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Focusing on Life, Not School

Focusing on Life, Not School
By Simone Banks

Matching the learning lifestyle to the personality - at home and not school - “cured” ADHD, which for this boy and many others is a school disease.

Oliver is the youngest of my five sons. At the grand old age of six, he was diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD.

He managed through nursery school, and he managed through the first year at regular school. He loved recalling stories, taking part in discussions, and offering his wisdom at circle time. When it came to sitting still and reading and writing, though, Oliver was just not ready.

He was intelligent, curious, and a conversationalist who loved to ask questions. Unfortunately, the education system as it stands wants more....and more. Reading and writing and math have to be learned at a certain time in a certain way, and unless children have learned to sit still and concentrate by the time they are four or five, they “slip behind.” Oliver was taken out of class for some lessons to be given extra support in literacy, something he didn’t mind at first but as time wore on he began to feel that he was “different.”

By the time Oliver was six, he was presenting as hyperactive, inattentive, and distracted. As soon as he entered year two, the year they take the first set of standardized tests in our system, Oliver became unable to cope with the pressure. He started to turn in circles and make repetitive movements, and he developed tics. He was anxious, angry, and overwhelmed. He felt threatened by other children and the fact that they were doing better than he was. He tried to cover up his inability to read and started to resent being given extra support classes.

This manifested itself in his behavior and he would get involved in fights with anyone he felt had slighted him. Years later, I could see on reflection that he was becoming unable to sustain the social expectations of school. He was overwhelmed with all the students, the noise, the instructions, the lack of space to think or be, and the demands put on him to do things he was not yet ready for.

His school teachers were brilliant and did the best they could under the circumstances. They were under pressure themselves to get the grades from the children, yet they acknowledged Oliver’s anxiety and said that they needed to pull back from all the extra reading as they could see what it was doing to him.

Eventually, the school arranged for him to receive medical help, a diagnosis of ADHD was made, and Oliver was issued with a Statement of Special Educational Needs in order for him to receive extra support within the classroom. It helped somewhat, but there was always the feeling of difference and it was this that I believe made Oliver sometimes quite hostile or defensive towards other children.

However, he made it through primary school, improving each year until eventually, in his final year, it seemed as if the ADHD was just a distant memory and that he had grown out of it. He had reached up and beyond the level of his peers academically, although I still believe he learned to read mainly from using MSM and chatting with his friends online. He still had difficulties with concentration and impulsiveness but I had high hopes of him succeeding in high school.

Oliver started in September, and I have a lovely photograph of him in his school uniform looking so grown up. Little did I realize that this would be the last time we would see him stable for a long time. Within a week, he was once again overwhelmed. We always had more difficulties in September, at the start of the school year, but they would usually die down after a few weeks. This time they didn’t – they got worse. He would come home with all his pens missing, as well as his pencil case, and his tie. At first he tried really hard with the school work and homework, but he would often forget what the homework was, or what page he was meant to do in a text book.

He became more and more overwhelmed, more and more unable to cope with the complexities of high school. He was unable to manage his way around the different classes, with all the different lessons and, more importantly, with all the different teachers, where he would have to adjust to the myriad of different personalities and different teaching styles. He had detentions, he was sent to isolation, and he was on report for almost the whole time he was there. In the end, it didn’t have any effect whatsoever. He became so overwhelmed he didn’t care; it was a struggle for him just to manage to get through the day.

Oliver was able to access very little of the information fed to him – in an interim report sent out in February, all of his marks had gone down. I don’t believe that he had actually regressed; it was just that he had been unable to process anything in the classroom. To be honest, he didn’t stand a chance. Every day was a battle for survival and, in the end, no amount of cajoling, encouragement, punishment, reward, or enticement would affect him. It was only if he could see the validity of a point or understand it, or was able to cope with what was being asked of him, that he could conform.

Oliver had also become very angry at home and with us as parents. To him, we were pushing him into a situation that he couldn’t cope with and he had nowhere to turn to – we were on the side of the school, demanding something that he wasn’t able to give. It took a toll on our relationship.

We were called up to the school, and again they were very good and tried to help Oliver. But this was, after all, a large mainstream school with a focus on academic achievement. By Easter, Oliver had once again developed tics as well as OCD, asking repetitive questions and needing constant reassurance about his anxieties. We had no choice but to remove him from school. It was agreed in a meeting with the school and someone from the local education authority that he would initially be removed temporarily as it was obvious that he had by now become very ill.

