Unschooling With ADD/ADHD

Many children with diagnoses of ADD, ADHD, and a variety of learning issues have been disheartened, overwhelmed, or even become depressed by what they’ve encountered in an institutional educational 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.” His parents realized that their child was becoming bored and unhappy at school. His answer to his dad’s question, “What were the best things you learned at school this year, son?” 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, lack of time available to do much of anything besides a one-size-fits-all program, and the endless standardized testing of NCLB) obstruct impulses by competent, compassionate, and interested teachers to reach out to individual students. Many parents that I know who have children with a learning disability label have been studying the situation on their own and doing what they can in the hours that their child is at home. Many of them are exhausted and asking “Why not homeschool?” Well, why not? 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 part of the learning disability they’ve been told about might not be institutionally induced. In households where child-led learning is practiced the child begins to learn naturally, learning what s/he needs when he needs to, and the stress of mastering a specific skill such as handwriting or multiplication tables at a specific age on a specific timetable is gone. The child begins to unwind and blossom, pursuing passions – whether trains, art, raising animals, dance, writing poetry, webpage design, blogging, exchanging artistic pursuits with others at deviantart.com or other websites that facilitate sharing artistic expression. What if s/he wants to work with Lego for hours, play a musical instrument, what if s/he wants to be outside exploring his or her 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? Biking? Skateboarding? Building skateboard ramps?  Playing in a band? Learning a new language online? Learning new and even seemingly strange things? 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 labeled as a “learning disability” has a flip side of “learning potential.” Mostly what these children needed was to be removed from an institutional setting, to be respected and listened to deeply, and encouraged to set their own pace.

Three Thumbnail Definitions of ADD

(1) As recently as 2000, 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, Revised 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) Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. (1995) quotes his neuropsychiatry teacher in Driven to Distraction:  “There are some children 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.”

(3) Individuals with ADD or ADHD are “Hunters in a Farmer’s World” (Hartmann, 1993, 1997).

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 an interesting metaphor that has helped me and other parents 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 variation. 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.

Hunter in a Farmer’s World?

The concept of ADD individuals being “Hunters in a Farmer’s World” was popularized by Thom Hartmann in the 1993 book Attention Deficit Disorder: A different perspective and his follow-up book Beyond ADD. His hypothesis was that ADD/ADHD individuals are potentially manifesting genetic variations that served hunter-gatherers in early human societies quite well. What Hartmann called “hunter” traits (more accurately hunter-gatherer abilities) include an ability to constantly scan the environment for prey and for danger (distractibility), quick decision-making (impulsiveness), a willingness to take risks, and great flexibility. Such individuals, according to Hartmann, are able to totally throw themselves into the moment (during the hunt), have a sense of time that 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 (thrive in situations that are stimulating), and they have an ability to become suddenly hyper-focused on their task. Hyper-focusing is a trait noted among many people with ADD/ADHD. Some researchers think that ADD would be more properly termed an attention inconsistency rather than an attention deficit. In Hartmann’s hypothesis, this variety of traits helped hunter-gatherer societies survive and thrive. Hartmann’s hypothesis may be an over-simplification, as knowledge we have of hunter-gatherer groups that have survived into this and the last century (redefined due to having to live within the boundaries of nation states and having been devastated and irrevocably altered by the modern world system), show that fully 80% of hunter-gatherers’ food supplies came from the gathering spectrum of subsistence activities, not large-scale hunting efforts.   Still, it is something to consider that any complex of genes producing what the modern industrialized world (and particularly the industrialized model of education) calls ADD/ADHD, may have roots in necessities of far older lifeways.  It is worth considering that the different abilities of ADD/ADHD individuals – under circumstances that support these individuals and respect their abilities, under circumstances where they participate fully in the direction of their learning and contribute to the life of their communities – will manifest as giftedness and contributions to their world.

Consider that 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 or her social group since whole societies were changing from hunting and gathering for survival to farming and then to manufacturing. A farmer had to keep his/her attention focused on the tasks at hand, had to sustain a steady, dependable effort, and likely might not want to go off wandering in the woods to check out an interesting distraction during planting time or during the harvest. Animals had to be cared for meticulously, day in and day out, month after month, year after year. In an agricultural society a risk-taking personality might 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-gatherer’s more flexible, elastic time-sense, according to Hartmann) are needed to assure survival. Again, this is over-stating the case about differences between hunter-gatherers and farmers, especially early, small-scale, or indigenous/traditional horticulturalists and farmers.  Anthropologists have noted that proto-farmers and early farmers, as well as horticultural groups, do not cease hunting and gathering.  Foraging practices plus horticulture and small-scale agriculture tend to go together, as a way of hedging the bets for a social group.  Both kinds of subsistence strategies were (and are still) used together.  The kinds of social changes that may have given pre-eminence to “farmer traits,” may not have occurred until intensive farming began to dominate the subsistence scene and until land was privatized. Think enclosure of the commons during the medieval period in Britain, continuing into modern times. Think about land grabs perpetrated against indigenous peoples around the world by Western nation states and, more recently, corporations. Such movements effectively ended the ability of people to control where they obtained their food, creating a pathway for the development of intensive farming, followed by industrial farming, and its eventual companion, industrialized education.

