Charlotte Mason Homeschooling with ADHD

In a Charlotte Mason education, there’s so much emphasis put on paying attention and how important that skill is, but what do you do when you have a child who has special challenges with paying attention? Today, joining me, is my friend and coworker, Katie Thacker to talk about homeschooling with ADHD.

Sonya: Katie, thanks so much for joining us to share your experience with helping a child who has challenges with paying attention. Can you share a little bit about your family and the situation you’re in? 

Katie: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. I do have two daughters, and my youngest one has been diagnosed with ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. And that is not something that would have been around as a diagnosis in Charlotte’s time, but it’s something that we’ve learned a lot about. And the main thing for us is that her brain does not learn to pay attention the way that a typical child’s would. So, we have found ways that the Charlotte Mason Method has been a fantastic fit for her as we have gone through her education. 

Sonya: Let’s start with “What have you learned about ADHD?” I hear that a lot. People talk about it. They say, “My kid might have it,” or, “My kid does have it.” What is ADHD? You have done a lot of research into this, so enlighten me here. 

Katie: So, my older daughter was a very high-energy little kid, and when she was about 6 or 7 years old, she started to mature and calm down and was able to sit still for longer times. It was the normal types of progressions that you would see. And then with Cora, when she got to be 6, 7, and we were thinking that this very, very active child is going to start to calm down, she got more active and spent even less time paying attention. It just got to a point where it was really, really tough for her to control her impulses and things like that. I was very hesitant to talk to anybody about that at first, and then there was this one evening where God said, “You have options to get her help, and I have been telling you that for a long time, but I guess I had to make it very obvious for you.” So we went and did an evaluation. There’s a university near us that has a child study center, and they spent almost two whole days with her, doing all of these different games and activities and things like that to help figure out what she might have going on. They gave us the diagnosis of ADHD. Under the umbrella of ADHD, as it currently stands with what we know, there are two components: there’s the inattentive type and there is the hyperactivity type. So in our situation, Cora has both, and she has all nine markers for each of them. She also was not diagnosed with any other what they call “comorbidities,” so she does not have Anxiety, she does not have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, any of those other things that can often travel along with ADHD. She likes to joke that she is a pure example of what ADHD would look like. 

Sonya: (Laughs) And to the top! I mean, all nine in both. 

Katie: Yes, she’s all of them. So, as she’s gotten older (she’s 13 now and she was diagnosed when she was 8), she has learned a lot of vocabulary to describe to people what it feels like for her. 

Sonya: Oh, how valuable that she can express what’s going on inside. 

Katie: Yes, it’s been a huge help for us, because I read about it, and I read from other people, but for her experience specifically, it’s been really nice to have some understanding of what that means. And one of the things that she’ll say is that it feels like she has two brains and that the brains do not like to leave each other alone. They both have to be kept busy in order for her to focus on something, so she will say that she needs to be doing something else while she’s listening to something, which plays a lot into our Charlotte Mason lessons. 

Sonya: So, these two brains are not like, “Both of us are going to work together on this particular thing.” 

Katie: Correct. Not very often, although when they do… something that happens in ADHD is something called “hyper-focus,” which will happen if there’s a right combination. We’re not quite sure what causes it, because I imagine that a lot of people who deal with some of these attention struggles would turn on that switch whenever they felt like it if they could! (laughs) 

Sonya: Yeah, if you could, yes. It’d be a superpower. 

Katie: Right, so we don’t know what it is that happens, and as Cora has described some of the things that she goes through, I’ve realized that my brain goes through a lot of the same things when I’m very tired or if I’ve got a lot going on. But her mind works like that all the time, where it’s hard to make yourself do something you know you need to do or want to do; it’s very hard to make decisions, it’s very hard to organize thoughts and to communicate what you’re looking for, and it’s hard to pay attention. So, it would be like one of those nights where I’m trying to read something that I really do want to read, but I’m too tired and I find myself reading the same line over and over and over again… 

Sonya: Yes, and it’s not registering at all. 

Katie: Yes, that is an experience that she has most of the time that she’s got to work through for things like academics. 

Sonya: Wow, so, how has this worked with the Charlotte Mason approach, since Charlotte put such an emphasis on paying full attention? Are you able to do a Charlotte Mason education with Cora? 

