ADHD, homeschooling

Delight-led Learning and Why Child-directed Education Is Vital to Homeschooling

An introduction and a story

Let’s suppose that you are asked to do a job.

You are told that it is vitally important –but not why it’s important– and you will not get paid.

Not a penny.

And, it’s very hard work.

You start by moving a large pile of dirt from one area in the lot to another area marked by newspaper held down by rocks.

Load by load, you shovel the dirt into the wheelbarrow in the blistering heat and haul it across the lot, dumping it in the prescribed location.

By the end of the day, you are wondering what on earth is going on, why you are doing this, and if it is really worth it for no pay.

A few weeks later, you are called back to the site, and the boss tells you that today, you will be moving that same pile from where you were to down the road and putting it in the park in another area marked again by the newspaper and rocks.

You shake your head and remind yourself that this is vitally important.

They told you when you started that it was very important, and you want to believe them.

So, you grab your shovel and your wheelbarrow and head out to move that same silly pile of dirt from here down to the next newspaper-marked location.

This repeats a few more times, and as the summer heat skyrockets into the 100-degree mark, you sigh again, reminding yourself that this work is vitally important.

They said it was: they said to trust them, that it is making a difference.

But, how does moving a pile of dirt around the neighborhood make a difference?

And, how can you justify the amount of time and energy is going into this when you have no idea what is going on and nothing to show for your work?.

“Trust me: this is important” is no longer sufficient.

You decide that this stinks, and you don’t want to do manual labor for free, not matter how “vital” it is.

So, you set down your shovel and go home.

A few days later, the job leader shows up on your doorstep and asks if he can have a few minutes of your time.

He walks you down to the lot where you first moved the dirt pile around.

In the dirt, you see little lines of sprouts and labels of various vegetable names.

The square is labeled “community mini garden.”

He explains that all around the neighborhood, a group of thoughtful people had been planting and tending little gardens that would yield produce and be handed out and shared with the community –particularly with those who needed it.

Your work was vitally important: you were killing off weeds with your dirt-piled newspaper patches.

You laid the foundation for 6 gardens before you decided you’d had enough.

The problem was that no one had told you what was going on.

No one had explained the reason this action was valuable.

No one explained why it was vital, why it was important.

♥ ♥ ♥ For my fellow moms with ADHD, I want to apologize ahead of time for the length of this post. I try to keep my posts to about 1000 words, but this one is very, very long. Someone asked me to explain how and why I use delight-led learning, and I didn’t feel I could do it justice in a shorter space. I added labels, italics, and breaks in hopes it would make it easier for my shiny friends to navigate. ♥ ♥ ♥

Story application

Without a reason to do work no one —not even adults— will work hard.

For most adults, they will even do a job that they completely hate for enough money –because they have decided that the money they need is worth the hassle, aggravation, sweat, and tears the job takes from them.

The value is in the results, and they are willing to work for the results.

Once the job becomes more hassle than the money is worth, adults stop doing the work and move on to a new job.

This is human nature.

The task has to have value.

Children are no different.

When it comes to learning, they need to see the value in what they are doing.

How many times in school did you think “Why on earth am I learning this?” or “When am I ever going to use this?”

Story 2, my own experience

I remember in 7th grade, I had just aced a test in homeschool.

We were using a video program, and I had memorized all the countries and capitals of Europe and gotten 100% on my exam.

In my enthusiasm, I promptly recited them all to my father as soon as he walked in the door from work.

He started grinning and chuckling –much to my confusion.

“SallyBeth,” he said –that was his nickname for me, “Most of those countries don’t exist anymore.”

He was right: the video that we were using for history and geography had been taped a few years prior –before the fall of the Iron Curtain.

I can still recite it: Bonn, West Germany; Berlin, East Germany; Prague Czechoslovakia; Sofia, Bulgaria; Athens, Greece; Moscow, Russia; and so on.

