part of the spectrum of neurodivergent differences.
And use checklists EVERYWHERE you can!
Fourth, make allowances for movement.
ADHD kids NEED to move. So stay flexible with things like posture or position. My daughter did her best concentrating upside down, with her feet up over the back of the couch!
Movement breaks can also help when homeschooling ADHD kids. We’d practice math problems bouncing on a trampoline. We’d take running breaks between reading or writing. I put tension elastics on the bottom of chairs so she could push her feet against it while she was drawing. Or I’d give her coloring while I read to her, so she could listen and do something at the same time.
Fifth, keep to a routine.
Having good structure to your days can really help homeschooling ADHD kids learn independence. If you’ve got a distractible kid, having the predictability of a strict routine can help them stay on track. However, you’ll need to be patient too. ADHD kids need FREQUENT reminders, and they need these reminders MUCH longer than typical kids do. Longer than you might expect.
My ADHD kid is now a young adult, and she STILL needs reminders! Luckily, she can use technology to help her remind herself of what she needs to do. So set those alarms! Cue the transitions. Use timers. And teach them how to do it for themselves too.
A few tricks we learned along the way:
- Keep instructions SUPER short!
- Write out instructions rather than verbally telling them what you want. Text messages are AWESOME!
- Timers can be helpful, but sometimes they can be distracting too. You might want a couple of different kinds (ones that tick and ones that are silent).
- Kids with ADHD are prone to anxiety and stress. And they can burnout easily! Keep an eye on that, and make the appropriate adjustments.
- Encourage sports and fitness! The extra movement can help with the sleep issues and the distractibility and impulsivity.
- Use multimedia whenever possible. Video explanations and instructions are extremely helpful!
ADHD can be a superpower!
As exasperating as ADHD symptoms can be, people with ADHD can excel in high pressure environments where they can switch tasks quickly and easily, and they can hyperfocus. ADHD kids can also be extremely creative and artistic, and people with ADHD often become musicians, artists and actors. Don’t focus on the struggles, but embrace the quirky, energetic person your ADHD person is. They are fantastic and worth celebrating!