Katie: We are absolutely able to do a Charlotte Mason education with Cora, and I actually can’t imagine another method working better for her. The short lessons are absolutely key. They’ve had to be even shorter or broken into more small chunks than maybe you would typically see for someone of her age, although she is very smart. And that’s very common, I’ve learned, with people with ADHD. Her gift of science of relations is huge. She’s constantly making relationships because she’s got two brains working on different things. (laughs)

We are absolutely able to do a Charlotte Mason education with my ADHD student, and I actually can’t imagine another method working better for her.

Sonya: I suppose they’re searching all these other areas, so somebody’s going to come up with something in there. 

Katie: Right, so there’s all of this going on. She does a fabulous job with the science of relations. We do keep things very short, but very regular, and break things up. Sometimes, more often math, maybe we would do at two different times. 

Sonya: During the same day? 

Katie: During the same day; a little bit here, a little bit there, so that we can use those different parts of the brain more, so that we’re not “draining those buckets,” if you will, too quickly for her. 

Sonya: How does that work with narration? 

Katie: She does a great job, but very rarely can narrate well right after a reading. So early on, the guidance that you get in a Charlotte Mason education is to read, make sure the child  is paying full attention, and then say, “Okay, now tell me back what I just read.” I spent a lot of time very frustrated because I would just get a stare, and I would think, “Are you just putting off admitting to me that you didn’t hear anything that I said?” 

I spent a lot of time very frustrated because I would just get a stare when I asked for narration, and I would think, “Are you just putting off admitting to me that you didn’t hear anything that I said?” 

Sonya: Or, is a struggle of the will, like a refusal? Yeah, a lot of things can go through your head. 

Katie: Right, so I was thinking we had a discipline issue early on. And then what I would start to notice is that I would get frustrated and let her know that I was disappointed and that I expected better tomorrow, or I was sorry that she missed this great story … all those things that we learn about working with a child who hasn’t listened. Because that was my assumption, that she didn’t listen. And then, later on, at dinner or something, something would remind her of the reading, and there it is, there’s the narration. 

Sonya: Hours later. 

Katie: Hours later, and I eventually realized (this was not an instantaneous understanding) that she may be taking the information in, but her repackaging takes longer, and so, to get it back out takes a little longer. But some things that have helped to make it so that our school day can still flow is for her to be doing something that’s going to give her the tools to be able to speak. So, when she was little, I gave her a big whiteboard and we put it up against the wall. And when we were doing a history reading, she would draw stick figures and make a comic of what was happening. We started this when we were reading Story of the Romans. So, it was very dramatic, all of the different things that go on in that book, but she would make comic scenes and draw very quickly—just stick figures—so that she could keep up with what was going on in the story. And she could do a much better job narrating when those stems were there for her. And she was the one creating them, so they were still her personal understanding of what was going on in this story. 

Sonya: It’s almost like leaving herself a trail of breadcrumbs. 

Katie: Absolutely, so that was a huge help. There have been other things that we’ve done, and a lot of it she comes up with. I can’t really take credit for this. She has done a really great job, and homeschool allows for her to do that. She really likes to use props when she narrates. I like to tell the story of when we ended up with a narration I did not expect. It was all about King Henry VIII and his wives and it was all made from dairy products in the fridge. She brought them out and put them on the floor, and sour cream was King Henry VIII, and I’m not going to be able to narrate it as well, but I ended up being like, “Oh can you do that again? Because I really want to record this!” It was just so much fun. That’s so much of it: she’s such a joy to teach because she has so much creativity in what she presents when she does narrate. 

Sonya: And they weren’t just random choices. She had thought it through, it sounds like, that science of relations. She was making a relationship with King Henry and he’s sour, so we’re going for the sour cream. That’s brilliant. 

Katie: Yes, so she did a lot of that relating there. Another example is with Shakespeare. She has those little Beanie Boo stuffed animals that were so popular, and she decided that she wanted to have them all as the characters. And I mentioned that she can get really hyperfocused, right? So, she spent a lot of time one afternoon, in her free time, making name tags for everybody for the Shakespeare play we were doing. One was Cesario, but then she needed to also have an owl that was going to be Viola. It was all the different characters with all of the dressing up and pretending and things like that. 