But, it was mostly useless information even then –just taking up space in my brain.

I was told to memorize it, and I did –just like I was told –trusting that if the teacher said it was important, then it was.

Believe me: it was not.

Not one time in my entire life have I needed to know the capital of Czechoslovakia –a country that doesn’t even exist anymore.

Now, if Dr Who picks me up and time-travels me back in time to Soviet USSR, I might be glad that I know where Czechoslovakia is.

But, since I don’t see a trip on the TARDIS happening anytime soon, I have filed that geography test in “Useless Things I Was Forced to Memorize.”

There needs to be value in what our children do, and they need to see the value in what they are doing.

Or they will resent it, just like I resented the amount of time and energy it took to memorize completely useless and out-of-date geographical locations.

I never expect my child to learn something without first explaining the value of what they are learning and how that will apply to their lives later on.

If I can’t prove that it will be valuable –like memorizing every bone in the hand at age 8 just to be able to say you did it– we don’t do it.

If your child wants to be a doctor and loves to memorize the names of bones, then that is a completely different issue because —to that child— this information is valuable.

This is what I mean by child-directed education: an education based on their needs and interests.

Children resent a valueless education.

Our culture worships education.

It is the altar at which we throw thousands and thousands of dollars and are even willing to sacrifice our children’s emotional, psychological –and sometimes even physical– wellbeing to because we have been told that it’s worth achieving this ideal of knowledge.

I do believe that an education has value, but only when it doesn’t damage the child.

Many of our current methods are quite frankly damaging.

Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he’s not interested, it’s like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating.” ~ Katrina Gutleben

When they are young, it can be really challenging to show the child the value of doing hard things.

It is too much to expect a young child to do hard things.

That is why I advocate for keeping learning fun and as enjoyable as possible when they are young.

Until maybe age 9 or 10, most of what a child needs to learn can be taught in an enjoyable way.

Remember that homeschooling was started by people who thought formal book learning should wait until the child was age 9 or 10.

Before that, you want to teach them that learning is fun!

It doesn’t have to be book learning and sheets of paper!

Forcing children to learn using only text books is like showing them a travel brochure and calling it a vacation.

We want to teach them to value learning.

The acquisition of information is the currency that you will use to pay your young workers for their time in education later on.

So, that acquisition of information needs to be seen valuable –and the time invested needs to be worth the reward to them.

It will not be seen as valuable if your child has never experienced the joy and love of learning.

This is absolutely key to child-directed learning and to having a peaceful homeschool experience in my opinion: you need to instill a joy of learning in your child at a young age or deschool the child if the school system or homeschool system killed his joy for learning.

See more about deschooling here.

All kids love to learn; it is we adults who either nurture or kill that joy.

Children are born with all the curiosity they will ever need. It will last a lifetime if they are fed upon a daily diet of ideas. –Charlotte Mason

Example 1 of child-led learning

I started out with a more traditional approach to homeschooling, and in our early days classes including math, grammar, reading, and writing were non-negotiable.

That was before I knew about my son’s dysgraphia.

Writing caused him pain and panic attacks, and —to save this mama from losing her ever-lovin mind— I had to back off.

I backed off entirely unless he could do it without freaking out or unless he asked to do it.

I stumbled into delight-led accidentally because my son’s struggles necessitated it.

You can struggle for weeks to teach a child to identify colors before they are ready or you can do it in a few moments when they are ready to learn.

It was his choice when we did writing –I encouraged him to try every once in awhile to see if he could do it without pain.

I was ecstatic when I stumbled upon a page describing delight-led learning –which is what we were doing even though I didn’t know it was a thing with an actual name.

It showed me that we can wait without damaging the child.

There are even plenty of studies that show the benefit of starting later for many topics and classes: I have seen studies showing kids learning everything you could learn in grammar between 1st grade and 9th –with no prior grammar experience– learn everything from those 9 years in only one year because the child was older and able to learn it all at once.