Hunter-gatherer societies have been mostly eliminated over time one way or another, through isolation, or often through outright extermination. Today most modernized Westernized cultures are set up to reward the behavior of those Hartmann refers to as “farmers,” our schools are based on an agricultural (or industrial) model, using repetitive techniques, stressing linear rather than divergent thinking, the being the specialty of ADD/ADHD individuals. Linear thinking is a step by step kind of thinking. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, 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 arguably 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 in a “modern” or “progress-oriented” sense. Some studies have shown that certain highly 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 the world still very much needs its people with traits associated with ADD/ADHD, whether most realize this or not. According to Hartmann, these people are often pioneers, entrepreneurs, agents of change, innovators, and creators.  We don’t want to oversimplify and take the concepts of hunters and farmers too seriously and create a kind of unscientific and inaccurate genetic determinism. The last thing we want to do is lead a person to think: “I’m born a hunter; that’s all I can be…” Or “She’s a farmer, she isn’t creative.” However, to be fair, this was not Hartmann’s aim.  He wanted to provide an alternate view, in a metaphor, to the paradigm that has ruled educational institutions for so long, that learning differences are necessarily disabilities.


In the 1990s, I was dealing with home education and learning disabilities.  Other friends were also dealing with ADD/ADHD and unschooling.  If anything, Hartmann’s books were empowering in their positive view of our kids. Interestingly, Hartmann’s metaphor may be taking on a more scientific life in light of some recent research. Researchers have discovered that an ADHD-associated version of the gene DRD4 (the “7R allele”) is linked to health in a group of nomadic Kenyan tribesmen, and may cause malnourishment in a related group of settled villagers. Intriguing, not completely conclusive (what in life is?) as far as Hartmann’s analogy goes, but intriguing. Check out the article by a group of anthropological researchers at BioMed Central – it is open access: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2148/8/173. And for a popular science account on the same research see: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14100-did-hyperactivity-evolve-as-a-survival-aid-for-nomads.html Warning: the newscientist.com article tends toward a rather negative view of those carrying the genetic mutation, with one anthropologist linking traits such as (hyper) activity with “aggression” and “unpleasantness.”


I may quibble a bit with Hartmann’s overarching view of “the farmer,” as a farmer myself.  I just need to say that problem-solving, ways of thinking, solving for patterns, and forms of intelligence(s) in small-scale agricultural settings (past or present) or sustainable agricultural settings all require as much divergent thinking, creativity, pioneering, as  Hartmann wants to attribute to hunters. I would say that his so-called farmer traits might be more useful to large-scale industrialized farming than to small- or micro-scale sustainable, land-adapted farming.  Here is what we do in a nutshell: close observation of and interaction with the land; learning how to catch and store energy locally; discovering how to obtain a yield, even in marginal years or a marginal environment; apply feedback principles; recognize and value renewable resources and services; produce the least amount of waste possible; design from patterns to details; integrate rather than segregate; use small and slow solutions; use and value diversity; use edges and value the marginal; and  creatively use and respond to change. Hunter traits? Farmer traits? What is needed? Both, most likely.

To resume (are you noticing a pattern of divergence here?), here’s an observation from Dr. Will Krynen, M.D. in Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception by Thom Hartmann (1993, p.20): “As a physician I’ve worked among indigenous hunting[-gathering] 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 behaviors 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 modern institutional/industrial schooling. The fifth grade boy at the beginning of this article possessed a large quantity of these traits, largely unappreciated by his teacher that year. Unfortunately children from many environments have been labeled 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 mentioned below turn that model on its head and show that ADD/ADHD children are gifted in certain ways and offer suggestions for helping the children to access their gifts. This is not to say that I think (or that Hartmann does, either, for that matter) medical and therapeutic intervention by mindful parents and medical caregivers is out of place.  I know from personal experience and the experience of friends that sometimes a judicious and mindful use of medication can greatly benefit some individuals who are learning to cope with impulse control, extreme distractibility, and other related issues.