Sonya: So she did that in her free time? So, you would read it as usual during the school time (which, if you’re not asking for a narration at that moment would make that lesson a little bit shorter in your school schedule), but then she’s going to process it, and you require the narration later in the day? Or do you just wait for her to volunteer? 

Katie: I tend to wait and just hear it. I do still ask her, especially now that she’s in middle school, I ask her to say something about the reading, but I’ve learned to be a lot more patient and to just let it be silent for a second. And what I get back is more like what you might get from an early narrator, but the important part is that she’s saying something about it. And many times it’s not very narration-like; it’s more of a comment of, “What that guy did made me mad,” or, “I would have never tolerated that if someone treated me that way,” or something like that. She gets to share a little bit of a reaction. 

Sonya: So, you know she was listening in the moment. 

Katie: Yes, and it does give her a little hook to hold on to later. And, often, if we haven’t heard anything throughout the rest of the day, the next time we do the reading, when I say, “Remember about this? What can you tell me about Paul Revere?”, she’s ready. She’ll show me that she remembers. So, it’s a little bit more for me to keep track of in the back of my mind, but like any habit, I get used to it. 

Sonya: That really rang a bell for me, because lately I’ve been focusing on how a Charlotte Mason education is all about relationships. And relationships are based on shared experiences that involve emotions and imagination, as in, you can replay the scene later, what this experience looked like, and you replay that emotion that’s connected to it. So much of Charlotte Mason is like that. That’s why we use the living books. 

Katie: Right, and they’re fantastic for ADHD, because they can create those pictures, whether they’re drawing on the board as they’re hearing it, or they learn to put them in their minds. 

Sonya: And that’s the imagination part, but what you just said sparked the emotion part, because she will say, “I did not like what this guy did,” or, “I did not agree with what this guy did.” So, she’s forming that emotional relation as well. 

Katie: Yes, we had a long time in my house when every time we heard the word “Napoleon,” she had to make a hissing noise. (laughs) 

Sonya: The villain! Love it. So, talk to me about habits then, because the habit of attention, are you working on that 365 days a year? 

Katie: You have to be. Yes. As much as we can, we want to be doing it with all children and ourselves as much as we can consistently, 365 days a year. So, early on, when we started homeschooling, we did not have a diagnosis yet, and I also didn’t believe that we would change anything whether I knew that there was a diagnosis or not. And I read about the habit work, and I said, “Well, that’s all we need. We just need the habit work. We just need to do this and that’ll fix all the problems and we’re going to be in good shape and that’ll be all there is to it.” And we worked on habits, and tried them, and we were like, “We’re not moving on until we have mastered this thing. We’re not going to move on.” And I did learn early to break the habits down small… for example, she really loves peanut butter and Nutella on tortillas; so it was “We’re not going to do anything else until we work on putting that away after we have pulled that out and spread it all out over the counter.” And I realized that all that does is discourage the child because the habits take so much longer to instill so they get frustrated. But the habits themselves are that much more worth it. Because she is going to have to live without me as her anchor at some point in her life, and those habits are going to be so valuable. But habits don’t catch on with someone with ADHD as quickly, at least in my experience, and for many people that I’ve talked to who have kids with that experience.

She is going to have to live without me as her anchor at some point in her life, and those habits are going to be so valuable. But habits don’t catch on with someone with ADHD as quickly.

Sonya: Let me qualify: you said they don’t catch on as quickly. You’re saying it can be done. 

Katie: Correct. They can be done. They can be done. If there is a habit that you can put the clothes on the floor, there is a habit that clothes can end up in the basket. And so, it just takes a long time to redirect. It’s kind of a gravelly road, right? We’re not on rails, it doesn’t feel as smooth. And so, what we found is that we do focus for a while on a habit, but we’ve decided to stay with that 6- to 8-week mark. And if we only make a little bit of progress, and kind of smush down a little bit of the gravel and make it a little bit more smooth, that’s okay. We are still going to switch to something else. There’s a little bit more encouragement that way. We’re going to move on to something else, focus on that, use a different part of the habit-brain and see where we can get with that. And sometimes we find when we take the focus off of something because there is this emotional component, particularly with ADHD, when we take the focus off, sometimes that habit improves on its own. Because we’re not drilling at it and causing a lot of guilt about something. 