The spiral approach isn’t the best or the only way to learn, but the public school has to fill up 8 hours a day for 12 years with learning; we do not.

What I didn’t expect was the damage that was done by me pushing him when he wasn’t ready.

When the flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which the flower grows, not the flower. –Alexander Den Heijer

Even with delight-led learning, I did not remove my expectation that the three Rs would be done regularly –not daily because we don’t actually do school books daily: it is more like 3 or 4 days a week.

Adherence to the 3Rs is what makes my approach different from unschooling, even if I am not rigid in my adherence.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the 3Rs, that’s the basics of any education: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. (I know: it is not really 3Rs, but I didn’t make it up. That is just what they call it. The OCD part of me rolls my eyes at the misuse of R and moves on.)

I simply had to adapt the 3Rs to what was doable for my child.

Not all children are ready to learn the same thing as the same time in the same way. –Kathy Walker

For writing, he would dictate things to me, I would write them, and he would tell me how to punctuate it, so he was still getting sentence formation practice.

Or, we would draw on the sidewalk and work on motor control.

Or, we would trace giant letters I had made on card stock with glitter glue.

But, I didn’t push handwriting (cursive or print) again until he was ready.

He came to me one day and said that he wanted to learn to spell and write better.

He was about 12 years old.

He had a basic ability to write before that, but it was very tedious and took him a very long time to form even one word.

When he decided he was ready because he saw the value, we moved forward with learning to write better.

Even with a learning disability, you don’t want to emotionally scar the child over learning by pushing.

This is an extreme example– professional help may have been better but it was not available in our area– however, this shows that children can and do learn at a different pace than we expect and that their direct involvement in choosing to learn can have a huge impact!

By the way, he is 15 now and can write his name, write a sentence, etc.; although, he still prefers typing and probably always will –just like I will never prefer to mental math, but I can do it if I have to.

Example 2 of child-led learning

With my younger son, I have had to apply the child-led philosophy a different way: in math, he gets overwhelmed very easily.

Unlike me, I don’t think he actually has a math-based learning disability, but think he has slow processing problems.

For this reason, it can take him a long time to do math.

I stopped assigning a whole page of math to him (like I did his brother) in about first grade and haven’t since.

He has to do 3 problems or as many as he wants –if he wants to do more, that’s fine.

Sometimes, he does more.

Sometimes, he comes to me and says “Mom, my brain isn’t working today. Can I just do one problem?”

I am a benevolent dictator, and have pity on my poor struggling subjects who actually like to learn but have ADHD, hyperdrive brains that sometimes do not cooperate.

If today is not a good day, we try again tomorrow.

It’s better to wait until later if their brains are struggling then to cause damage by forcing learning when their brains are shutting off.

It doesn’t matter how fast they are learning as long as they are learning.

It shouldn’t matter how slowly a child learns as long as we are encouraging them not to stop. –Robert John Meehan

Making a big deal of how slowly they are going is the opposite of encouraging them not to stop.

Check your state laws before implementing this idea because some states dictate what must be learned when and– though I don’t agree with that philosophy– I also don’t want you to get into trouble.

Children don’t learn at a steady pace like we want them too.

Children do much of their learning in great bursts of passion and enthusiasm. Except for those physical skills which can’t be learned any other way. Children rarely learn on the slow, steady schedules that schools make for them. They are more likely to be insatiably curious for a while about some particular interest, and to read, write, and talk, and ask questions about it for hours a day and for days on end. Then suddenly they may drop that interest and turn to something completely different, or even for a while seem to have no interests at all. This usually means that for the time being they have all the information on that subject that they can digest and need to explore the world in a different way or perhaps simply get a firmer grip on what they already know. –John Holt in How Children Learn

My children do not learn the way I expected them to when I started off on this journey called homeschooling.

I thought that I would be the mom who was in a room set up like a classroom, with a chalkboard and vintage desks, doing regular lesson plans, and creating lots of papers to show for our work.

