The Truth Is Some Kids Are Doing Better Without School

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
It Turns Out Some Kids Are Actually Doing BETTER Without School

For my son, diagnosed with ADHD in the third grade, school has always been a source of friction. His learning style is very “I’d rather learn about this thing over there than whatever is going on directly in front of my face,” and his personality is very “Meh, I’d rather just stay home.”

Early on, we considered homeschooling. But there was that time I tried teaching my son to play the violin, a catastrophic failure despite my being, literally, a professional violin teacher. The experience didn’t serve as a glowing recommendation for my ability to teach my own children.

And so my son attended school, each morning taking a low dose of Focalin, an ADHD medicine, to help him focus. School was a struggle for my son in a lot of ways, but he worked really hard, and I stayed on top of him about schoolwork. He made mostly A’s and B’s and accumulated a small group of amazing, brilliant, inspirational friends.

When school closed and lockdowns fell into place, my son had a difficult time adjusting to distance learning. He didn’t want to take his ADHD meds, because they made him lose his appetite. He’d been okay with that at school but said he hated losing his desire to eat while at home. So, unmedicated, he picked at his schoolwork in fits and starts throughout the day, with no real structure. He failed gym because he never bothered to log in for attendance. “What’s the point?” he asked. “Logging in isn’t exercise.” I didn’t have a good answer for him. What was the point of that?

Once we realized we were dealing with a long-term situation, I started to take a firmer stance on schoolwork. My daughter is one of those weirdo kids who loves school and is more organized than most adults, so I only needed to check in on her now and then to at least give the appearance of concern. For my son, I used video games as a motivator. Show me your schoolwork is done, then you can go online.

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Slowly, he started to get the hang of it. I didn’t trust him at first. I would check on him and catch him in Google hangouts chatting with friends, but just when I was about to reprimand him I realized he and his friends were working on solving a geometry problem.

In between school work, my son’s boredom started to motivate him to engage in tasks that he normally wouldn’t. He started pleasure-reading again. He pulled out his old sketchbooks and did some new drawings. He watched science documentaries. And he began to teach himself piano. Years ago, I found a baby grand piano on Facebook Marketplace for a steal. My daughter was taking piano lessons at the time, and I also play and use the piano during my violin lessons.

Lucas has taken lessons for electric guitar since the third grade, and he’s always had a knack for extracting melodies from a piano, just by sitting and trying it out. But since the lockdown began, this talent of his, and more importantly, the time he takes to nurture that talent, have increased tenfold. Both my kids spend a ton of time on screens, probably too much, but because we literally go nowhere else, the giant hunk of the day not spent on screens is spent engaged in surprisingly enriching activities.

And so, somehow, without meds, and with only the bare minimum of yelling and withholding of video games on my part, my son managed to earn A’s and B’s in all but gym… and also learned Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata from a YouTube video. This never would have happened amid the chaos of our usual schedule.

Not only that, but his attitude is better. He’s not on meds, which means he’s not experiencing the mood swings of coming on and off of a stimulant. (ADHD meds can be a lifesaver, but they are not without their side effects.) My son doesn’t have the stress of constantly changing environments and having to adapt to seven teachers’ differing instruction styles. No peer pressure or judgment. We talk so much more than we did when we were constantly rushing around. We watch TV shows together, me, him, and his sister. We’ve watched every season of The Office, Sherlock, and now we’re on to The Fosters. We sprinkle in the occasional movie or documentary as well. We watched 13th after George Floyd was murdered, a way to ignite discussion and put the protests into context for my kids.

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My son is not the only kid who has benefitted from being out of school and stuck at home. The LA Times reported that some students saw an improvement in their grades when allowed to learn at their own pace. Some kids were able to proportion their time differently than school would, spending less time on subjects that came easily to them and more time on subjects they struggled with. High schoolers, who so often get stuck with barely-dawn start times, were able to wake up and begin their learning on their own time. Aside from the learning itself, some kids who struggled socially at school, who felt they didn’t fit in, found relief in learning at home where they could relax and be themselves.

It bears mentioning that not every kid can relax and be themself at home. For kids in abusive homes or LGBTQ+ kids whose identities are not accepted at home, this pandemic has been a literal nightmare. And many kids struggle with being out of school as a result of social and economic inequities. Plenty of kids don’t have internet access or electronic devices adequate for online learning, and many kids rely on school for nutrition, for structure, or even for safety. My kid has a family that loves and accepts him in all his quirkiness, and a baby grand piano. We are massively privileged.

But my son does have a learning difference — one that has negatively impacted his experience of school. The change of scenery, the change of pace, the change of everything has been surprisingly beneficial for him. Sure, he spends more time sitting on his ass playing video games than ever before, but he also sat on his ass a lot at school. And he is still interacting socially — his friends from school are all online. I hear them chatting about this or that podcast or YouTube video in between bursts of frantic gameplay.

Is all of this to say that once the pandemic is over, we’ll become permanent homeschoolers? Nope. We’re schooling from home this semester, but, believe it or not, in spite of all the positives, my son misses the in-person social aspect of brick-and-mortar school. Besides, I’m still not sure my anxious, impatient personality would accommodate a long-term homeschooling experience. Rest in peace, tiny violin.

In the meantime, I will soak in these fleeting, precious hours of listening to my electric-guitar-playing kid who has ADHD fill the house with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

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