Sonya: Yes. It’s not under pressure. You know, pressure is not good for making things grow. 

Katie: Right. I believe you’ve mentioned it in some workshops or podcasts, the steps of a habit development, of doing something first and having the child stay with you while you do it, and then having the child help you, and then having the child do it and you help her, and then having her do it on her own with your supervision. That has worked very well breaking those things down. There’s a lot more that she can accomplish if she’s got somebody who’s like, “Okay, well I’m gonna hang out with you in the evenings while you do the 5-minute pickup of your room,” but she’s the one doing the action and then eventually it gets to the point where I come down there to do the 5-minute pickup and she’s already started. And then it’s just big celebration, right? 

Sonya: Yes, so okay. Go to that habit: 5-minute pickup. Tell me what that is. 

Katie: So because we still are not there on putting the clothes in the hamper, and she very much likes to do makeup, the makeup ends up a little bit all over the desk… 

Sonya: This is her room? 

Katie: This is her bedroom. It can get really out of hand, and so we have found that what works best is when each evening we do a 5-minute cleanup. And it has to be (we time it) five minutes. Whatever we can accomplish in five minutes. Some days she’s able to make much more than five minutes of a mess, but most days we get the room in pretty good shape in five minutes and it really helps. 

Sonya: So when you started “I am here with you,” what are you doing? Are you standing there timing? Are you standing smiling? Are you going, “Go girl, go!” what are you doing? “You missed one over there”? (laughs) 

Katie: When we first started, it was teaching her how to look at a big mess and make decisions. We always try to start in the same order: Pick up the biggest things first. Her bathrobe tends to be on the floor, and her towel tends to be on the floor. Those are very big items that can make you feel like you’ve made a lot of progress very quickly. A lot of floor space opens up when you get those things up. We’ve broken things into categories. So, “Okay, let’s get the bath stuff up off the floor. Okay, now the clothes. Now let’s do the makeup.” When we started doing this, often I would team up with her: “How about I get your jewelry straightened out while you pick up any trash off the floor?” And we have found that gradually over time, she’s making less mess during the day when she has her free time in there. She has a lot of thoughts and a lot of things and pulls out a lot of ideas and that kind of thing. So a lot of things leave their resting places during the day. All those things need to make it back. So, in helping her come up with an order of how to make decisions. Now that she’s a little bit older, I’ll start asking her, “What do you think we should pick up first?” 

Sonya: Good, and she has experience with it. 

Katie: Yes, because for all of us decision-making is exhausting, and for someone with ADHD, it can be paralyzing. It’s teaching her to make those decisions and not to be scared of them. “What should we pick up first?” And it can take some time. She’s kind of looking around, because she’s trying to make the best decision. 

Sonya: And both brains are talking, I’m sure; arguing probably! 

Katie: Yes, “we can do this, or we should do this,” or whatever it may be, so it helps that we’re trying to give her some more independence. Right now, she is going into eighth grade. She is doing some advanced work academically. She’s done very well, but as far as what she does independently each day, we have a little journal that we started for her. And what I have started doing (and we’re going to be changing things a little bit this year) is that I write down her independent work that she’s going to be doing, but she watches me write it and I tell her as we’re doing it. I say, “Okay, first I want you to do this math practice, and then I would like you to read this book that you’re reading for history, and after that I want you to do this,” and we’ll write down the list together. And then I hand her the journal and she likes checking it off. That works well for her. 

Sonya: I love that idea of talking her through it as you’re writing it down. Otherwise, if you say, “Here. Read this and do it…” 

Katie: It’s overwhelming, right? “There’s a whole list, am I supposed to do it in order?” 

Sonya: It’s easy to ignore because it’s quiet. 

Katie: So this year, I’m going to be talking her through it, and I’m going to have her start doing the writing. 

Sonya: She will write, okay. 