It turns out my children hated –loathed —is there a stronger word than loathed?— learning that way.

They had a visceral hatred for worksheets.

My classroom now is my children teaching themselves, mostly on a computer –because that is how they like to learn.

They chose their classes.

They also chose not to stop once summer started this year.

Yes, you heard correctly.

I gave them the option to take summer break, and they chose –much to my surprise and amusement– not to stop for summer break because they decided they had not learned enough this year to justify a break.

If I had forced them into my mold of education instead of following what worked best for them, I can guarantee that they would be fighting me right now and not taking charge of their own education.

This is unschooling-ish but not quite as extreme.

If you are familiar with unschooling, you will see that some of my ideas are similar to unschooling, but I do not believe in letting the child have complete control over their education.

For example, that is why we have set classes that must be taken –the 3Rs we talked about earlier.

Everything else is completely delight-led –unless I am feeling well enough to actually lead and teach a class which happens from time to time.

Reading, science, history, and Bible is usually interest based: they ask questions, and we find answers.

Or, they watch (approved) Youtube or Netflix videos on topics that interest them.

Or, we they read as much about the topic as they can find –Google is our friend!

I have a ton of robotics-related books because my oldest was completely obsessed with robots as a grade schooler and we bought every book we could get out hands on –choosing that over the library because we could never return books on time.

If I had made an assignment, divided up the book, and scheduled how much he had to read when, I would have killed his joy of reading and learning about it.

I can just imagine how frustrating it would have been for him in school if he had gotten in trouble for reading ahead in his favorite class like I did: that’s the way to squash any joy a child has in gaining information, in seeing the value in learning.

Letting him read it for the pure joy of reading it and letting him read as much as he wanted to meant he was pursuing his own learning and learning to love the joy that learning brings.

This is preparing them for harder learning.

The argument I hear all the time is “How will they learn to do hard things if you don’t make them do hard work when they are young?”

I have even been accused of spoiling my children –an idea which I fully reject.

With delight-led or child-led learning, they learn the value of learning young, and they they are willing to trade their time for the valuable commodity of information when they get older.

Play –especially when they are young– is teaching them the value of learning!

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. –Mister Rogers

My 15 year old has spent hours upon hours painstakingly typing instructions for a game he made.

Writing is not his forte, but he sees the value in learning to spell, write, etc so that he can create his game rules.

I am supposed to be helping him edit it –except I forgot about it until I just wrote this sentence (oops).

That is teaching him to pursue things that he wants to do.

To pursue hard learning because it is valuable to him.

I am honestly not a huge fan of college because of the school model it follows –my educational philosophy differs– and because of the enormous expense, but if one of my children chose to pursue a degree I have no doubt that they could do it because they know the value of learning.

It’s so much more than just letting the kid do whatever the heck he wants.

It is channeling the child’s passions.

What to do if they are behind

First of all, I reject the entire idea of behind and wrote an entire blog post about it.

You can read that blog post here: There’s No Behind in Homeschool.

But if perchance your child gets to the graduating age, and the child isn’t ready to graduate?

There are a number of options:

1. Let school last longer than 12 years. Who said school had to stop at grade 12? The same people who arbitrarily decided that children belong in rooms of all the same age group and should learn the same info at the same time. The same people who set up the entire system of education that is failing thousands of students resulting in the mass exodus that is the homeschool movement. If you don’t trust them with your child, why do you trust them with their schedule? Do what works for your family. We will graduate when my children think they are ready to graduate. Not a moment sooner.

2. Send them to college for classes to fill in the gaps. No one –not even public school teachers –teach the child everything they needs to know in 12 years. Anyone who tells you that the school can give the child everything they need is drinking the kool aid. Spit it out: it’s poison. Tons and tons of kids take basic classes in college, and there is no shame in that. This is especially true for children with developmental problems or learning disabilities which make learning more challenging. If you are going to let your child learn at their own pace, that means that you have to allow for them to be “behind” if that is where their pace is.