Finally, Hartmann hints in his books that currently in the digital era or information age or whatever you chose to call this current time of technological ascent, those individuals who think divergently and those who have ADD/ADHD characteristics, may again find themselves at an advantage as they navigate ever-changing, dynamic, and possibly tumultuous times ahead.  Hartmann’s book was revolutionary when it was first published but was well received by many practitioners in the field of ADD/ADHD research and treatment and continues to provide a healing vision for many individuals, both adults and children.

Creativity and ADHD/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 “Edison-trait” children are quite aware that there is a large overlap between what we call ADD/ADHD and creativity, even if their children have never taken a test for creativity. It’s that obvious.

Often mentioned traits of creative individuals:

* Highly sensitive
* Extremely energetic
* May become bored easily and may appear to have a short attention span.
* Democratically oriented
* May 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 experientially and participatively, and may resist rote memory and just being a listener.
* May be difficult to “sit still” unless absorbed in something of his/her own interest.
* Very compassionate
* May have fears such as death and loss of loved ones.
* If they experience failure early, may want to give up and develop learning blocks.
In Conclusion

It has become a sad fact that treatment of children has been quite appalling throughout history. Every era and many cultures have 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 analyzed their own theories about “bad” behavior, and only recently have many adults begun to analyze and criticize our own ways of responding to diversity in children’s behavior. 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 “non-conforming” children have been treated very poorly indeed. Far too often it’s been recommended that they be beaten, and in some cases even killed (consider the Biblical passage concerning the stoning of unruly youth and imagine the lengths to which people have been willing to stretch any Biblical reference). 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 world have begun to acknowledge that children are not their parents’ property and ought to be treated respectfully as individuals with their own rights. Hopefully we are on the verge of even more extensive changes.

Unschooling young people with ADHD/ADD can be a wonderful experience. In a home where the learning is child-led, learning variations are well-tolerated. Learning that is 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, through bicycle mechanics, 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 animals and reading everything he or 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 have 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 his or 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 institutionalized learning are removed has shown us that many of the traits that are labeled “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.

Attention Deficit Disorder: A different perspective. (1997).Thom Hartmann

Beyond ADD: Hunting for reasons in the past and present. (1996). Thom Hartmann

Books about “Multiple Intelligences” (different kinds of intelligence, or, as one unschooled young person put it “we’re all smart in different ways”) by Howard Gardner may help to understand your child’s various talents and abilities. Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory has soundly stood the test of time. I highly recommend his books, articles, and website www.howardgardner.com/

Seven kinds of smart: Identifying and developing your many intelligences by Dr. Thomas Armstrong. Based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner lists more than seven now.

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

The myth of the ADD child by Dr. Thomas Armstrong

The Edison trait: Saving the spirit of your nonconforming child by Lucy Jo Palladino (out of print, newest edition, 1999, Dreamers, discoverers & dynamos: How to help the child who is bright, bored and having problems in school). I have not read the newer edition, so I can’t say that I recommend it. The excerpt presented on amazon.com seems to place emphasis on helping your child in a school setting, so if that’s what you want, fine.  The index does have a number of pages devoted to John Holt which is something else to consider for unschoolers. The original book helped me understand myself and my own educational journey.

And, as expected, books by John Holt:

How Children Fail

How Children Learn

Teach Your Own

What Do I Do Monday?

Instead of Education

Learning All the Time

Freedom and Beyond

Really, I can’t imagine ever having embarked on the unschooling journey over 25 years ago without having read every book I could lay my hands on by John Holt.  I can’t imagine having continued homeschooling/unschooling through my various life changes with eight kids without having read (and re-read) every book I could lay my hands on by John Holt.  And, finally, I can’t imagine having considered unschooling with ADHD/ADD with peace of mind without John Holt.

6 Responses to Unschooling With ADD/ADHD

  1. Kev says:

    I agree. I was appalled when my ex-wife had our son examined by a psychiatrist and had him labelled. I saw an ordinary kid trying to be a kid…that was taken away from him.

  2. That pretty much describes me…..daydreaming in class, wandering away on a thought cloud of my own invention. Math was my nemesis.

  3. Patricia says:

    Thanks for the positive words – I am considering putting my son who has been labelled ADHD and LD in an unschooling school for “grades 7 to 12” I think he will thrive there as the curriculum and classroom based education is sooo hard on him. I can’t unschool homeschool him as I must work but this school does unschooling so I hope it works the same way!

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