Katie: And it will be slower, but that’s going to be part of the transition that we’re going to be working towards. Then at some point, when she’s ready, maybe it’ll be sometime this year, maybe it will be next year or the year after, I’ll have her start looking at things and start deciding what’s going to go on that list. But already at the end of last year she was telling me, “Oh, put on there that I wanted to make a bracelet for my friend whose birthday…” or, “Put on there that I want to do this,” and so she would start adding things to the list. 

Sonya: That is so exciting. That’s growth. 

Katie: Oh, absolutely. We’ve seen a lot. 

Sonya: So when you work on the habit for 6 to 8 weeks, do you always hit your target? 

Katie: No, we do not always hit our target. (laughs) 

Sonya: The Nutella does not always get put away? 

Katie: And sometimes keeping the plates spinning can be hard. I do feel like, particularly for her, and I would think with many people with ADHD, habits can slip out of whack quickly. We need a lot of tune-ups, and so we come back and we revisit again to try and help. Again, now that she’s older, when we go on to take a new habit, I ask her first, just like we would talk to any other older student, “What’s bugging you? What is making your day not-so-smooth? What do you think we could help you work on?” And she’s now at the point where she’s saying, “It drives me crazy that I cannot find my clothes in the morning that I thought I had available,” or whatever it may be. All right, let’s walk through some steps that we can do. I haven’t had her read Laying Down the Rails for Yourself yet, but that’s the kind of principle I’m using from my own reading of it, to help teach her; because she’s going to have to work on her own habits. We all do, but she’s going to have to really pay attention to where she’s inadvertently making things harder for herself or harder for the people around her—to help us all have the smooth and easy days; we all want that. 

Sonya: Right, yeah. It sounds like you are doing a great job of respecting her as a person and equipping her to be successful in life with the challenges that she has to deal with.

Katie: And Charlotte’s writings have really blessed me in that because of her encouragement to respect her as a person, and because of the habit work and what I’ve been able to learn. And, of course, God’s given me some nudges along the way of like, “I told you to do it this way. Would you like to listen now?” (laughs) 

Sonya: So what encouragement would you give to our listeners who may be dealing with these challenges of ADHD?

Katie: I truly believe that the gifts of this personality type, of this brain-type, far outweigh the challenges we have: the creativity and the relations and some of the emotional intelligence that comes with it because they notice so many things. It is so wonderful to have and such a gift for our family. I’m so glad that I get to know her, and all of that extra work, which sounds like work, but it becomes a habit for me too, is totally worth it.

Sonya: That’s great. Thanks for sharing about your experience and all the practical ideas as well. I’m sure it will help many people. Thank you. We talked earlier with someone else who shared with us her experience with Charlotte Mason and dyslexia for anyone who would like to take a look at that conversation. Thanks for joining me.

5 Comments

  1. This was so helpful, thank you! Especially the part about remembering its a blessing to teach a child with ADHD. Sometimes I forget!

  2. Thank you for this! One of our kids was just diagnosed with Level 1 Autism and ADHD, and we highly suspect her two brothers may also have ADHD. This was SO helpful! I now have some ideas to help make our days run a little more smoothly.

  3. Hi! I loved this episode. It was highly encouraging to me! At the beginning, Katie mentioned taking her daughter to a two day evaluation. I was curious if she would be able to share details about where that was? Thank you! It sounded really thorough.

    • I’m so glad that you found it encouraging! Here’s a note from Katie with some additional details about the evaluation she mentions during her conversation with Sonya:

      “Hi there! My daughter was evaluated at the Virginia Tech Child Study Center. The first day, they had her come in and do all sorts of activities, and then her father, myself, and another adult that she spends a lot of time with (in our case, a gymnastics coach) filled out surveys about her behavior. The evaluators also talked a lot with me to get a better idea of the behaviors we were seeing. Then we had a follow-up day where they went over all the results and gave us some tips of resources to look at for her (one very good one was additudemag.org.) I’m not sure what would be the best way to find out about evaluation opportunities in your area, but maybe you could reach out to the Virginia Tech Child Study Center and see if they know of any similar resources in other places? We’ll pray for a clear path forward for you and your child!”

  4. This was excellent! And so timely as I look at moving my high school daughter into a Charlotte Mason type of study program. So many of the things you mentioned are exactly what we experience and it is so encouraging to hear how you have addressed these challenges within the CM method and really honor and respect your daughter for who she is!

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