3. Let them graduate anyway. Unless you live in a state that dictates what you must do when and how many classes a child must have to graduate, let them move on. This is a lifestyle of learning, and you have trained them in this way of life. I know that this a completely different way of doing things, but you have to know that they will keep learning. If you teach them to teach themselves they will just fill in the gaps as they need it. In this age of the internet, they have practically the entirety of the knowledge of mankind at their fingertips. If they want to know, they can learn! A child who truly loves to learn isn’t going to stop.

Your job is not to teach your children everything but to give them the skills to learn on their own. —Meaghan Newell

So, what does a school day at my house look like?

At our house, my children get up and start school as soon as they have eaten breakfast.

We save chores until afterward so that they can focus their energy on learning.

My 15 year old does school at the kitchen table, and my 12 year old does school on the couch.

We have a classroom that we do not use– it currently contains boxes of craft supplies.

These are the classes they chose to do for the summer:

Reading (at least 10 minutes of anything they want),

Math (my older child is doing CTC math online; my younger child is doing online games until I figure out how to sign into Math U See… I procrastinated again),

And typing/writing (the older child feels like he needs more spelling, so he types out lists of spelling words he finds online; the younger child is currently hand writing the book of Proverbs because he likes writing the Bible verses).

This takes them about an hour or so.

We watch educational TV shows, and they spend the afternoons right now educating themselves about Minecraft via YouTube (only approved channels like Stampy Cat and Etho).

They have daily chores they do usually around dinner time, and a list of chores they do a few times a week to earn video game time.

I consider all of it –the Youtube time, chores, book work, shopping, going to doctor appointments –to be part of school.

The best education is the one that prepares you for adulthood –and let’s be honest: the public school system does a poor job of preparing students for adulthood.

My children are living and growing beside me, learning as my apprentices.

I know for a fact that my 15 year old can run a house –because he cooks and cleans when I am unable to.

This and more are things that he would not get sitting in a classroom for 8 or 10 hours a day and they are vital parts of his education.

What did a school day look like in grade school?

I will be honest with you: I did this –delight-led learning– when they are in grade school but thought that I was failing miserably by following their lead and not making them do school work like I was “supposed” to.

I was sure I was ruining them for a while.

But I was wrong.

It worked so well, and they were learning way more than I thought they were!

So, when they were littler and if I wasn’t too sick, I would read them a section from “Leading Little Ones to God.”

If I was too sick to read, I would have the older one read to the younger one.

Then they would do math.

We did Math U See, so on Monday we would watch the DVD and play with the blocks if necessary to explain the concepts.

The next few days they tried to do a whole page, but often didn’t get the whole thing done. I would circle every other problem on the page, and if they got those done, they didn’t have to do any more.

This worked really well for the older one but not the younger who really does better with a few problems a day as described above.

We just did the next page –no schedule– and this is still how we do it: schedule is a bad word at my house.

I don’t care if they get the whole sheet done.

I care if they understand the concept.

For many ADHD people once they get the concept they don’t need to do 50 more problems.

If you make them do 50 more problems after they get the concept you will kill any enjoyment they have.

I tried grammar with them at this age, and it did not click.

I would explain things, and they just stared at me.

This was hard because I love grammar —I know: I am weird.

So, we focused on phonics until they were older, closer to 4 or 5th grade which was fine with me because I didn’t even have grammar until 4th grade.

For phonics we use Spelling to Read and Write, but as a person with ADHD, the curriculum was completely overwhelming.

I used just the flash cards, and we made games out of it that I combined that with some of the games in the book “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.”

If it got too hard my anxious child would have panic attacks so that was my radar for when it was getting to be too much.

I couldn’t justify pushing him when I knew his anxiety would go through the roof. (We tried medication, but that is a long story.)

Reading was always mandatory… they had to read something.