He was referred for specialist help where he was given a stimulant for his ADHD and anti-anxiety drugs. Our son had not even been vaccinated and giving him mind altering drugs was something we wouldn’t normally have considered, but we were desperate and would have given anything for him to have mental peace.

In the end, we took Oliver out of school permanently, realizing that it just wasn’t an option for him to be there, and set about giving him some sort of home education. I had just qualified as a teacher and so was able to compile folders with resources and work for Oliver to do. I worked during the day while Oliver stayed with his dad and worked through the resources. But I started to question what I was giving him. So much of the national curriculum seemed a waste of time, with the emphasis on gaining levels and grades and exam results at the expense of a child’s own natural curiosity and willingness to learn.

I spent the next three or four months reflecting, evaluating, and asking friends and family what they had learned and where they had learned it, eventually realizing that little of our learning takes place in school. It seemed to me that the only way Oliver could or would learn was if it was something he was interested in and if he pursued it himself. His impulsiveness and inability to focus on too much information being thrown at him meant that self-directed learning was a far more workable option. I started to follow his lead, to watch him and be with him and find out what it was that he was really interested in. He did projects on things he found interesting. We watched films about real life situations and dilemmas, which he wrote about and offered his exceptional analytical reflections on. He became interested in the world around him and, after a while, I started to notice just how much learning goes on without us even realizing it.

The knock-on impact of this was that my relationship with Oliver improved dramatically; I was more attentive and aware, constantly listening for any signs that he was growing, learning, and absorbing information. And he was. Gradually, we moved from self-directed learning to “unschooling” or “life learning” – basically Oliver doing whatever suited him and learning in a way that only he knows how to.

It involved a lot of trust and total surrender on my part. By now, Oliver was beyond any kind of authoritarian discipline; he had learned to shed the fear of consequences and so the only way to work with him was through mutual trust and understanding, respecting and trusting that he could take responsibility for his own learning.

What happened with Oliver, I could also see happening with some of the children I worked with in school. I was taking out children for withdrawal, supposedly because they struggled academically. But it soon became a dumping ground for children who couldn’t cope in the classroom and were presenting with “behavioral issues.”

I saw, first hand and in crystal clear slow motion, what Oliver had been through the year before. The same pattern: The children starting with no problems, becoming overwhelmed, unable to cope, and the teachers labeling them as having “behavior problems.” One boy in particular developed the same tics and anxieties that Oliver had had. Like Oliver, rewards, punishments, and sanctions soon lost their effect and many of these children would prefer withdrawal or detention to coping in a classroom. They packed together, tried to skip lessons and, through their vulnerability and need to be accepted, were enticed into a dangerous gang outside of school.

Every day, I would leave school and be thankful that Oliver wasn’t in such a gang. I could see that even the children who could apparently cope were learning more negative lessons than positive ones – how to shout to get their own way, the impact of a hierarchal system that dictates and where only the most powerful survive, how to taunt and bully other children if you don’t feel good about yourself, how to viciously compete, and how grades and levels are apparently the most important things in the entire universe. After a year, I gave up the job, disillusioned with the entire system and realizing just how much there is to be gained through life learning.

Oliver has now been out of school for nearly two years. He is flourishing. He has made a website, does music technology, plays golf most days, and has an unlimited number of interests and projects on the go. His “ADHD” type personality can now be used to his advantage – his randomness and impulsiveness means he is exceptional at comedy and his inattention becomes attention when it’s directed to something he is interested in. He tries one hobby after another, sticking with some and giving up those which don’t hold his interest. Unbelievably, he can now focus for six hours at a time when he is engaged in LEGO or construction kits. His cognitive skills far exceed those of other people his own age, and he is no longer competing with others or comparing himself with levels or grades.

My son now has so much more of a sense of self about him. His anxiety is decreasing, although I still find it hard to cope with the fact that just two terms in high school did so much damage. The biggest declaration of change comes from Oliver himself: Just last week he was listening to a conversation between me and my sister on her temporary loss of confidence when Oliver quipped, “I didn’t used to have any confidence either, but now I have loads; it’s all come back.” When my sister asked why he didn’t have confidence in the past he replied, “It was school.”

Simone Banks is a mother to five sons, four of whom were grown up when she wrote this article, and another thirteen-year-old who was diagnosed with ADHD. She herself struggled with institutionalized education and left school at sixteen, but later gained a degree through the Open University at the age of forty-two and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education the following year. While supervising her youngest son’s “home education,” she studied for a Masters degree in Psychology, again through the self-directed medium of the Open University.

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