But I didn’t care what –the bible, the dictionary, a comic book, or a novel.

Just read something.

Sometimes they even weasel in Minecraft Wiki for reading –I roll my eyes and go with it.

It is still reading –even if it isn’t my kind of reading.

I also read out loud to them when they were young.

I didn’t always require them to read by themselves if I had spent an hour reading to them.

We read the entire Little House on the Prairie series and a few other books.

For a while I couldn’t read out loud due to complications from my illness, but I recently started again.

We finished The Little Pilgrim’s Progress last fall, and we were reading Swiss Family Robinson, except the version I have is in very complicated English which requires extra function from my mom-brain.

Afternoon time

After those subjects were done, we had free learning time.

Everything I could get my hands on for sciencey books and history TV shows (age appropriate, of course) was allowed during this time.

We did Mythbusters, Cyber Chase, Liberty’s Kids, Drive Thru History, etc.

It all counted as school in my book.

If I knew they were interested in a topic, I would track down books, movies, audio books, puzzles, and games —whatever I could find-– to encourage them to learn.

But, I never forced them to learn –it was their choice.

I would say, “Now’s reading time. Choose something off the shelf to read,” but, never, “You will read pages 16-20 of ACB Science between now and 2 PM.”

I have wondered if I was doing my children a disservice by educating them this way, because let’s admit it, moms: no matter what we do or how good we are, we have doubts.

My son told me once that even when I was too sick to do school (which I have a whole post about, here) they were still learning.

He says they learn the value of friendship and to be brave from watching Lord of the Rings.

They learn to be noble and stand up for people by watching super hero cartoons.

When properly chosen, the TV and all media can be a useful tool –especially for ADHD children who learn really well via that means.

Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. –C.S. Lewis

In conclusion

This method might not work for everyone.

I am not saying it is the only way to homeschool.

It is just the way that has worked for us.

It seems to work really well with ADHD children who need to be able to use their hyperfocus to motivate them to learn more because they can follow whatever their passion is.

It has motivated my children to take control of their own education.

When there is a class my teen doesn’t want to take, we discuss if it will be necessary for his path in the future, how hard it will be for him to learn the information later if he needs it, and we have a discussion.

I do not force classes because I don’t have to.

I also don’t think I have the entire say in his education.

It is his life, too.

If he doesn’t want to take advanced math and doesn’t think he needs it, I will not argue with him.

I respect his opinion too much to force my way on him.

If I disagree, we will have a conversation about it, and come to a compromise.

This –the ability to have a rational and civil conversation about something important –above anything else that we have done– is truly preparing him for real life one day.

I feel like there is more to say, but this post is so long that I am going to stop here. Maybe I will write a part two at a later time.

Hopefully, that gives my readers insight into what I mean by delight-led learning

If my ideas seem completely odd and original to you, I promise they are not: there are even brick-and-mortar schools that have embraced the idea of putting the child in control of their own education. You can see more about it in this YouTube video.


Sarah Forbes

Sarah Forbes


9 thoughts on “Delight-led Learning and Why Child-directed Education Is Vital to Homeschooling”

    1. Thank you for your kind words! That’s high praise. ❤ I was a little concerned about putting it all out there and about being able to explain it well. I hope it helps lots of mamas see that you don’t have to copy school at home. ❤❤❤

  1. Thank you for this! I have 2 ADHD boys and we’re currently learning like this. “Delight-Led” works for us too. Your post made me feel better because there are many days when I feel I’m not “doing enough” but my boys learn better at their own pace and with subjects they’re interested in. Thank you for giving me a little peek into the future for when my boys reach the teen years. Hopefully mine will have learned valuable lessons like your boys have.

    1. I’m so glad you found it helpful! It can be scary blazing your own path and not knowing if it will work. I’m pleasantly surprised by how well it has worked because I thought I was doing it all wrong in the beginning. I’m glad I can help alleviate some of that pressure. ❤

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